I came across a recent paper by Jan van Dijk that looks at the claims and achievements of digital democracy in the last 25 years. Here’s the abstract of “Digital Democracy: Vision and Reality” [PDF] (highlights are mine):
Digital media have made a strong appeal to people wanting to improve democracy right from the start. Four waves of utopian visions of the last 25 years are described. The concept of digital democracy is defined. Subsequently, six views of both representative and direct democracy are distinguished that favor particular applications of digital media in politics and government. The next paragraph makes an inventory of the claims and achievements of 25 years of attempts to realize digital democracy in the field of information provision, online discussion and decision-making. It appears that information provision is the best realized claim. The final part of this chapter is about eParticipation in politics and policy. It discusses both government- and citizen-centric applications. Citizen-centric applications appear to be the most successful. Generally speaking, e-participation has not been successfully incorporated in institutional politics and government.
Van Dijk’s paper adds to my list of readings on how little can be achieved by technology [PDF] in the absence of institutional change (something few seem to care about / understand).
But it also brings me to another issue that I think is not stressed enough: the current enthusiasm around technology and open government strikes me due to its lack of historical perspective. And, if history serves as any guide, advocates in the open government space would fare better in managing their (and others’) expectations about what can and cannot be achieved by technology.
This reminds me of a quote I read in an article from 1994 by Armand Mattelart on the “promise of redemption” of communication technologies. The author refers to a speech by then vice-president Al Gore in 1994 at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), defending the creation of the Global Information Infrastructure (GII). Al Gore’s view for democracy and information technologies couldn’t be any more enthusiastic:
The GII will not only be a metaphor for a functioning democracy, it will in fact promote the functioning of democracy by greatly enhancing the participation of citizens in decision-making. And it will greatly promote the ability of nations to cooperate with each other. I see an new Athenian Age of democracy forged in the fora the GII will create.
Nearly 20 years later, hopes similar to those of Al Gore can still resonate in blog posts, conferences and official documents.
I can’t help but think of what Mattelart called “a strange alchemy of cynicism, naïveté and amnesia”.