The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought about progress.Charles Kettering
These words by Kettering (1959) are still relevant today, particularly in the context of our ever-changing conception of democracy, and technology as an agent driving this process. Democracy, like any other social system, needs to innovate regularly in order to stay relevant and respond to changing social necessities and realities. Historically, mainstream political science dealing with the study of politics and democracy has analysed the complex relationship between the two, studying agents such as caste, class etc. Despite large-scale utilities provided by this body of knowledge, its relevance in the present context is only limited. Traditionally, political science as a discipline has not focused on communication and information; rather, power has been its central unifying concept. Moreover, within the power framework, control over information is viewed as only one of many political resources, and not even the most important. (Dahl 1961).
Today, we live in the information era, and to quote Ralph Nader, “Information is the currency of democracy.” Hence, the advances in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as major factors in influencing democracy cannot be emphasized enough. This idea gets more traction when we juxtapose information with the changes in technology in general and advances in ICT in particular. Through the course of this article, I will first try to explore the relationship between democracy and technology, temporally. Then, I will look at the role of extant modes of communication on democracy and how the rise of ICT has impacted this relationship. Lastly, I will introspect on the meaning of democracy in the present information age.
Temporal Analysis of the Relationship between the Socio-political Systems and Technology
The path of technology and the socio-political fabric as we know it has always been intertwined. Technological determinist theories support this idea by assuming that a society’s technology determines the development of its social structure and cultural values. Karl Marx was the first to argue that changes in technology are the primary influence on organisational structures and social relations, and ultimately all social relations and cultural practices are determined by the technological and economic base of a given society. Marx’s position has become embedded in contemporary society, where the idea that fast-changing technologies alter human lives is pervasive (True et al. 1994).
We can relate to the above theory in the sense that civilizations have been built or broken down on the back of advancements in technology. This can be seen from the Indus Valley civilization’s water harvesting techniques and architectural prowess to Babar’s use of gunpowder firearms on the battlefield, to the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the west followed by the introduction of the printing press. Only when a civilization flourishes, is there a need for a form of polity. In the Indian context, examples of this are the transitions from oligarchies to feudal monarchies, and then to colonial regimes and finally to a democracy. We can now safely establish that technology has had an overarching impact on polity through the ages. We will now try to look at the nuances of communication technology and the impact it has had on polity in general, and on democracy in particular.
All extant communication technology can be categorised under two categories of conversation and broadcast. Technologies that fall under ‘conversation’ try to recreate a more intimate form of communication like a face-to-face conversation. Postal messages, telegraphs and the telephone fit into this space. Post and telegram have played a very important role in various freedom movements, particularly in India’s struggle for independence, where they helped leaders from across the country to communicate and coordinate.
On the other hand, the technologies that fall under ‘broadcast’ try to convey messages to a large audience. Newspapers, radio, and television fit into this category. Darnton (2000) has charted the importance of pamphlets, books, gossip, and song in pre-revolutionary France. Nationalist newspapers in India such as Indian Opinion, Hindu etc. and radio stations such as Congress Radio, Azad Radio etc. played a particularly important role in creating awareness and spreading nationalist ideas during India’s freedom struggle. Even today, these remain vital, albeit less powerful modes of communication(Weare 2002).
Thus, the relationship of technology with the polity in general and with democracy, in particular, has long existed, but the story does not end here. With the advent of ICT, this age-old relationship has assumed a new form.
The New Age: Advent of Information and Communication Technology and its Influence on Democracy
The advent of ICT has led to the convergence of voice, data, video, point-to-point, and broadcast communications technologies. This has blurred the distinction between conversation and broadcast forms of communication. It has even made some forms of communication such as a group dialogue, where the interaction is between many senders and receivers, more scalable.
The impact of this convergence is that combinations of conversation and broadcast produce more significant effects than any single activity can on its own. For instance, Internet posting in group discussions may be tracked and analysed to gauge the attitudes of a group. These factors indicate the potential of the internet to change governance. Technology is thus not only an agent influencing democracy but is the primary agent driving the change in democracy today. We can distinguish between the technology-driven changes as Instrumental and Constitutive (Weare 2002).
Instrumental Change assumes that exogenous changes in technology affect the structure and operation of political channels, networks, and steering processes. The emergence of e-governance in the backdrop of advances in ICT is an example of this type of change.
Constitutive Change is the use of technology to alter political socialization. The internet may affect democracy by changing the agents with whom we interact, how we receive information, and how information is presented. These shifts, in turn, may alter what we know, what we learn, and what perspectives we employ to interpret events. Targeted advertisements by political parties on social media in the backdrop of advances in data sciences and artificial intelligence is an example of this type of change. (Weare 2002)
Thus, the advances in ICT have created fears of social polarization due to greater access to information, i.e. authentic and fake, coupled with the increasing intrusion of the government into our private lives and political socialization through propaganda and targeted advertising. On the other hand, new communication channels promise rejuvenated political participation and the ability to counter propaganda and false narratives through social media. Also, the advent of ICT has enabled citizens to be more active actors in the development process by giving them the opportunity to organise, lobby and challenge the state through online petitions, debates, and workshops (Maira 2017).
ICT provides us with the opportunity to re-envision the ideas of democracy. Yet, a tool is only as good as its master. Without innovations in democratic processes such as a shift from public debates to the adoption of group dialogues, and rejuvenating deliberative democracy to create the right kind of awareness about issues and developmental visions, innovations in technology will only aid the powerful in attaining their own self-interests, and in doing so, erode democracy.
A former engineer, Shubhankar has worked with Microsoft before making the shift into the policy space. In the policy space, he has worked with the Govt. of Karnataka in the formulation of the draft ‘Integrated Agriculture Policy’ for the state. Shubhankar is currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy from the National Law School Of India University and he is interested in the intersection of technology, governance and policy. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Kettering, C. 1959. In Memoriam. Southern Research Institute: Birmingham.
Dahl, R. 1961. Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City.Yale University Press: New Haven.
Darnton, R. 2000. Paris: The Early Internet. The New York Review of Books.
Maira, A. 2017. ‘The technology of democracy’, (https://www.foundingfuel.com/article/the-technology-of-democracy/) (posted on 14 May 2017) (accessed on 20 September 2020).
Smith, Merrit R. & Marx, Leo. 1994. Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. The MIT Press.
Weare, Christopher. 2002. ‘The Internet and Democracy: The Causal Links between Technology and Politics’. INT’L. J. OF PUBLIC ADMIN. 25(5): 659–691.