The concept of electronic democracy has intellectual as well as technological roots. Its intellectual roots are anchored in normative democratic theory and in the idea of participatory democracy. Technologically, it is rooted in dramatic changes in media technology that amount to a revolution in the field of communication.
The communications revolution is a process that spans a long period of time, encompassing a multitude of technological developments from the first telegraph wire connecting both sides of the Atlantic Ocean since 1862 through to the diffusion of the Internet in the 1990s. This chain of technological breakthroughs amounts today to a media infrastructure that provides mind-boggling new opportunities in the field of communication. It opens up mass communication to every individual who cares to go public, it dramatically increases the volume of public communication, and it provides for a global presence of any piece of information as well as of any individual. As Nicholas Negroponte (1995) put it: On the net, every piece of information and every individual is just a mouse click away, independent of location.
Intellectual And Social Context
The communications revolution played to a longstanding debate in normative democratic theory on the role of participation. Theorists of democracy from Montesquieu to Schumpeter have argued that modern democracy can only be structured as a contest between elites that ought to be held accountable through democratic elections. Most proponents of a more participatory type of democracy grudgingly accepted electoral democracy as a sorry substitute for the real thing. However, with the coming of the communications revolution, proponents of participatory democracy such as Benjamin Barber (1984) saw new prospects for democratic reform. They proclaimed new digital media to be the means to overcome technical impediments to political participation and to move closer to the ideal of comprehensive mass participation in the context of collective decision-making.
Social changes in established democracies such as the “cognitive revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s gave additional mileage to the debate on electronic democracy. It spurred new “postmaterialistic” policy concerns and triggered participatory needs that are no longer met by the established institutions of democracy. As a result, traditional forms of political participation have diminished since the 1980s, leaving political elites with a sense of crisis. The launch of an e-participation initiative by the European Commission in 2005 that “aims at harnessing the benefits of the use of ICTs for better legislation at all levels of governmental decision-making and at enhancing public participation in such processes” suggests that e-democracy is perceived as a means to overcome this very crisis (European Commission 2006).
The notion of electronic democracy includes three different prescriptive models of how new media should be used to increase opportunities to participate. Each one of these models is related to distinct concepts that structure distinct and independent debates in the larger context of electronic democracy.
Authors such as Ian Budge (1996) perceive new digital media as the perfect means to direct decision-making via electronic voting. Each citizen could be provided with the necessary information on the issue at stake via the world wide web. Their decision could then be taken via a simple mouse click in the private home, could be transferred via the Internet and aggregated in a central computer controlled by voting authorities. According to proponents of electronic democracy, voting via the Internet provides a cost-effective, easy and reliable instrument for direct citizen participation in large-scale democracies. It is seen as a means to reduce the risk of misrepresentation, meaning elected representatives taking decisions that are not in line with the interests of their constituents. With a significant shift to direct modes of decision-making, modern democratic systems would move from representative systems to systems of direct democracy.
Authors such as Amitai Etzioni et al. (1975) perceive new digital media primarily as a means to strengthen public dialogue. In their model of a communication tree, digital phone networks are the means to organize mediated dialogues on specific issues among “millions of participants.” In this model, the aggregate is divided into a number of smaller groups deliberating via digital phone networks. The different group positions are aggregated through delegates who again deliberate with each other via electronic media in a smaller number of groups. This process continues until a final decision for the whole community is reached. Etzioni and his collaborators believe that this process will educate participants, that it will foster trust, the quest for the common good, and the cognitive capacities of those involved, and that the functioning of the formal decision-making structure of democracy – be it representative or direct – is dependent upon informed and educated citizens and their opinions.
Authors such as Iain McLean (1989) see the Internet primarily as a means to increase the responsiveness of representative democracy to the demands of citizens. In McLean’s view, modern democracy cannot function without representative institutions. But according to this perspective, the medium increases the responsiveness of modern democracy in the sense that constituency interests are aggregated in a more effective manner and that political decision-making is more in line with the demands of citizens. Through the Internet, citizens are able to inform themselves in better ways about the parliamentary agenda, to communicate their opinion on policy issues more effectively to their representatives and to deliberate with representatives. According to McLean, new media technology is also a most cost-effective means to register the preferences of citizens in the context of elections in more differentiated ways.
