Digital democracy revisted

What role does the Internet play now in democracy?
I am looking back at work I did in the late 1990s under the heading Digital Democracy. I contributed to a reader: Digital democracy – discourse and decision making in the Information Age, edited by Barry N. Hague and Brian D.Loader, Routledge, 1999

I contributed a chapter: Participation, inclusion, exclusion and netactivism: how the Internet invents new forms of democratic activity.

In this chapter I discussed how the rise of the Internet was having an impact on democracy and democratic processes. I had been looking at the emergence of community networks and how activists were using them to raise issues and engage in debate about political questions.

I was inspired to go back to this topic by a question raised by Rachael Quinn, the Chief Executive of One East Midlands. In a lengthy questionnaire, she asked for comments about what intermediary processes would be required as part of the “Big Society”. Ill come back to this later.

What I want to consider is the term “digerati”. The digital version of “literati”. Wikipedia defines the literati as being a scholarly elite.[1].

The term digirati is defined as “Opinion leaders who, through their writings, promoted a vision of digital technology and the Internet as a transformational element in society;” [2].

To my mind, the digirati are those people who have access to the Internet and use it effectively to debate, discuss, lead opinion and prompt comment because they are both literate in language and in IT.

In the emerging concept of the Big Society, there will be local neighbourhoods and the state. Local people will be empowered to take control of the services that they need or want. Instead of these services being delivered to them by local authorities, needs and wants will be mediated through bodies that represent people at the micro-level.

The question that Rachael Quinn posed was “how is this actually going to happen and what would be needed to give local people a voice in national government” (I am paraphrasing here). She used the word “intermediate” or “intermediary”, suggesting a process through which neighbourhood activists or service users can participate in the wider policy and planning processes and issues that will affect their capacity to access services, and indeed, call those services down from the national level of government to their local communities.

It was this that reminded of what I had been doing in the late 90s around the impact of the Internet on democracy. Will the Internet of 2010 and 2011 enhance the ability of local people to engage in democracy and in the processes of local government? Does it offer the same potential for participation now as it did then?

Will the opportunity of the Internet make participation work or will there be inequalities between those who can only read the Internet and the Digirati who can exploit it fully because they are both literate in language and IT?

This blog is about social enterprise business.  I want to show how these Big Society issues will impact on enterprise and explore the relationship between the ideas being floated in the Big Society and the emergence of social business.

Netactivism original paper from 1998:


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