The birth of e-democracy


New technologies lead us to direct democracy in which citizens have micropower to make decisions

Citizenship is not a way to be free, but the way to be free

Introduction to the thesis project "The contribution of participatory democracy to the configuration of a new concept of citizenship" by Rubén Malonda at the University of Castellón.


The proposed outline is a systematic historical study of the idea of citizenship that has opened space in the concept of "new public management" and which means reviewing the concept of democracy. To do this, it is considered appropriate to discuss the role the media has previously taken in order to facilitate the relationship between the governors and the governed.

The Media

The evolution of the media has always been associated with various technological revolutions; just as the printing press preceded the steam engine, so radio preceded television, the railway preceded cars and the telegraph preceded the telephone, etc. Thus, oral dissemination preceded parchment manuscripts that could display text and miniatures illuminated with gold leaf. Firstly sounds were broadcast, then sounds and images. To get to the new transmission medium, namely the Internet, it was a medium that began transmitting only text, then images, and then sound, until it reached the point it is at today. Virtual reality seems to be the natural next step in which 3D and touch-screen technology will combine to provide a real experience.

We can distinguish several stages in the evolution of the media. The first stage was before the advent of printing, in which the dissemination of information was almost zero. The information was controlled in places such as monasteries where the codices or manuscripts were written, containing the text in Latin - which was the official language - and where the popular vernacular was not appropriate for use in official texts (books of hours, codices blessed, briefs, Revelation, etc). They were usually accompanied by drawings. It was also common for monarchs take charge of pedagogical manuscripts such as hunting books, and philosophy, etc.

With the advent of printing in the late sixteenth century, the media experienced an explosion. From the time Gutenberg produced the first printed edition of the Bible until the present day, the press has developed new techniques to make more copies more quickly and has given birth to newspapers which have been one of the traditional means of disseminating information and opinion to society as a whole.

The development of printing took place much earlier in the East than in the West, but it was much more controlled by the state there, and wasn;t really a means to democratise society. In the West, newspapers have contributed to the emergence of public opinion since the eighteenth century; until then, the press was a social force controlled by the clergy and nobility. In the last generation this development has been redefined in the emergence of the public sphere.

After printing, the twentieth century has been characterised by a time of great technological changes that have allowed the emergence of new forms of communication such as the gramophone, radio, television and the Internet, and although the new media have not eliminated the above, they have modified their traits and their acceptance on society;s part. Currently, television has succeeded because it is a "comfortable" means of communication in a society that seeks comfort. On a cultural and political level, people feel attracted to what is easiest. The Internet will triumph as long as this convenience is achieved.

The media have been exploiting the ability to manipulate people both in the worlds of advertising and in politics. As television advertising stimulated the exploitation of the subconscious and persuasion became unconscious, we can use the old methods of hot media like radio together with new methods of cold media like TV, together with the Internet. The new form of TV will be integrated with the Internet. WebTV projects have already been created that unify these two media. The Internet is therefore the definitive means to absorb and integrate all forms of media. Our conception of the media - transmitters, receivers and channels - will change. The Internet can be a suitable platform for informed and interactive politics and encouraging political participation, although at first glance we can see that politicians use it like a bulletin board where they publicise and where some users subversively mock them. At a later stage we hope that the Internet will be a communication medium where the expression of independence can be increased as well as political participation, and thus creating critical, active and demanding citizens.

Glenn Reynolds says that the Internet gives the people horizontal knowledge; that is to say micropower and interconnectivity that make the masses not only wise but intelligent. The uses of the Internet and its social structure reflect the values and practices of people’s lives and their organisational and cultural contexts according to the users’ characteristics. Although people have more confidence and trust in other media compared with the Internet, it means that this results in half the freedom in enabling them to build their autonomy in society and with the government.


The public sphere and the concept of the citizen

The media has not led to the standardisation of views. Messages have an influence on the recipients but the same message is not received in an identical way. The public develops an increasingly critical consciousness towards the message and the channel, as the available information is increased. To receive does not mean to adhere.

>Mass society and mass culture have been spoken about since the nineteenth century. So the media had a buzzword that was mass mediaand political leaders saw the media's ability to influence society in this. The mutual action and reaction of the producers or opinion leaders about the mass and of the mass about them was the most curious part of the whole process of opinion formation.

With TV and the Internet we began to gain a sense of the collective mind, not as a concept but as an active process that reacts immediately to events when they occur. Electronic information systems alter our feelings and sensitivity. They perform a kind of social mediation in the continued expansion of our personal powers of imagination, concentration and action. They work much like a second mind, a mind that will soon be endowed with greater autonomy than we can hope for, and the potential to manipulate opinions is greatly increased. A collective mind is constructed for us that is built to have a homogenising effect on public opinion because it highlights and promotes majority responses. The meaning that a message has for an individual will to some extent depend on the structure used to interpret it. Thus, individuals appropriate the message, assimilating and incorporating it into their own lives.

