Digital democracy: a critique

Horrocks, Ivan (2008). Digital democracy: a critique. In: Grounds for critique: realism in the natural and human sciences, IACR Annual Conference, 11-13 Jul 2008, Kings College, London.



Late in 2006 The Guardian ran a special feature in its weekend magazine on ‘the second Internet gold rush’ and the entrepreneurs who had ‘demolished the old Internet and built a brand new one.’ The focus of the article was Web 2.0 – not a technology at all but variously described in the article as ‘an attitude’ or ‘a philosophy’. John Lanchester, the author of the feature, pointed out that the significance of Web 2.0 was the explosion in social networking that the web sites and ‘mash ups of technology’ that underpin it had enabled. As evidence of this, he noted that the number of blogs ‘…has been doubling every six months for the past three years: there are now, as of July 31 [2006], more than 50m blogs on the Internet; 175,000 new blogs are created every day – that’s two every second.’ By March 2007 that figure was reported to have hit 70 million with 120 thousand created each day (Technorati 2007). No doubt the numbers have continued to rise since.

At a conference on e-democracy in London on 16th November 2006, the then Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to Tony Blair, Matthew Taylor, gave the keynote speech titled: How the Internet can save democracy. Speaking as a ‘citizen’ the BBC reported that Taylor feared that ‘…the Internet could be fuelling a “crisis” in the relationship between politicians and voters’ (BBC 2006). Taylor went on to single out blogs and bloggers as particularly implicated in this crisis.

More recently a profile of British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown reported that ‘The PM's latest obsession is the Internet. His friends say his latest light read is Charles Leadbeater's new book We-Think and the power of the Internet to create, network and inform democracy. Some of his friends, however, think the PM might benefit from sometimes turning his computer off’ (Hencke 2008). Clearly, undettered by this line of thinking, the e-democracy consultancy and news organisation Delib (2008) reported that Brown was going to launch an online version of Prime Ministers Question Time via YouTube in June 2008. The BBC also rediscovered an interest in the subject, having screened some excellent (usually sceptical) programmes analysing developments in the 1990s (BBC 2008).

The purpose of these examples is to illustrate how the advent of Web 2.0 and the surge in forms of social networking that have accompanied it has led to a resurgence of interest in the impact, or potential impact, of the Internet on a wide range of social and economic relations, including democracy and governance. A feature of the social and technological trajectory of Web 2.0 - as with the first Internet revolution and Web 1.0 – may therefore be that it reinvents or reinvigorates democracy, by, for example, enabling political practices that would otherwise not have been possible, or, at the least, would have been logistically more difficult before the Internet. Indeed, it is possible that the explosion of social networking of Web 2.0 throws into question many of the propositions and assumptions concerning the Internet and political participation, governance and democracy that have been constructed from research based on the first Internet revolution and Web 1.0.

This paper argues otherwise. I start by briefly reviewing the emergence of the concept and practice of what has variously been described as teledemocracy, electronic democracy, e-democracy, or digital democracy (I use these interchangeably in this paper depending on the context). I then outline some of the most well known attempts at analysing the relationship between new information and communication technologies (ICTs) - which in the context of digital democracy nowadays equates almost exclusively to the Internet. Sticking with this specific focus I then propose a critical realist explanation of why the Internet has historically proved central to e-democracy, but why ultimately it has failed to deliver the ‘dreams of digital democracy’ so widely envisaged in the 1980s and early 1990s.

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