Liveblog – Stephen Coleman’s lecture

Stephen Coleman

Try to cover and map out contemporary research going on in the area of e-democracy.  An opening question is, how do we frame a definition?


One approach for doing so might be to think of historical context: The questions the raised by e-democracy are similar to the questions raised by older technological developments during their early phases i.e. TV in the 50s and 60s.  There are definite parallels. 


The historical context driven-question is whether are seeing a recurring pattern of technological emergence or whether the Internet represents a discontinuity. 


What is government?  Theoretically, the study of government has slipped away from a focus on hierarchical institutions (Rose, Barrie and Fuko).  We are moving beyond traditional instructional politics and seeing a process of political slippage.  From a policy point of view, this process is extremely important.  We now live in a push-pull landscape, not a one-way system where government would tell people what to do. 


Questions of e-democracy have been subject to four interpretative strategies:

  1. The utopian view (also can be thought of as a hyperbolic view): Deterministic, has an assumption that technology is somehow magic.  Regards the Internet as an unassailable democratic force.
  2. The mobilisation theory.  Something happens when people have access to new media that makes it more convenient for them to partake in politics.  There are fewer barriers and they no longer fear the consequences.  Groups can more easily participate in collective action.  Essentially, “things become easier”. 
  3. Normalisation thesis.  Resnick and Margolis, Davis, etc.  What people do online is a replication of what they do offline.  The barriers that previously existed remain in place. 
  4. The distopian interpretation.  Politics gets harder and atomised (the balkanisation hypothesis).


Instead, let’s look at this as an historical process, as a medium to long-term change.  What will things be like in ten years or fifty years time?  Lots of questions that were asked about TV can be re-asked about the Internet (Jay Blumer, a leading writer on the rise of television is highly influential here).  There is value in asking the same questions, even if we don’t get the same answers. 


Theory, practice and policy.  Aim of forthcoming book is to link these three things together.  Lots of these ideas are linked to democratic theory – freedom, access to resources, social justice etc.  In the process of design, cultural and technical matters become indistinguishable from each other. 


Micro-questions: What happens to the individual user?

  1. Resource required to be a democratic system 
  2. Uses
  3. Effects


Macro-questions (systemic): What happens to institutions, culture, relationships etc. 


The question of policy in this area is of interest to lots of big players and important people: the UN, the EU, the UK and US governments. 

 Four dimensions of practice:

  1. Information.  Democracy relies on common knowledge.  Social protocal on the tube.  Certain things put into the social system etc.  However, costly to disseminate; costly to access; epistemological issue between information status – official and unofficial.  The Internet may change this relationship and mechanism. 
  2. Consultation.  The way in which governments learn from the public.  The most basic way of finding out is through elections. 
  3. Participation.  We are in a period of change in which we think about participation – originally took a behavioural approach.  We are now thinking about a different approach, because citizens get to define participation.  We look at activities and then ask “what is the impact?”.
  4. Representation.  The process of speaking for the public (and the process of inventing the public). 


Information – Theory

  1. Abundance (Bimber).  Raises all kinds of questions about how information environments change the way people are able to act.  “Accelerated pluralism” – facilitates small groups, their position improves. 
  2. Value.  Generally, scarce information is of greatest value (i.e. how to make a useful machine).  However, civic information reverses this equitation i.e. traffic lights – they are completely valueless unless everyone know about them.   
  3. Trust.  How do we know what to believe?  This is a question of power. 


Information – Practice

  1. Searching (Richard Rogers). 
  2. Transparency.  Counting features.  Creative a normative framework, and didn’t get into the bigger questions about transparency. 
  3. Literacy.  How do you make sense of it?  How do you convert information into knowledge?  Information in isolation is fairly valueless. 


Information – Policy

  1. FOI, Data pro, PSB.  How do you create public spaces online.
  2. Public space needs to be designed and protected.


Consultation – Theory

  1. Co-governance.  Governments must become learning organisations.  This is a very trendy notion at the moment.  How does the Internet fit into this process?  Can you create additional linkages (Ostrom, Rhodes)? 
  2. Deliberation.  30 per cent of all work on e-democracy is done on deliberation.  Increasing focus on the institutional context of these changes i.e. Shulman. 
  3. Design.  Limited work done on institutional design (Novak etc, Street and Wright). 


Consultation – Practice

  1. Why are we doing this?  A very fundamental question that is not asked often enough. 
  2. Inclusiveness?  Existing offline consultation inequalities at replicated when those processes move online. 
  3. Outcomes. We only ask simple questions – how many people?  Etc.


Consultation – Policy

  1. Regulation (Arthur Edwards).  Some work has been written about moderation and facilitation.  
  2. Policy cycle.  When in the policy development process should you run an online consultation?  The Internet is a very fast moving place. 
  3. Devolutions.  How, when and at what levels do we devolve? 


