This page considers some issues regarding the shape of
politics and democracy in the 'age of the internet'.
It covers -
Does the internet change community perceptions of the
state and political processes, in addition to providing
new opportunities for communication? There's considerable
Overall, the optimism expressed in Politics in Wired
Nations: Selected Writings of Ithiel de Sola Pool (New
Brunswick: Transaction 1998) edited by Eli Noam, Christopher
Arterton's Teledemocracy: Can Technology Save Democracy?
(London: Sage 1987), the 1964 Cybernetics Conference
Manifesto of the Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution
and Howard Rheingold's
The Virtual Community (Minerva: London 1994) or
Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (New York:
Perseus 2002) increasingly appears misplaced. Politics
online, like business online, will be an extension of
existing practice rather than a revolution in which the
old rules no longer apply.
a digital polity?
Mark Warschauer's persuasive essay
Does the Internet Bring Freedom? comments that
although introduction of the net can
up institutions and help people realize possibilities
they didn't conceive of before ... help facilitate new
possibilities of struggling for human freedom ... achievement
of human freedom comes only from hard work to achieve
personal and institutional change.
is in line with James Beniger's perceptive The Control
Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the
Information Society (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press
There is a pessimistic view in E.Con: How The Internet
Undermines Democracy (Toronto: Stoddart 1999)
by Donald Gutstein, Post-Broadcast Democracy: How
Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement
and Polarizes Elections (Cambridge: Cambrtidge Uni
Press 2007) by Markus Prior and Republic.com (Albany:
State Uni of NY Press 2001) by Cass Sunstein, extending
Joseph Turow's Breaking Up America: Advertisers
& the New Media World (Chicago: Chicago Uni Press
1997) and the bleak The Global Political Economy of
Communication: Hegemony, Telecommunications & the
Information Economy (New York: St Martin's 1994) edited
by Edward Comer.
Turow's premises are questioned by Russell Neuman's incisive
analysis of 'demassification' in The Future of the
Mass Audience (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1996),
arguing that new technologies will not lead to the death
of the mass media and fragment communities. The
Web of Politics (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1999)
by Richard Davis and Cyberpolitics (Lanham: Rowman
& Littlefield 1998) by Kevin Hill & John Hughes
are more upbeat.
Wayne Rash's Politics On The Nets: Wiring The Political
Process (New York: Freeman 1997) and The Net Effect:
How Cyberadvocacy Is Changing The Political Landscape
(Merriefield: e-Advocates Press 1999) by lobbyists Daniel
Bennett & Pam Fielding are more superficial. We prefer
White House To Your House: Media & Politics In
Virtual America (Cambridge: MIT Press 1995) by Robert
Silverman & Edwin Diamond.
Alinta Thornton's thesis
Does the Internet Create Democracy? critiques Rheingold's
'digital agora' argument and could be read in conjunction
with Scott Aitken's Minnesota e-Democracy studies.
engagement and the e-Democracy
The Canada West Foundation (CWF)
published a cogent report (PDF)
on Electronically Enhanced Democracy In Canada
in 2001 as part of the Cybercitizenship
Project exploring the impact of information and communication
technologies on Canadian federalism, municipal government
and political education.
The new report draws on examination of sites in Australia,
Canada, the UK and US. It argues that the "electronically
enhanced democracy landscape in Canada (and, to a lesser
extent, elsewhere) is falling short of expectations".
That's because sites are not providing the kind of information
that will empower citizens or encourage them to become
more involved in democratic life and interactivity with
elected representatives is largely limited to one-to-one
contact through email with no assurance of response.
of the websites offered any means by which citizens
could play a meaningful role in public policy. Many
websites involved in electronically enhanced democracy
report suggests that "local government may prove
to be the cradle of electronically enhanced democracy
in Canada", with online politics at the federal and
provincial levels continuing to fall short of expectations
as elected representatives face disincentives to participation.
