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Beware the Goverati: e-Democracy Processes in the Post-Industrial Age

The second keynote speaker at EDEM 2010 is Ismail Peña-López, who begins from an economic perspective: he notes that in the orthodox view, the basic structure of the production system is that inputs (resources) are acted upon by labour and capital in the production process, generating outputs (products). Democratic processes are traditionally based and built upon this production process, too - scarcity of resources, transaction costs, and processes of intermediation are its fundamental delimiting elements,which democracy attempts to coordinate.

In the democratic process, there are a number of stages, then: information access, deliberation and argumentation, negotiation and opinion shaping, voting and stating preferences for political options, and accountability for implementation. Traditionally, these have been exposed to similar constraints as the general production process - a scarcity of information, high transaction costs of active participation, and difficulties in intermediating complex negotiation processes. This is why parliamentary democracy relies mainly on general elections every few years, of course, rather than on frequent referenda, and takes place through parties and governments as representatives of the general public, rather than through direct democratic processes.

But in the information age, these limitations no longer fully apply - especially when we are dealing with informational processes (rather than the production of tangible physical goods). Input and output of those processes both take the form of (digital) information, and knowledge labour and ICT capital act upon input information to generate new informational outputs. Limitations such as scarcity, transaction costs, and intermediation problems no longer apply in the same way - though new difficulties also do arise, of course.

Ismail now runs through a few examples for such new possibilities: blogs and other citizen-generated Websites, for example, as well as data mashups which make government data more accessible and usable; Twitter and other social networks as immediate news and feedback tools; citizen journalism projects as independent, non-commercial and non-mass media information sources; e-voting sites to get a sense of popular views on specific questions; campaign sites which encourage popular participation on particular issues.

So, the potential benefits of digital democracy include more direct participation and engagement, the potential for community building, ongoing conversations and deliberations, a shift towards better local representation and a better focus on long tail issues, a broader range of information sources, and a harnessing of immediate and viral communication. (Satire - especially through mashups - also plays an important role here.) Parties and governments have also begun to explore this space, of course, though not always very successfully or effectively.

Benefits of this can be better transparency, accountability, traceability, social control, distributed power, and open government - but these continue to be undermined by the presence of digital divides between more or less connected citizens. Factors creating such divides include infrastructure availability, economic feasibility, digital literacy, regulatory frameworks, and the availability of content and services; these apply to both the supply and demand sides of the information process.

Ismail especially singles out the problem of digital competency on the side of political actors as much as of citizens - technological, informational, and media literacy as well as digital awareness all come into play here. In Spain, for example, some 36% of the population still have not used the Internet even today. Clearly, this is already problematic - and even the digital literacy and e-competence of existing users may be highly variable. Such digital divides also apply between (and within) political parties, in fact - and they tend to replicate, and even deepen, from generation to generation.

Further, there is the danger of online activities to perpetuate and strengthen political isolation - turning specific online communities into self-reinforcing echo chambers for particular points of view rather than spaces for real deliberation between different viewpoints. What is necessary, then, is a concerted effort to address and overcome these barriers - in order to avoid e-democracy processes being dominated only by what Ismail describes as the 'goverati'.

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