Re-constructing digital democracy

Dahlberg, Lincoln 2011. Re-constructing digital democracy: An outline of four 'positions'. New Media Society 13(6): 855-872.

For well over a decade there has been widespread enthusiasm about the possibility of digital media technolog advancing and enhancing democratic communication. This ethusiasm comes from a surprisingly diverse array of political interests, ranging from government officials to anti-government libertarians. As a result there are very different understandings of the form of democracy that digital media may promote, with associated differences in digital democracy rhetoric and practice. Despite this diversity, digital democracy (or e-democracy) is often talked about as though there was a general consensus about what it is. (Dahlberg 2011: 855)
Compare "advancing" and "enhancing" with various phatic operations like "developing" and "maintaining".
The internet is focused here because it is increasingly becoming the basis for networking all digital communication media and is the central technology in digital democracy rhetoric and practice. (Dahlberg 2011: 856)
Same as with phatic technologies.
It is important to clarify what I mean here by a 'position'. By position I am grouping within a general category a set of phenomena (rhetoric, practices, identities, and institutions) that can be identified as by sharing similar charactecistics. As so described, positions seem to resemble Weberian ideal types. Like ideal types, the positions here are the result of abastraction and generalization. The particular positions of individuals or groups will only ever approximate such generalized positions, which are reconstructed from the complexity of everyday situated experience. However, the positions here are not pure analytical concepts, as is understood to be the case with Weberian ideal types. Rather, the positions provide a general categorization of existing empirical instances. Furthermore, in contrast to Weber, my aim is not to provide a value-free scientific description of social 'reality'. The process of the very determination of description of the positions is necessarily context dependent and value laden, even if such values cannot be clearly or consciously expressed. (Dahlberg 2011: 856)
This is where Clay's "unitive likeness" could be useful.
I have chosen the term affordances as it broadly captures how all the positions tend to understand the human-technology relationship. In general terms, the relationship is one where the technology is seen to have certain features that enable (afford) particular democratic uses and outcomes. (Dahlberg 2011: 857)
Another confluence with phatic technologies discourse.
Liberal-individualistic digital democracy understands digital media as offering a means for the effective transmission of information and viewpoints between individuals and representative decision-making processes (for exampl, Gore 1994, in relation to early internet, and Chadwick 2009, in relation to digital social networking developments). Digital media are understood here as enabling individuals to gain the information they need to examine competing political positions and problems, and as providing them with the means for the registration, and subsequent aggregation (as 'public opinion'), of their choices (through e-voting, web feedback systems, petitions, e-mail, online polls, etc.). (Dahlberg 2011: 858)
Seems logical enough, and pretty close to the Estonian model. References:
  • Gore, A. 1994. The global information infrastructure: Forging a new Athenian age of democracy. Intermedia 22(2): 4-7.
  • Chadwick, A 2009. Web 2.0: New challenges for the study of e-democracy in an era of informational exuberances. I/S: A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society 5(1): 10-42.
The [Liberal-individualistic digital democracy] position embraces digital media for enabling and enhancing direct individual-representative communication. It looks to bypass state, corporate, political party, and lobby group interference in this individual-representative relationship. However, it does not go so far as cyber-libertarianism, which celebrates an online democracy free of representative government (see Dahlberg 2010). As such, the liberal-individualist position promotes the realignment of current democratic systems, drawing upon liberal democratic ideals to advance digital media's facilitation of bottom-up, individual participation in democracy. Because such ideals tend to be hegemonic in many places, the liberal-individualist position is often embraced without regard for other digital democracy possibilities, some of which I will now explore. (Dahlberg 2011: 859)
The assumption is that current democratic systems can be realigned through direct individual-representative relationship, which may not always be the case. Especially when there's a group of interns representing the representative in digital media; the representative herself will stay unaffected no matter how many e-mails you send.
The possibility of digital media in general, and the internet in particular, supporting the extension of a deliberative democratic public sphere of rational communication and public opinion formation that can hold decision makers accountable has been of significant interest in digital democracy commentary and practice for some time. [...] The democratic subject here [in the Deliberative digital democracy position] is seen as developing from out of rational deliberation, rather than being pre-defined as in the liberal-individualist position. Such deliberation is understood to constitute a rational public sphere in which private individuals are transformed into publicly oriented democratic subjects interested in the 'common good'. The result is critically informed public opinion that can scrutinize and guide official decision making processes. (Dahlberg 2011: 859-860)
I.e. you don't participate in democracy, democracy participates in you.
