Technology and Public Participation – What’s New?

Via ConstitutionNet’s website.


Sanjana Hattotuwa of the ICT4Peace Foundation speaks about the key characteristics and functionalities of the internet, social media and mobile technologies which have changed our world, and which offer promise for democratizing constitution building processes.

What’s changing?

Information flow is new.  The diffusion of information and events is far faster than before.  Information flow across countries, languages, identity groups is faster and more diffuse than ever before such that we are able to watch, from thousands of miles away, a plethora of events unfolding in real-time in our handheld devices.  However, information flows are still asymmetric with many biases we should be aware of.  For example, the world was instantly aware of terror attacks which took place in Paris on 13 November 2015, but far fewer were aware of near contemporaneous attacks in Turkey and Lebanon.

The power of new technology companies is new.  Growth of customer bases for instant messaging technologies such as WhatsApp is almost a vertical line, and is unprecedented for any commercial company in history.  In Myanmar, polls reveal that many citizens use Facebook as their entire online communications experience – for email, receiving news, advertising etc.   This puts unprecedented power into the hands of individuals and their companies.

Our ability to understand societies is new.  Social media data provide instant insights into national discussions, which allows us to seek answers to questions which we didn’t know existed.

Mechanisms and Forms of Political Engagement are new.  Platforms such as Instagram provide discursive terrains for deep political engagement which are capable of appealing to the imaginations of millions of people.  If you are not connected to these platforms, you are not engaging with national exchanges of ideas and opinions occurring, on a continuous basis, around the future of their society.

The ubiquity of two-way communications is new.  Citizens are no longer passive recipients of the wisdom of elected representatives or a small cabal of media moguls, but now – whoever you are – you have the power to make your voice heard and influence others.

The reach of technology is new. In our lifetimes, everyone in our world will be addressable.  A dream for marketing companies, but also of key importance for participatory constitution building processes. It is possible to engage with perspectives at the granular level of the individual or with the overarching sentiments of society at large.

Key concerns

  • We have a glut of information but not a great deal more intelligence.  There are increasing difficulties in separating the signal from the noise
  • Filter bubbles: social media reinforces existing information networks, and risks contributing to polarization through the formation of echo chambers

The key new promise of technology for constitution building

If these new technologies are to truly bring us something “new” in regards to connecting citizens to decisions which affect their lives, we must go beyond merely informing the public and move into real empowerment through engagement with citizens’ own voices, interests, ideas and opinions as individuals and communities.

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