Perhaps it’s Obama’s Presidential campaign and interest in e-government that’s fuelling a number of academic studies and articles on the impact of the Internet on democracy.
I wrote about Evgeny Morozov’s Texting Toward Utopia: Does the Internet spread democracy? yesterday. Morozov’s article ended thus,
The problem with building public spheres from above, online or offline, is much like that of building Frankenstein’s monsters: we may not like the end product. This does not mean we should give up on the Internet as a force for democratization, only that we should ditch the blinding ideology of technological determinism and focus on practical tasks. Figuring out how the Internet could benefit existing democratic forces and organizations—very few of which have exhibited much creativity on the Web—would not be a bad place to start.
In an earlier post on a study of US based non-profits suggested that many NGOs are still struggling in their effort to make use of new and emerging technologies.
This observation, and Morozov thoughts at the end of the article, is the topic of an interesting academic paper I read by Linda Jean Kenix on Internet and Democracy in the US, published on First Monday.
Her final thoughts are worth quoting at length,
Certainly, there may be financial restraints that do not allow a technological decision–maker to implement certain Web technologies. However, the majority of functions that were argued by these content creators to be beneficial, democratic tools for communication are not expensive to implement. E–mail lists, newsgroups, chatrooms and online petitions do not take a preponderance of time or money to set up with the plummeting price of computer software and hardware. It could be argued that such interactive endeavors may require more time on the part of the non–profit, but given the fact that this survey found 76 percent of Internet content creators reported using the Internet constantly or very often at work, it seems entirely feasible that monitoring such interactive technologies could be woven into the workday.
Perhaps another reason for the non–implementation of democratic, interactive technologies is a fear of the technology itself. This may be due to the inherent technological ambiguity (Flanagin, 2000) involved in most new innovations. These fears could be overcome with short, informational courses. These courses are often sponsored by state and local governments and may need to be promoted with more aggressiveness within the non–profit sector.
The problem of apathy is a much more vexing problem to solve given the fact that Internet content creators appeared to have such strong beliefs about the power of the technology. However, as is the case with so many issues, individuals and organizations do not always act in their best interest. It is suggested that the only way to turn the beliefs of non–profit organizations into democratic action is through robust relationships between government and the non–profit sector. These relationships must emphasize all three potential barriers to technological change that have been listed here in the hopes that non–profits will be spurred into action.
Read her full paper, and the fascinating insights arising from her research, here.