The State of Digital Democracy Isn’t As Dire As It Seems

Richard Gibson at the Hedgehog Review: “American society is prone, political theorist Langdon Winner wrote in 2005, to “technological euphoria,” each bout of which is inevitably followed by a period of letdown and reassessment. Perhaps in part for this reason, reviewing the history of digital democracy feels like watching the same movie over and over again. Even Winner’s point has that quality: He first made it in the mid-eighties and has repeated it in every decade since. In the same vein, Warren Yoder, longtime director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, responded to the Pew survey by arguing that we have reached the inevitable “low point” with digital technology—as “has happened many times in the past with pamphleteers, muckraking newspapers, radio, deregulated television.” (“Things will get better,” Yoder cheekily adds, “just in time for a new generational crisis beginning soon after 2030.”)

So one threat the present techlash poses is to obscure the ways that digital technology in fact serves many of the functions the visionaries imagined. We now take for granted the vast array of “Gov Tech”—meaning internal government digital upgrades—that makes our democracy go. We have become accustomed to the numerous government services that citizens can avail themselves of with a few clicks, a process spearheaded by the Clinton-Gore administration. We forget how revolutionary the “Internet campaign” of Howard Dean was at the 2004 Democratic primaries, establishing the Internet-based model of campaigning that all presidential candidates use to coordinate volunteer efforts and conduct fundraising, in both cases pulling new participants into the democratic process.

An honest assessment of the current state of digital democracy would acknowledge that the good jostles with the bad and the ugly. Social media has become the new hotspot for Rheingold’s “disinformocracy.” The president’s toxic tweeting continues, though Twitter has attempted recently to provide more oversight. At the same time, digital media have played a conspicuous role in the protests following George Floyd’s death, from the phone used to record his murder to the apps and Google docs used by the organizers of protests. The protests, too, have sparked fresh debate about facial recognition software (rightly one of the major concerns in the Pew report), leading Amazon to announce in June that it was “pausing” police use of its facial recognition software for one year. The city of Boston has made a similar move. Senator Sherrod Brown’s Data Accountability and Transparency Act of 2020, now circulating in draft form, would also limit the federal government’s use of “facial surveillance technology.”

We thus need to avoid summary judgments at this still-early date in the ongoing history of digital democracy. In a superb research paper on “The Internet and Engaged Citizenship” commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last year, the political scientist David Karpf wisely concludes that the incredible velocity of “Internet Time” befuddles our attempts to state flatly what has or hasn’t happened to democratic practices and participation in our times. The 2016 election has rightly put many observers on guard. Yet there is a danger in living headline-by-headline. We must not forget how volatile the tech scene remains. That fact leads to Karpf’s hopeful conclusion: “The Internet of 2019 is not a finished product. The choices made by technologists, investors, policy-makers, lawyers, and engaged citizens will all shape what the medium becomes next.” The same can be said about digital technology in 2020: The landscape is still evolving….(More)“.