Archive for March 14th, 2010

E-democracy and the Web – Power and Democracy   no comments

Posted at 11:30 pm in Politics,Sociology

This week’s reading was focused on politics. The books that I have used are Introduction to Politics, by Garner et al and An Introduction to Politics, State and Society by James McAuley. I have organized my reading so far, so as to approach e-democracy from different angles. While in my previous posts there was an approach through society, groups and even individuals, for my first post on Politics I have chosen to have a look on the concept of State. Although the role of the State in e-democracy is potentially smaller than in ordinary politics (where it is overwhelming), it is not of less importance.

Two of the concepts that are associated with the State are power and authority. While both are used for similar purposes, that is to control behaviours, power uses coercion while authority uses consent. Power and authority are evident on the Web: due to the Web’s decentralised structure, power has been distributed possibly in a more even way than in other areas. Furthermore, authority has often been an easier (or the only) way to influence behaviours in online communities.

There are various theories that have been developed to interpret the distribution of power within a society. The pluralist theory suggest that society is composed of various groups, each with its own interests and government just act according to the balance of power of these groups, which means that all groups are represented relatively to their power within society. The exact opposite is elitism, where power is considered to be concentrated to the hands of powerful elites. Of course, the distribution of power in a society may be somewhere between pluralism and elitism. Marxist theory is similar to the elitist, with bourgeoisie being the ruling class and the proletariat being the dominated one. It is different however, in claiming that true power exists only in the economic sphere of society, and that an egalitarian society can only be established through a communist revolution.

Since measuring political power in a society can be difficult, an analysis according to each of these theories can give different results. The same is probably true for the Web, and particularly e-democracy. A pluralist could argue that the Web by default allows all groups to pursue their interests and prevents one seizing disproportionate power. However, an elitist could argue, that those having access to the Web are a de facto elite, as the digital divide suggests and also, that in some groups some individuals are more influential than others. Another possibility is that the Web could provide some groups with a lower barrier to entry, and so allowing more groups to share power (Interestingly, the existence of barriers to entry in the political system is a matter of debate between pluralists and elitists).

In a study of e-democracy, it is obviously necessary to identify what is Democracy. Since the word has acquired a positive connotation, even dictatorships have been self-proclaimed as such. So a more clear definition is needed. As the word’s etymology suggests, democracy is a political system where the people have the political power. This implies some kind of equality of political power. This was vague enough for Lively (1975) to come up with seven different possibilities. While all  have this characteristic,  three of them are not considered truly democratic, because there is no accountability of the rulers towards the ruled. The remaining four are versions of democracy, with half being cases of representative democracy and the others of direct democracy. The difference is the involvement of individuals in the decision-making process, with more involvement in the case of direct democracy.

It has been often suggested that the Web could allow a more direct version of democracy to feasible. Since the Web significantly lowers the communication costs, as can be seen for example in social networking sites, larger groups/networks can operate more efficiently. But it can be argued that lack of time is not the only reason that direct democracy has been rarely chosen. A study of relevant examples, for example classical Athens, could demonstrate the quality requirements that such a system would have to meet in order to succeed. Populism and ‘mob rule’ have been identified as disadvantages of such systems.

While the classical theory of democracy emphasises participation of citizens, the elitist theory claims that democracy and elitism aren’t mutually exclusive and that “elites sometimes can protect democracy from the authoritarian values of the masses”. According to elitism, participation is not that important. But, declining participation in elections and increasing political apathy are some of the reasons that e-democracy has been considered as an alternative. Furthermore, elitist theory has been criticised as undemocratic because of the accountability issue, and since modern democracies have elitist aspects, one could go so far as to call them “imperfect democracies”.

A development of the classical democracy is the deliberative democracy, which was mainly influenced by the ideas of J. Habermas. In addition to participation, it emphasises public discussion of matters and claims that this leads to “more rational and legitimate decision making”. It seems possible that this model could ameliorate the problems of direct democracy mentioned above, since it has been criticised on the basis that sufficient deliberation takes time. If this is true, then technologies that could help large scale real-time deliberation are needed. The Web is not any more just about information, but also about knowledge; this could prove crucial to successful implementation of such a process for decision making. Another criticism of this model has been that “it exaggerates the level of consensus that can be reached through deliberation”. With the possibility of being wrong or just too optimistic, I would suggest that agents could help break such stalemates, perhaps using game theory techniques and utilising the Semantic Web.

However, as most web scientists know (and of course sociologists), viewing social change that is caused by technology in a deterministic and linear way is wrong and can often lead to embarrassing predictions. While some ideas seem fantastic in theory, in practice they sometimes fail. Could e-democracy be such an example?

If we are to believe the elitist and Marxist theories of power distribution within society, the powerful elites are not necessarily in favour of such changes and are possibly able to prevent them. They would certainly be able to do so if the Web didn’t have such a decentralised and global structure (thanks to Tim Berners-Lee’s and others’ efforts). So, some aspects of e-democracy (for example online activism) cannot be influenced, regulated or stopped by a government. Making sure that global forces are controlled by democratic means, often called cosmopolitan democracy, could be a way to maintain the status quo, or even improve it. It would be too optimistic to assume that the Web could never be controlled by non democratic entities, it is almost like saying the Web can only be used for good.

However, for some other aspects of e-democracy, such as e-voting, the role of governments is crucial. If governments are influenced by elites, their priorities and choices in how the State will use e-democracy will be dictated by them. So the quality of an e-democracy paradigm will generally be proportionate to the quality of democracy in the State that sponsored it.

I have already read about the concept of freedom, but since the post has grown too long, I will incorporate it in next week’s post. I plan to continue next week by reading about state institutions, bureaucracy and governance, parties and elections and if there is time about civil society.

Written by el3e09 on March 14th, 2010

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