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Digital Democracy

The limited contributions of ICT to dematerialization, alongside the strong presence of corporate interests that are embedded in research about it, make the democratic accomplishments and prospects of digital systems an urgent issue. If the Internet can enhance democracy, it becomes more likely that common rather than special interests can shape new modes of governance for sustainability. For example, effective democracy can help ensure that the ICT industry's particular vision for sustainability can be complemented or (if appropriate) resisted by informed citizens who provide meaningful input into relevant decisions.

Some observers have argued that democratic governments are not up to the task of instituting the profound social and economic changes required to avert ubiquitous ecological collapse. These critics instead have advocated more authoritarian approaches along the lines of William Ophuls' evocatively titled 1973 article “Leviathan or Oblivion?” Most, however, look to improved democratic governance as a critical, but challenging, requirement for transition to sustainability. In the words of political scientist David Orr, “strong democracy may be our best hope for governance in the long emergency [of sustained ecological disruptions], but it will not develop, persist and flourish without significant changes.”

Among digital enthusiasts, ICT is routinely depicted as the key to creating new democratic forms and practices that can persist and flourish. Activist and digital observer David Bollier, for example, has described in depth how “a kaleidoscopic swarm of commoners besieged by oppressive copyright laws, empowered by digital technologies, and possessed of a vision for a more open, democratic society” has pointed toward radically new governance practices that can bypass and ultimately replace today's sclerotic institutions.

The exemplar of and inspiration for these developments is the creative commons, which exchanges software and other content with limited restrictions on use. But Bollier argues that the invention of “a new species of citizenship” may create a long-term power shift in society away from unaccountable monopolies and bureaucracies and toward creative and democratic self-governance. The creative commons emerged from the largely unplanned activities of a motley array of hackers, bloggers, tech entrepreneurs, professors, and others, leaving the impression that it is at most a side show in a much larger project of digitization. Bollier argues, however, that “in truth, each is participating in social practices that are incrementally and collectively bringing into being a new sort of democratic polity.”

Most research on this issue is more equivocal than Bollier's account. Bruce Bimber, in his book Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power, closely analyzes numerous cases of digital activism and mobilization and provides aggregate quantitative data on the characteristics and political engagement of Internet users. Bimber cites a successful campaign by the Libertarian Party and other political actors that are marginal on the national scene to oppose an administrative rule proposed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) that would enhance government access to private financial records, with the aim of cracking down on money laundering. Catalyzed by the Libertarians and others, some 250,000 citizens submitted statements during a public comment period, virtually all of them criticizing the proposed rule. In the face of this protest, the FDIC withdrew its proposal.

Several observations emerge from Bimber's case studies as well as from quantitative analysis and research on shifts in political communication regimes over the course of U.S. history. In some cases, these phenomena clearly enhance democratic self-governance. For instance, the decreased cost of communication afforded by digitization has made it possible for groups to become engaged that had previously lacked the resources to participate in campaigns and policy development. The FDIC episode and many other cases provide examples where this opening to marginal players like the Libertarian Party has changed policy in directions that appear to enjoy wide public support.

In addition, large political groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund or the World Wildlife Fund in the environmental arena, have used the Internet to extend their reach beyond traditional membership lists, and have integrated the voices of these citizens into their conventional lobbying activities. These same organizations are able increasingly to form coalitions with both large and small groups by using the power of digital communication, data sharing, and analysis.

Yet Bimber's study points to other digitally influenced developments that either result in very limited democratic gains or suggest that digitization exacerbates undemocratic tendencies in U.S. politics:

• Digital strategies increased mobilization costs for large groups, because these were added to and integrated with conventional lobbying approaches. In the environmental arena, this can widen existing disparities between large and small groups, or in the framework of environmental justice advocates, between “mainstream” and “grassroots” organizations.

• The use of digital systems has not increased the number of politically engaged citizens, although those already engaged have more information and increased opportunities to use it. This, too, widens the information and engagement gap. At one end of the spectrum are a relatively few highly informed and active citizens, whose information sources are more biased toward their views than was the case before the advent of digital systems. At the other end are the vast majority of citizens, who have relatively little information or interest in politics, and whose views are subject to the messages emanating from an increasingly concentrated mass media.

• The actions of political groups are increasingly event-driven and rapidresponse in nature, which may have occasioned a shift toward short-term planning.

• The Internet has not been as effective a means of attracting and directing citizen attention as the traditional mass media; however, the evidence of widespread citizen concern about an issue generated by digital activism has, in some cases, been used to win media coverage.

• Digital communication and coordination cannot substitute for the personal relationships among political elites that are central in effective lobbying. As with media attention, however, in some cases, digital activism has shown the salience of an issue to the citizenry and thus helped place it on elite agendas.

• Digital mobilizations, such as the Libertarian campaign, cannot sustain influence through the policy cycle that includes agenda-setting, passing legislation, and ensuring that the legislation is properly implemented. Conventional lobbying is required for this type of success.

• The Internet spawns enormous volumes of “cheap talk,” i.e., Internet petitions and similar communications to elected officials and other elites, which are ignored by the latter. This wastes time and erodes the quality of political communications.

Taken together, these research results show that the Internet has expanded citizen access to policy makers, with some positive results. The wider effects on power and democracy, however, are minimal at most, and the novelty of digital activism makes predictions unreliable. Bimber's study was published in 2003, but research since then has not changed this outlook in any substantial way.

Several more recent studies are consistent with Bimber's results on three important points. First, the Internet has facilitated many collaborative actions by people, and of those that have addressed public issues, some have attained results. Second, the means of taking public action have changed because of digitization, although there is no evidence that the overall structure of power has changed appreciably. Finally, the changes in activism associated with digitization continue at a dizzying pace, so predictions about democracy, whether optimistic, pessimistic, or something in between, are unreliable.

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