Digital media in general, and the internet in particular, are seen as enabling this democratic conception. The two-way, low-cost, user friendly, pliable, and readily moderated form of much digital communication is understood as affording information sharing, rational debate, and public opinion formation (Graham 2009; Janssen and Kies 2005). As a result, there is a growing body of research into the possibility of digital media in general, and the internet in particular, realizing deliberative democracy. (Dahlberg 2011: 860)
  • Graham, T. 2009. What's wife swap got to do with it? Talking politics in the net-based public sphere. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam School of Communications.
  • Jannsen, D. and R. Kies 2005. Online forums and deliberative democracy. Acta Politica 40(3): 384-392.
What I refer to as the counter-publics position emphasizes the role of digital media in political group formation, activism, and contestation, rather than rational individual action or rational consensus-oriented deliberation. The democratic subject here is constituted through engagement in such group formation, activism, and contestation. This is a more affective subject than in the previous positions, moved to act by a perception of systemic exclusion and injustice. The subject is also one that identifies and bonds in solidarity with others, and as such the subject here goes beyond the individual to include groups (or publics). (Dahlberg 2011: 860-861)
A-Raamatukogu and PunaMust.
Democracy here [in the Counter-publics digital democracy position] is based on two major assumptions: first, any social formation necessarily involves inclusion/exclusion relations and associated discursive contestation, where discourse is understood as a contingent and partial fixation of meaning that constitutes and organizes social relations (including identities, objects, and practices); and second, that this antagonistic situation is the basis for the formation of vibrant 'counter-publics': critical-reflexive spaces of communicative interaction (a first meaning of 'publics' here) where alternative identities and counter-discourses are developed and subsequently can come to 'publicly' (second meaning) contest dominant discourses that frame hegemonic practices and meaning, including the boundaries of what is considered legitimate public sphere communication. (Dahlberg 2011: 861)
Most important for me currently is the relationship between discourse and public spaces with social relations and formations.
Two forms of direct online activism are of particular interest to counter-publics digital democrats: electronic civil disobedience, including 'electronic-sit-ins' that slow down or block targeted websites; and digital culture jams, including 'viral' dissemination of reworked-decontextualized signs, website' tagging', and parody sites such as those produced by The Yes Men (Cammaerts 2007; Kahn and Kellner 2005, 2007; Palczewski 2001). (Dahlberg 2011: 862)
What are memes? References:
  • Cammaerts, B. 2007. Jamming the political: Beyond counter-hegemonic practices. Continuum: Journal of Media and Culture Studies 21(1): 71-90.
  • Kahn, R. and D. Kellner 2005. Oppositional politics and the internet: A critical/reconstructive approach. Cultural Politics: An International Journal 1(1): 75-100.
  • Kahn, R. and D. Kellner 2007. Globarization, technopolitics and radical democracy. In: Dahlberg, L. and E. Siapera (eds.), The Internet and Radical Democracy: Interrogating Theory and Practice. London: Palgrave, 17-36.
  • Palczewski, C. H. 2001. Cyber-movements, new social movements, and counter-publics. In: Brouwer, D. and R. Asen (eds.), Counterpublics and the State. New York: SUNY Press, 9-27.
The fourth, autonomist Marxist, position sees digital communication networks as enabling a radically democratic politics in the sense of self-organized and inclusive participation in common productive activities that bypass centralized state and capitalist systems, which are understood to be necessarily anti-democratic. Digital networking is thus positioned as the basis for producing an independent, fully democratic 'commons'.
Democracy here is understood as self-organization autonomous from systems of centralized power. Democratic decision making is seen to take place organically (and rhizomatically) through the collaborative, decentralized productivity of peer-to-peer networking. This conception suggests a political revulotion. It goes beyond the extension of reform of liberal democracy that all three previous positions in some sense support, envisioning instead the formation of an entirely new democratic society - a 'commons' - based socio-economic arrangement as the foundation for democratic community. (Dahlberg 2011: 863)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, due to a common Marxist disposition, this is closest to Julia Elyachar's "phatic labor".
As well as limits resulting from the naturalization of taken-for-granted conceptions of politics, the positions point to explicit political and economic constraints on digital democracy. As indicated in the body of this article, they all note certain limits on digital democracy due to state and capitalist surveillance and control over digital media technology, as well as due to structural inequalities that lead to digital participation inequalities. However, the positions also interpret differently, and emphasize diffeent aspects of, these systemic constraints. In turn, they provide significantly different proposals for how to overcome these limits. Proposals range from the protection of the 'communication rights' of individuals (liberal-individualist), to the resourcing and development of formal and informal online deliberative spaces (deliberative), to the encouragement of direct contestation of state and capitalist domination (counter-publics), to the promotion of networking forms that radically bypass state and capitalist systems (autonomist). (Dahlberg 2011: 866-867)
How do these issues relate to phatic communion and phatic technologies?


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