Community, Deliberation, and Participation: E-Democracy (Part 2)   no comments

Posted at 11:44 am in Politics

Currently reading: Internet Politics – Andrew Chadwick

Brief overview of what has been read:

This week’s blog is a continuation of looking at Andrew Chadwick’s Internet Politics book. Last week I looked at Chadwick’s description on Conceptual tools, with this week focusing in more detail regarding E-democracy.

What will be discussed is how the Web has played a role in enhancing community cohesion, political deliberation, and participation, i.e. E-Democracy. What will be looked at is community networks, development of online political communities, and uses of online mechanisms to involve citizens.

Knowledge gained and relevance to issue:

To start with let’s looks at some theoretical foundations of E-democracy, the UK Hansard society takes the view that it is:

“The concept of e-democracy is associated with efforts to broaden political participation by enabling citizens to connect with one another and with their representatives via new information and communication technologies.”

From this, two major conceptual offshoots have formed from the many attempts to enhance political participation, the Social Capital, and the Public Sphere.
The Social capital, defined by Robert Putnam as: “the features of social organisations such as networks, norms, and trust that facilitate co-ordination and co-operation for mutual benefit”. This assumes that all groups, political or social enhance overall levels of political awareness. It is also argued that increased participation between civic associations increases the level of trust amongst citizens. Furthermore for such communities to occur, it is assumed that contributions will be reciprocated at a later stage, without this, communities would not exist.

The Public Sphere, another influential approach to understanding the role of communications in encouraging citizen’s engagement. Jurgen Habermas’s concept of Public Sphere suggested that since the early-modern capitalistic age, the new forms of communication and media has given cultural enlightenment, allowing for information to be much more freely disseminated. This level of media has allowed citizens to form political opinions. Lincoln Dahlberg used the Habermasian theory to form 6 main conditions that e-democracy schemes must try to fulfil if they are to genuinely create deliberative public spheres.
To begin with, there must be Autonomy from the state, and economic power. This means that discourse must be from citizens concerns not that of the media or corporations. Furthermore, situations or concerns must be reasons, not asserted. Another key condition is participants must reflect on their own cultural values, interests and other personal views, and also take note of the larger social context. This then implies that participants must see an argument from all viewpoints, being respectful and listening to each other. To be able to view all sides of the argument, all information and knowledge must be learned, which leads to the next consideration. Finally, all participants must be treated equally, and entitled to participate in deliberation.

Community Networks
Community networks, first appeared in the 1970’s, with relatively small numbers. But with the cost of electronic goods, during the 1990’s they began to grow tremendously. Bruce Tonn defines a Community network as:

“A Computer based system or set of systems designed to meet the social and economic needs of a spatially-defined community of individuals.”

Three main features which could be argued that are needed to form a Community network are: a high speed network, offered free of charge or at a subsidised rate, some are of centrality for the technology, i.e. servers, and thirdly, an emphasis on providing content specific to the local community.

Although modern community networks are more technologically advanced than their ancestors, they still rely on the basic principle that for people to shape the production of information about their local community, the must be willing to volunteer. Relating back to Social Capital, almost all community networking projects have been inspired by the idea that virtual community can improve geographical communities by creating new social ties and reciprocal trust.

One view is why ‘join’ citizens together who already happen to live in the same neighbourhood, instead why not encourage ‘real’ interaction. However many of the proponents of community networks come from a background in urban planning and are therefore acutely aware of the history of attempts to generate community through the physical world. It is suggested that contemporary life erodes the possibility form such ‘real’ interaction, driving the need for web based community networks. Tom Petrich suggests 5 areas of contemporary life which forms these constraints. Work-related constraints, where working hours play a large role. Another constraint is consumerism, where time is spent on goods and services, i.e. Playstation, Cinema rather than interacting. There are also social capital constraints, where local social networks are insufficient to create communities. Delving more towards the individual, there are personal constraints, confidence and skills are issues when meeting in the real world. Finally there are the constraints due to the real world, i.e. no meeting places.

Although there are hundreds of virtual communities, to begin with there was a total lack of state led virtual communities. However, central and local governments have slowly started to experiment with online forums, which have specific interest groups. A space for deliberation that are relatively unconstrained by corporate and state influence, inspired by the need for increasing citizen deliberation have opened up, some believe (Grossman) showing the true potential of the web in bringing about true participatory democracy.

Political Influence
The influence of such community networks and other forms of e-democracy has introduced the web in-to a rich set of projects, from this two broad models have been defined, Consultative and Deliberative models.

A consultative approach stresses the communication of the citizen’s opinion to the government. It is assumed that information is a resource which can be used to provide better policy and administration. Furthermore, governments can seek voters opinion from such information. A good example of use of such a model is the U.S. Federal governments e-rule making program. This was designed to allow citizens to air their opinion on specific agency rules that are being developed.
The deliberative model takes a different view on communication between the government and citizens, where a more complex multi-directional interactivity occurs. These models are thinner on the ground than their consultative counterparts.

From what has been discussed it can be seen that the impact that the Web has had on Communities, political deliberation is indeed significant. The use of the Web is a way to allow people to maintain social ties or extend them where possible. Furthermore, political interests have now started to be transferred online; furthermore the views which are being given in an online world are now transferred to an offline world.

The question of is the Web increasing Social Capital, allowing for more opportunity for public political participation? Chadwick argues that it is doing both, communities of interest tend towards being homogeneous echo chambers. However, what needs to be remembered is that individuals have more than one interest, and this creates the problem that the e-democracy is creating more complex communities, deliberation and political participation.

Written by rt506 on March 19th, 2010

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