Participation – Theory

We are moving away from formal notions of participation.  Online spaces become political despite their creators intentions. 


[Note: There seems to be conflict between the intentionally conceived, preserved and regulated political spaces in strand one, and these organic political institutions – will there be conflict between them?]. 


For example, Big Brother viewers were politicised.  Football fansites used the web influence the team’s management. 


Participation – Practice

Collusion:  To what extent do people become domesticated and sucked in?  Politicians (who unlike academics have a more practical bent) will always ask; “how do we make this more convenient?”  If they are social democrats, they will tend to ask “how do we make it easier for people with fewer resources?” 


Participation – Policy

New methods:  More people can participate, but we need to ask what impact that will have?


Representation – Theory

Presents lots of political theory problems.  Representation occurs when a group that needs to appear to be present, but cannot physically be so.  Essentially we are creating a form of technological ventriloquism.  This creates significant problems of dealing with time, distant and cognitive inequalities, as well as matters of inclusion and recognising different forms of expression (Iris Young).  We are partaking in an age-old discussion about the relative benefits of plebiscite type and indirect democracy.


Representation – Practice

  1. Online polling.  Online polling impacts upon the results you get.   People are, for example, more likely to say “don’t know” than they are in offline polls.  None the less, structural inequalities of Internet access may damage sample size. 
  2. Semantic analysis of mass-deliberation.  Large scale conversations and examine the semantic connections between one word and another.  “A weather map of research”. 
  3. Visualisation.  How do you turn it into a text? 


Aggregation.  What are groups of people thinking?  Could we use an ebay style recommendation system?  What voice do we speak with?  How do we represent ourselves online? 


Future research:

  • There are huge gaps.  Putting e-democracy back in the context of wider e-government.  This distinction is more blurred than it used to be.  There is a huge research and policy question there. 
  • How do we think about questions of global accountability (i.e. UN, World Bank, IMF etc)?
  • Remarkably small amount of work on journalism.  Bloggers and journalists regard each other with mutual distrust.
  • Policy research – social side; inequality. 
  • Techniques of listening – how do you create democratic outcomes from participatory outcomes online?  “Conversations”; encourage big name bloggers to not behave as publicity freaks.     


[Leadership – what role does it play.  Is it different in the traditional context?]. 


Leadership has a role to play certainly.  Often requires one person to really want to make them work.  However, this comes with two important qualifications.  We are not necessarily talking about traditional political charisma.  Often the people concerned are fairly quiet, fairly non-ideological; but very powerful in their own – e-domains.  Secondly, there is the capacity for collective leadership, which does not focus on an individual. 


[Disjuncture between designed and organic institutions]. 


To create democratic space you need money.  But, it is also true that all the most empowering activities seem to be happening from the bottom up and we are seeing leakages from the conventionally politically.  Government involvement is often seen as a curse i.e. Netmum.  We have not escaped the conventional problems of political engagement.  Civil society stops being civil society when government tries to manage it, but equally civil society without interfacing with government just creates hot air.  We need a continual dialectic challenge when these methods of interactivity are critiqued from the alternative perspective. 


[Measures of public participation]


A practical example of research going on here, on humour.  In many ways what is being studied is democratic participation.  Many of the jokers are making a statement about power.  A joke can be a statement of values, position etc.  Our political space is constantly expanding through these kinds of associations. 


Big Brother voters are interested in simple moral values – who they trust, who would you like to spend time with.  BB viewers are the same as political voters in this way.  This is a process of translation. 


However, concepts must have borders; we cannot just say everything is a political act.  But drawing these borders is problematic.  However, perhaps we can observe it more easily online. 


[Freespace vs. government creation]


Democracy needs to be able to operate in an environment where people have limited resources.  What we need to do is open up spaces that have the capacity to impinge upon power but do not require rebuilding every time that they are used. 


The problem of citizenship is that citizens are strangers to one and another.  We can never create a common understanding, but must look to build common acknowledgement and common respect.  We are necessarily building structures for this imperfect relationship. 


[Transnational E-democracy]. 


Huge potential for comparative political learning online.  Far better than lots of the development work currently being done in the area.  Also trans-national organisations should be thinking a lot harder about what they can do online. 


[Archiving things – is this a part of creating these environments?].


BBC is trying to archive.  Making things freely available is very important. 


[Does PSB already exist]

 The existing public broadcaster might be the right space; but that would require the creation of appropriate policy.  BBC Parliament receives hundreds of email, all of which they throw away.


5 Responses to “Liveblog – Stephen Coleman’s lecture”

  1. Florian Says:

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  2. kabababrubarta Says:

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  3. alessio Says:

    UHM VERY GOOD! I need some articles like this on eDemocracy for my thesis !!
    good luck from University of Turin…

  4. Mypepedesub Says:


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  5. kristenvaldez57417 Says:

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