The CWF believes that the non-profit sector offers the
best avenue for creating and maintaining electronically
enhanced democracy resources. In highlighting policy implications
it suggests that
among individuals and groups representing a broad spectrum
of civil society needs to occur with the goal of achieving
an outstanding Canadian electronically enhanced democracy
Heim's 1995 CMC article
on The Nerd in the Noosphere explores some theorising
about community, cyberspace and metaphysics, more convincingly
than Eric Raymond's Homesteading the Noosphere
We've pointed to studies
of online community in our Digital guide. Four works of
particular interest are Richard Holeton's Composing
Cyberspace: Identity, Community & Knowledge in the
Electronic Age (New York: McGraw-Hill 1998), Communities
In Cyberspace (London: Routledge 1999) edited by Marc
Smith & Peter Kollock, Erik Brynjolfsson's 1996 paper
Electronic Communities: Global Village or Cyberbalkanization?
and The Future of Community & Personal Identity
in the Coming Electronic Culture (Washington: Aspen
Institute 1995) by David Bollier & Charles Firestone.
Reinventing Democratic Culture in an Age of Electronic
Networks is upbeat but unconvincing recitation about
the transforming effect of the web: better people, better
thoughts, better institutions.
Steven Miller's Civilizing Cyberspace: Policy, Power
& the Information Superhighway (New York: ACM Press
1996) is provoking. Digital Democracy: Discourse &
Decision Making In The Digital Age (London: Routledge
1999) edited by Barry Hague & Brian Loader is a succinct
It's more substantial than Darin Barney's faddish Prometheus
Wired: The Hope for Democracy in the Age of Network Technology
(Sydney: UNSW Press 2000), which pays more attention to
Derrida and Heidegger than to the wires or the people,
Graeme Browning's Electronic Democracy: Using the Internet
to Influence American Politics (Wilton: Pemberton
Press 1996) and Tim Jordan's Cyberpower: The Culture
& Politics of Cyberspace & the Internet (London: Routledge
1999). Jordan co-edited the quirky Storming the Millennium:
The New Politics of Change (London: Lawrence & Wishart
1999), with an unjustifiably upbeat appraisal of the EFF.
The International Institute for Democracy & Electoral
Assistance (IDEA), a gathering of the great & good,
convened a forum in June 2001 on Democracy & the
Information Revolution. The event was preceded by
a policy seminar
and a discussion paper.
in the digital utopia, everybody will be hip and rich
Nicholas Negroponte's tract Being Digital (New
York: Viking 1995) echoed V I Lenin's State & Revolution
(1917) in proclaiming the imminent death of the nation
state, which would "evaporate like a mothball".
Bart Kosko's Heaven in a Chip: Fuzzy Visions of Science
& Society in the Digital Age (New York: Three
Rivers Press 2000) responded that "we'll have governments
as long as we have atoms to protect".
John Perry Barlow's A Declaration of the Independence
of Cyberspace (DIC) simply
declared that cyberspace - and its citizens - had seceded
to a technolibertarian never-never-land:
Cyberspace, the new home of Mind ... naturally independent
of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have
no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods
of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
is reminiscent of the 1994 Cyberspace & the American
Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age (Dream),
co-authored by Esther Dyson,
George Gilder, George Keyworth & Alvin Toffler.
It is another digital manifesto built around notions of
the Third Wave - part Robert Heinlein, part Daniel Bell
and Karl Marx, a dash of Henry Ford and some spice from
Porat, Machlup and Weber - in which technology drives
a utopian information society
free from traditional economic, political and cultural
constraints. Hendrik Hertzberg commented that
tone of what can fairly be called Tofflerism-Gingrichism
is uncannily like that of Marxism-Leninism. There's
a similar arrogance, a similar exhilaration that comes
from being among the select few to whom the mysteries
and the meaning of history are vouchsafed. There’s
a similar patronising contempt for those who don’t
“get it” and are therefore fated to be swept
into the dustbin of history. There's a similar worship
of technology. There’s a similar cult of toughness.
(There's even a similar scorn for "liberalism".)