Some authors suggest also including in this third model of e-democracy the use of new media to make bureaucracies more responsive to demands of citizens and to provide better administrative services to citizens. Given the fact that these forms of digitalized communications do not concern collective decision-making and are not related to civil society either, they should rather be discussed in relation to the concept of e-government. They concern the output-side of politics rather than the input-side. For the sake of analytical clarity, models of electronic democracy should also be kept distinct from the notion of electronic participation. While electronic democracy focuses on the macro-level of politics, electronic participation focuses on the micro-level. Both levels are related to each other though, because electronic participation is to some extent dependent on opportunities to participate as provided by models of electronic democracy.
The Dynamics Of The Debate On E-Democracy
The debate on electronic democracy took off in the late 1960s and early 1970s with first glimpses of local computer networks, cable television and digitalized phone networks. Since then, it experienced a multitude of changes at several levels of analysis.
The dynamics of the debate are first and foremost defined by changes in its key concept. In the late 1960s and early 1970s it sailed under the flag of teledemocracy. Electronic democracy as a term became more fashionable in a middle phase of the debate during the 1980s and 1990s. The term cyberdemocracy is a more recent addition to the language of electronic democracy (see, e.g., Bellamy 2000).
The different concepts signify changes in perspectives, theoretical frames as well as in subject matters. In its first stage, the debate was primarily driven by normative theorists of democracy. Their emphasis was on the potential of new media to implement a more participatory type of democracy in large-scale modern democracies plagued by large distances and great numbers. The debate on teledemocracy was then primarily based on normative reasoning and pilot projects to demonstrate the participatory potential of new media technology (Arterton 1987). With the further development of the technology and the social diffusion of the Internet, the debate became more empirical and more focused on the micro-phenomena of media usage, political communication, and e-participation.
In this phase, the debate closely aligned itself with the term electronic democracy, meaning all forms of communication and participation aided by new digital media (e.g., Browning 1996). It emphasizes inter alia spontaneous forms of public dialogue such as newsgroups on the Internet, discussion fora or blogs as a means to increase the quality and quantity of public debate.
Students of political communication such as Blumler and Gurevitch (1995) see increasing public dialogue on the Internet as a viable alternative to biased and irrational forms of public debate through the mass media. Students of democracy such as Robert Putnam (2001) consider public debate on the net as a factor that might strengthen the group basis of modern societies and counteract general trends such as individualization and social fragmentation. The term “cyberdemocracy” signifies a concern for the psychological and social ramifications of the new digital media. It emphasizes that the Internet opens up a new behavioral context that cannot be equated all too easily with mediated communication and that lays the cornerstone for a new cultural sphere (e.g., Shields 1996).
One important change over time in the debate on electronic democracy concerns its basic assumption regarding media impact. It started off with an allembracing cyber-optimism, assuming that the Internet would right all wrongs in modern democracy regarding the concept of participation. In recent years, this tone has given way to a more cyber-skeptic perspective, concluding that “politics on the Internet is politics as usual” (Margolis & Resnick 2000). The truth of the matter, gradually emerging as a third stage in this debate, lies somewhere between these two hyperbolic hypotheses.
A more balanced view on the prospects of electronic democracy is based on two other developments that further define the dynamics of the debate. First, research on electronic democracy is moving from a “mostly American” case-specific type of research toward a more comparative research endeavor (Norris 2001; Zittel 2004). Second and more important, it advances in theoretical terms the construction of cumulative research frameworks and research questions that increasingly focus on testable theories (Jensen 2003; Zittel 2003).
Current Issues In Research And Theory And Future Directions
The development of coherent theoretical frameworks in electronic democracy research is in a very early phase. The cumulative quality of the debate is increasingly evident in the research questions that transform the many individual research efforts and observations into collective research activities. Four questions recur frequently and need to be highlighted here.
First, how reliable and safe are the new media in technical terms as a means for political participation. This question is of particular importance regarding the issue of electronic voting – certainly one of the most specific and thus most visible elements of the e-democracy agenda. The Internet is an open medium which is hard to shield from external intrusion. This makes it difficult to prevent the manipulation of voting results. Technical malfunctions might contribute to further safety hazards in the process of electronic voting. These questions are being tackled in corporations between computer scientists, the private sector, and public authorities in a number of pilot projects across Europe (see, e.g., Cybervote 2003).
