The Uncertainty of Digital Politics

By Barber, Benjamin R. | Harvard International Review, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Uncertainty of Digital Politics


Barber, Benjamin R., Harvard International Review


Democracy's Uneasy Relationship with Information Technology

Telecommunications technology has from the start been regarded as an engine of democracy. Recently, this same technology has also driven globalization, helping to make frontiers porous and to erode the parochial limits that separate national economies. Yet in its support of globalization, technology may also undermine democracy, imperiling the national sovereignty that has been democracy sanctuary. Most discussions about the intersection of the new telecommunications technologies and global democracy have been inconclusive, if only because those who understand technology know little about democracy, and those who understand democracy are woefully ignorant about technology. Nevertheless, there is no issue with more implications for the future of democracy than the question, "Will the new technologies that have sustained globalization reinforce or undermine democracy?"

Terms like "teledemocracy" and virtual community" come easily to us, but deciphering their meaning requires not only a grasp of the technology but also a deeper understanding of ideas such as community and democratic governance than is usually manifested by those enthralled with the electronic frontier. We can only comprehend how technology affects democracy when we understand the character and nature of democracy itself, something too often taken for granted. Before I address the problems of defining democracy, however I want to offer several caveats concerning the more general problem of technology, for here, too, we often make dubious assumptions.

Questioned Assumptions

Uneven progress. The first caveat is that the new technologies often discussed--information technology (IT), digital technology, computer technology and the Internet--are not universal. Because they have become so widespread in the prosperous parts of the developed world, it is easy to overestimate their penetration elsewhere and therefore to overestimate their impact. Most of the world is still dominated by traditional media. Newspapers, radio, television, and government propaganda still constitute for most people the informational framework of their lives. For them, issues of democracy or tyranny and censorship or free speech are determined more by radio, television, and newspapers than by the new media. Ironically, although poverty has prevented many societies from enjoying the virtues and advances of the new technologies, it has also insulated them from the vices.

The accelerating pace of change. The second caveat is that new communications technologies are not only undergoing rapid change; they are also responding to forces that compel geometric rates of development. There has been more radical technological change in the last two centuries than in the previous two millennia. Miniaturization and the speed of microprocessors proceed at the same accelerating pace, decreasing the weight and price of electronic products even as their efficiency and speed increase. Under these circumstances, any generalization we make about technology today is unlikely to survive tomorrow. Moreover, rapid change means that those who missed yesterday's enhancements may be today's beneficiaries, leapfrogging a technology with which a more "advanced" society actually feels burdened. Africa has not yet been hardwired, but as a consequence it may enjoy a more rapid leap into the wireless age than the wired societies of Europe and North America.

The generational fallacy. A third caveat concerns the "generational fallacy." Those who create new technologies bring to their innovations all the judgments, values, and prejudices acquired in using the older technologies with which they grew up. Today, academics educated in libraries and reference rooms find the Internet a wonderful research tool. For them, it is a surrogate library, a substitute reference system, and they naturally assume that this will be its primary purpose. …

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