Tofflerism, as surely as Marxism, is a variation on
historical materialism. The fervor, the know-it-all
certainty, the scientism, the "revolutionary"
rapture – much of the new faith is weirdly familiar
to anyone who has studied the history of the far left.
For Barlow the net means no more government, no more law
regarding nasty things such as copyright:
of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and
steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind
... I declare the global social space we are building
to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek
to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us
nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have
true reason to fear
it seems, like the proletariat, is everywhere enslaved
but throws off its chains when exposed to the internet. Local
'information liberationist' Brian Martin
offers a similar critique: the bath water is unhappy so
throw away the baby - and abolish
the state as well. Rheingold's
communitarianism has been echoed on the right.
Three of the more entertaining studies of that convergence
are Paulina Borsook's Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp
Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech
(New York: PublicAffairs 1999), Richard Barbrook's incisive
The Californian Ideology and the 2001 Duke
Law Journal paper
by Amy Bomse on The Dependence of Cyberspace.
While the cyberlibertarian ethos is broad, a key feature
is the notion that Government is necessarily bad and needs
to be kept out of the net and society as a whole. Personal
conduct should not be regulated. Nor should commerce.
Government should not impose content restrictions, ie
should abandon attempts to manage offensive content or
protect intellectual property. It also should not require
consumers and businesses to pay taxes for public education,
social welfare, infrastructure and information equity
measures such as subsidised internet access.
We've examined other studies in the guide
to being digital and the guide
on governance of cyberspace
the digital divides
We've explored the digital divides elsewhere in this
site, particular through the Divides profile.
For national/local politics a useful starting point is
Cyberspace Divide: Equality, Agency & Policy in
the Information Society (London: Routledge 1998) edited
by Brian Loader.
There's more detailed analysis in William Wresch's Disconnected:
Haves & Have-Nots in the Information Age (New
Brunswick: Rutgers Uni Press 1998) and Jim Davis's
Cutting Edge: Technology, Information Capitalism &
Social Revolution (London: Verso 1998). One of the
more thoughtful official studies is the 2000 From Digital
Disconnect to Digital Empowerment report
from the US.
Russell Neuman's The Paradox of Mass Politics: Knowledge
& Opinion in the American Electorate (Cambridge:
Harvard Uni Press 1986) is a useful corrective to some
of the more overstated concerns. Mark Bonchek's thesis
From Broadcast To Netcast: The Internet & The Flow
of Political Information is also of interest and should
be read in conjunction with Scott Aikens' thesis
on American Democracy & Computer-Mediated Communication.
Lou Rosetto, co-founder of Wired, said that
idea that we need to worry about anybody being 'left
out' is entirely atavistic to me, a product of that
old economics of scarcity .... mass communication, mass
production, mass poverty, mass markets, mass society,
mass media, mass democracy - that's history. Ford and
Marx are well and truly dead.
There is an analysis of such internet exceptionalism here.
It is also questioned in Millennial Capitalism &
the Culture of NeoLiberalism (Durham: Duke Uni Press
2000) edited by Jean & John Comaroff and in Florian
Roetzer's snappy paper
on Outer Space or Virtual Space? Space Utopias of the
Barbrook comments that the new faith has emerged from
a bizarre fusion of the cultural bohemianism of San Francisco
with the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley," something
that "promiscuously combines the freewheeling spirit
of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies."
It has been achieved through "a profound faith in
the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies.
In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and
Among the extensive literature about direct democracy,
e-petitions and online plebiscites see The Battle Over
Citizen Lawmaking (Carolina Academic Press 2001) edited
by M. Dane Waters and Direct Democracy or Representative
Government? (Boulder: Westview Press 2001) by John
Experiments in Empowered Deliberative Democracy,
a 1999 paper
by Archon Fung & Erik Olin Wright is a good example
of the genre.
The shape and impact of e-petitions are explored later
in this guide, along with a consideration of voting technologies
and policy implications
next page (studies)