What does the net do for democracy?

Commentary on digital democracy, the impact of the Internet and recent uses of social networking to organise resistance, is either strongly optimistic or equally pessimistic. Seldom is the actual contribution of the information revolution to recent outbreaks of democracy treated in a more careful manner. On one side, we are stirred by declarations of a new and free public sphere, of one-to-many communications and celebrations of people power. On the other, all is junk, information pollution, proprietorial wars and state surveillance of citizens. What, then, does the net do for democracy?

To answer, we require the lens afforded by recent research that examines organisations in terms of the way they process information. Informational economics, epistemic democracy, pragmatist methodology, social epistemology and deliberative democracy all stress the information gains of particular organisational structures – especially of democratic forms.[1] At its simplest, we can see that democracy is superior to authoritarianism because it uses ‘many heads’ instead of one. It does not waste citizens, but instead values their informational input and their differing points of view. Thus, Hilary Putnam is able to assert, “Democracy is the precondition for the full application of human intelligence to the solution of social problems,” and to do so by virtue of its apparent ability to draw on diverse sources of information.[2] We can also consider debate and deliberation as processes of information sharing and preference refinement, and decision-making as an information bottleneck.

In his examination of information filters and flows in ancient Athens, Josiah Ober identifies three information-processing functions of the weekly public Assembly, here in an effort to ‘explain the historical puzzle of Athenian exceptionalism.’[3] These, he suggests, are Aggregation (combination), wherein information is gathered together, shared and tested in public; Alignment (preference sorting), in which large numbers of diverse preferences are ordered and shaped behind selected outcomes; and Codification (the provision of guidance for action), whereby the implementation of decisions is facilitated by individuals following agreed-upon rules. Across all these informational gains, Ober argues, Athens enjoyed the low transaction costs afforded by talking in a whole series of interlocking public forums. It is certainly correct to say, as do many modern commentators, that social networking offers information exchanges at a very low transaction cost and also at great speed. What then, of combination, preference sorting and guidance for implementation?

Social networking does combination really well. With a single click, thousands can contribute information and vast quantities of data suddenly become available. It is this capacity that enables what has been called ‘democracy by disclosure’.[4] There are numerous examples where the net has contributed new information, shone light on unacceptable corporate and government behaviour and threatened elite rule with its second greatest fear: transparency. Famously, World.com, Shell, US health care providers and governments have felt the discipline of public attention brought to bear by Wikileaks, Twitter, Facebook and sites like Indymedia and the Information Clearing House. The Internet thus enables the pooling of vast new sources of information. It does this at great speed and at minimal cost. The more points of view available, the more likely it is that something rather nearer the truth will emerge; something more than government press releases and corporate lies. Lots of knowledge is good for democracy, and the capacity of the net to combine knowledge makes it a valuable friend indeed.

Of course, these combinatory benefits are also available to those inside the citadels of power. Corporations and governments make use of precisely this capacity to track, measure, predict, film, capture, cure, sell to and kill. Fears of the surveillance state are thus well founded, for they are based on a step change in information management by elites, here afforded by the information revolution and its ability to aggregate and interrogate information.

Combination also explains the extraordinary effectiveness of the Internet in enabling the coordination of collective activity. Incoming information to noticeboards, Twitter and messaging, allows many to act together, to go to the same place and do the same thing. Crowds, riots, protests, boycotts and denials of service again feature the net’s ability to pool information, and it is this that stimulates the first and greatest fear of ruling elites, that of mass citizen action. Lots of people are in the square and the net is humming with information. Now what?

It is when we ask about the Internet’s ability to align information that we notice a problem. Alignment, or preference sorting behind a decision, requires multiple and diverse points of view to be grouped, shaped and arranged behind selected outcomes. While the combination of knowledge is of tremendous importance and power, alignment must follow. Here, we confront the need for a decision, a social choice, and thus of a decision-making process that somehow moves from many individual and group preferences to one agreed-upon collective preference. This is perhaps the oldest problem in politics, for it seeks to move beyond the assembled (and well informed) citizenry and towards asking ‘what should we do?’

Mostly, we make collective decisions by voting, by showing and counting individual preferences. But voting is a paltry and binary activity; it carries no gradations of preference intensity and so delivers little information. Still less is learned of the collective choice when we are offered only electoral democracy, spin and millionaire party hacks to vote for. These ‘representatives’ of the people, despite their obvious corruption and incompetence, then make decisions through a carefully immunised parliamentary process. Kenneth Arrow, building on the work of Condorcet, de Borda and Lewis Carroll, showed definitively that no value-free method of crunching individual preferences into a social choice could possibly exist.[5] Some values must inform this transition, some principles of sorting and even some agreement on what constitutes a majority. A political decision is an information bottleneck: it shrinks from the complexity of combination to the focus of alignment. This moment is at the very core of politics, and constitutes a trick that Ober argues was achieved in democratic Athens. Their decision-making process amounted to a network of discussions, deliberations, religious offerings, rhetorical ploys and displays of civic virtue. In this way, they tweaked and shifted and felt their way towards a social choice. Gradually, they became a plural subject, able to commit individually to a collectively agreed end.[6] They knew how to do combination, and they knew how to align behind a decision. Ober goes on to examine their various efforts at codification and the effectiveness of their policy implementation. But now the deficiency of the Internet becomes apparent: for it leaves unchanged the fundamental political problem of arriving at a social choice. It is this that now reappears in the new and virtual public sphere, and reminds us that even the net has its limits.

If we inspect the many sites that offer processes of deliberation and decision-making, we notice how poor we have become in our capacity to make collective choices. Time and again, sites merely combine information, with comments and lists and boxes pouring in from all sides. Yes there is argumentation, but when it comes to alignment, most conduct a rudimentary count, a virtual vote or survey, so that the process of actively constructing a plural subject is impeded. Worse still, the ideological values that (must) underlie the algorithms for crunching many individual preferences into one social preference are occluded. Alignment, it seems, is not much aided by Facebook, and may require the physical enactment of a network of forums feeding a public assembly. This would suggest that if the net is to really help democracy, it will eventually provide nothing short of a virtual agora, where we can, in person and in public, learn again to organise our politics, be democratic and make effective and collective decisions.

[1] Williamson, O.E. (1996) The Mechanisms of Governance, Oxford: OUP; Goldman, A.I. (1999) Knowledge in a Social World, Oxford: OUP; Cohen, J.) ‘Deliberative Democracy and Democratic Legitimacy,’ in Hamlin, A., Pettit, P. (eds.)(1989)The Good Polity, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 17–34 & ‘An Epistemic Conception of Democracy,’ Ethics, (1986) 97: 26-38.

[2] Putnam, H. (1981) Reason, Truth and History, Cambridge: CUP.
[3] Ober, J. (1989) Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton: PUP.
[4] Graham, M. (2002) Democracy by Disclosure: The Rise of Technopopulism, Washington: Brookings Institute.

[3] Ober, J. (1989) Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton: PUP.

[4] Graham, M. (2002) Democracy by Disclosure: The Rise of Technopopulism, Washington: Brookings Institute.

[5] Mackay, A.F. (1980) Arrow’s Theorem – The Paradox of Social Choice: Case Study in the Philosophy of Economics, Princeton: PUP.
[6] Gilbert, M. (2006) Shared Intentions and Collective Responsibility, Oxford: Blackwell.