A second issue touches upon the question of the compatibility between normative schemes of electronic democracy on the one hand and basic principles and structures of democracy on the other. This question was raised first and foremost in the debate on electronic voting. Democratic principles such as the secrecy of voting and the freedom of voting are hard to implement in the context of electronic remote voting schemes. It remains an open question whether this can be solved through technological means or through institutional design, or whether we should simply accept changes at the level of political principles because of new technological opportunities (Loncke & Dumortier 2004). The question of the compatibility of models of electronic democracy and existing institutional structures has recently moved beyond the issue of electronic voting. The above-mentioned e-participation initiative of the European Commission can be perceived as one attempt to direct research efforts in this very direction. The many initiatives of the Hansard Society (2006) in the British context are another example of current efforts to implement e-democracy within the real-world structures of democracy.
A third crucial research question concerns the character and the quality of communication emerging on the net. Social scientists as well as students of political communication invest an increasing amount of energy and time to investigate the quality of communication on the net. They ask whether the Internet is suited as a platform for rational public discourse that could foster trust and create social capital. Theoretically, there are real doubts because of the lack of physical contact and the anonymity of the medium. Empirically, the evidence is mixed at best. While some researchers see the Internet as a “cyberwasteland” full of flaming and monologuing individuals (Wilhelm 2000), others either suggest that this can be augmented by design (Jensen 2003) or that debates on the net could work not in isolation but rather as a complement to physical contacts and thus strengthen social capital and trust (Putnam 2001).
A fourth issue concerns the questions, who is interested in electronic democracy, and why? One of the standard findings of empirical research, closely related to the cyberskeptic perspective in the debate, stresses the fact that political elites take up new media in ways compatible with established structures and interests. According to this research, political elites tend to use the Internet for campaigning and public relations purposes but rarely for interactive communication or in ways that would threaten their political autonomy (Margolis & Resnik 2000). This finding is empirically well-established but tells far from the whole story regarding the politics of electronic democracy. Comparative evidence suggests first and foremost that usage of the Internet differs across systems and that there is no such thing as a given interest for or against electronic democracy (Zittel 2003).
Available impressionistic evidence in the politics of electronic democracy also suggests the existence of three developments that enhance the prospects of electronic democracy in the long run. First, political elites are not a monolithic group. Elite pluralism and the competition among elites serve as a mechanism of innovation, with elites trying to use strategies of electronic democracy as a competitive advantage. Second, elites are not wholly independent of changing social contexts and resulting problems. They do develop genuine concerns regarding decreasing rates of participation, especially among the younger generation. Some perceive electronic democracy as a magic bullet to solve this problem. Third, elites could become subject to external pressures from advocacy coalitions that grow stronger with the development of the information society and turn electronic democracy into a powerful political movement.
Methodological Issues And Problems Associated With The Topic
The diffusion of the Internet is a most recent phenomenon. Any statement on the impact of the medium has to work with projections. There is hardly any reliable or readily available empirical evidence that can serve as a basis to build up or to verify general hypotheses and conclusions. This raises one core problem for any kind of research on electronic democracy. The problem arises from the fact that the social sciences have a poor track record in projections because of the complexity of the human environment and the spontaneous character of human behavior. How do we solve this problem, how do we move beyond mere guesswork, speculation, and wishful thinking in the debate on electronic democracy?
The philosophical tradition of strong technological determinism has never been a serious position in electronic democracy research (Street 1992). Few participants in the debate suggested a direct causal connection between particular media properties and specific social and political changes. Futurologists such as Toffler (1981) come closest to this position; theorists of the information society such as Manuel Castells (2000) are also within close reach of this category. However, most students of electronic democracy are aware of the fact that the impact of new media will be dependent upon a complex interplay between interests, ideas, institutions, and media capacities. The open question is, rather, whether this process can be modeled in order to develop testable hypotheses and to project outcomes.
Students of media and political communication such as William Dutton (1999; Dutton et al. 1987) have tended to answer this question in the negative. They argue in favor of focusing on the diffusion of the Internet and its politics rather than aiming to project the impact of new media. In contrast to this, political scientists have tended to adopt a more positive attitude toward the task of modeling electronic democracy. They point to established theories of politics such as theories of legislative behavior or theories of institutional change as a basis for this very endeavor (Zittel 2003). Such a strategy can only generate short-term projections that will not explain or forecast the impact of new media on democracy in its entirety or in the long term. But it can be used to formulate plausible expectations for the near future with regard to a specific aspect of democracy that can be tested empirically in the course of comparative research.
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