Knowledge, control and digital democracy
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #49

Increased connectivity and access to information can greatly improve citizens' participation in governance - such is the common perception, at least. However, existing political systems were created out of the basic assumption that the majority of citizens will not, in fact, have access to the range of information that electronic networks promise, leave alone make good use of it. Better, digital, democracy will require a change in the nature of governance itself, perhaps even of the nation state.

Representative democracy has two basic premises. First, that most people have little time to spare for the big decisions of government; second, that ordinary people need to be 'governed' - presumably by those who know more, have better judgement, or are experienced at it. A representative government remains democratic by allowing the people to select those who will decide; but it does not normally allow ordinary citizens to make their own decisions. This system is well suited to the centralized government of a large country, and its assumptions hold true somewhat even today.

However, they change with the spread of networks - radio, television, and especially on-line services. Access to information is then large, and while citizens may not yet, in practice, be better informed, they can make their opinions felt. And as Time magazine wrote in a recent criticism of what they incorrectly called 'cyberdemocracy', this surfeit of loud opinion results in the confused politics of mob rule. When citizens go beyond choosing decision-makers to making decisions, neither centralized government nor large countries are workable, for most people (unlike the idealized leaders of early democracy) are qualified only to make decisions that affect themselves or the small community around them. People are most interested, and therefore best informed, in what affects them directly - but large nations and their representative democracies require a plethora of rule-making that often affects diverse constituencies in conflicting ways.

Real 'cyberdemocracy' can be found on the Internet. Although its electronic sphere of activities is limited, power is extremely decentralized. While the Net does acknowledge that expertise is not equally distributed - there are many semi-formal groups that produce quasi- official rules and (mainly technical) standards - it also gives its citizens more decision-making power than any real-world government. The difference is that in cyberspace your decision-making power is limited to your surroundings - nobody affects you, unless you belong to a community where you also affect them. This truly participatory democracy works only because there are never any 'big decisions' to be made as there is no single social unit of 20 million people, but only a loose grouping of much smaller ones; because communities are tiny and consist of people largely in agreement, who belong by choice, not by birth or location; and because there is always room for any dissenters elsewhere.

The information society comes with a strong tendency to distribute control over things to those who most bear its consequences. Modern centralized political systems and entities will have to break down into distributed ones for this tendency to develop into true grassroots democracy. But in many ways nations and governments are already being bypassed by the infosphere - and if they don't change fast, they will disappear altogether.

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