We use our knowledge, experience and feelings to transform the message and modify ourselves through them. This process builds a more thoughtful and undefined self as individuals increasingly return to their resources to use them to build a consistent identity.

and are not defined in advance; they are independent of economic and political power. Because of the multiplicity of messages and sources, hearing itself has become more selective. The audience tends to choose their messages, which deepens their segmentation and improves the individual relationship between sender and receiver (Françoise Sabbah).

As we can conclude from reading Adela Cortina, the fact of knowing and feeling part of a community can motivate individuals to work for it. This concept combines the rational side according to which society should be fair for members who perceive legitimacy with a sense of belonging to a community to ensure sustainable democracy. The citizen is, from this perspective, that who is concerned with political issues and not content to pursue their private affairs. Being fully human requires actively participating in the affairs of the polis, the thing which can only make those who are free and equal, that all citizens have the right to speak in the assembly of government, and all are equal before the law, taking an active part in the assemblies and exercising public posts when the city requires it. Those who act show they are free because citizenship is not a way to be free, but the way to be free.

The citizen is the member of a community that shares the law, and that can be identified, or not, with a territorial community. It is the citizen who enjoys a political community, not only civil rights - individual freedoms - on which liberal traditions insist, and not only political rights - political participation - on which Republicans insist, but also social rights such as work, education, housing, health and social services.

In the words of Habermas, "it isn’t the sovereign who should represent the will of the people, but the people who communicatively exercise their sovereignty under procedures acceptable to him, which legitimises administrative power through communication. Political power should listen to a citizenry which expresses itself through institutionalised channels, but also through non-institutionalised public opinion. Public opinion is not composed by learned scholars, but by citizens who are affected by the effects of systems and who are willing to cooperate in the task of discursively forming a common will". This level is expressed today through the principle of discourse ethics, according to which every person is a valid participant and must be taken into account when deciding on rules that affect them

Participative democracy

The media has evolved along with technological changes in society. The public sphere has also been transformed over time to the present day. Thanks to new technologies we can conceive of what today, we call participative democracy.

The media has served to provide a freer and more critical society, which is more thoughtful and rational about the government and the world at large. Thus discrepancies between information in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century encouraged scepticism and led to the origin of people stopping being individuals and becoming mere spectators of what the government wanted to present through the media. Even when people read a newspaper they just could not avoid the impression of the regularity with which later reports contradicted previous ones.

The Internet has served to liberalise the control that governments have tried to impose upon traditional radio and TV. So in 2000 a poll was published suggesting that only 69 out of 186 countries have free press. Castells describes electronic media and says that they allow more knowledge, easier access and freer expression than ever. Representative democracy is based on the premise of an opposition that can choose the government in free elections and in which all political alternatives have the same opportunities. Although the model of participatory democracy has considerable moral appeal, it can hardly be a convincing response to the dilemmas of political democracy in modern times because the model assumes certain social, symbolic and technological conditions that are difficult to find in the circumstances in which most decision making processes occur.

Deliberative democracy’s challenge is to find new ways to expand and institutionalise new decision-making mechanisms and for the results of deliberation to result in decision making processes. Popular participation will be affected by new technologies, and people can exercise their vote in each of society's decisions. They would not have to delegate to their political representatives, although they would lose their role, their power, their essence and their reason to exist. The new technological society will absorb the old medieval society and the work of politicians, and their Athenian style political campaigns will be transformed into new ways to reach people.

The tendency of governments is towards a deliberative democracy through new technologies on which principles can be based but not be debated. Jürgen Habermas says that "the legitimacy of the law depends ultimately on a communicative agreement". Alvin Toffler thinks that new technologies ultimately lead us to direct democracy in which citizens have the micropower to decide. Instead of a society divided between a blind, passive mass on one side and an intelligent active elite on the other, new technologies enable the emergence of an intelligent, active and revolutionary mass with a very high degree of social interaction. As Benjamin Barber confirms, "a strong democracy is an iconic, modern and participatory democracy." The ideal requirement for a strong democracy is creative consensus - that is to say, an agreement that results from debate, from decisions and from common work, but which is conditioned by the active and ongoing participation of citizens in the transformation of conflict through the creation of awareness and common political judgement. Strong democracy can keep both the action and the alternative alive, by being an independent and self-regulated ground for discussion and joint action. In that sense, the strong democrat must do everything in his or her power to incorporate discussion and joint action mechanisms governing certain regrets into the system. The thought and action of strong democracy actually require special caution. When men walk together, the risk for those who may stumble and fall under the feet of the rest is always the most horrible.

by Rubén Malonda

Bachelor in Mathematical Sciences (1990/1995) and Sciences and Technical Statistics (2002/2005) from the University of Valencia. He is the Chief Education Inspector for the Valencia regional government. He has won prizes for his works about “el mundo árabe” (The Arab World), “el mundo egipcio” (The Egyptian World) and “el món de l’òpera” (The World of Opera).

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