Research and Advances
Computing Applications

Computer Professionals and the Next Culture of Democracy

The computing community is responsible for building the tools that have worked to change the face of democracy. But can we do more as responsible citizens?
  1. Introduction
  2. Computer Professionals in the Community
  3. Democratic Technology
  4. Conclusion
  5. References
  6. Author
  7. Footnotes
  8. Figures
  9. Sidebar: SCN Principles

There are many disturbing signs that democracy, the process of government “by the people,” is in serious trouble in many—if not all—of the nominally democratic developed countries. Voting and other forms of conventional political participation have been declining regularly for past 30 years [2]. The media, particularly in the U.S., has increasingly characterized the political process as “ritualized.” While citizen participation in the process declines, the amount of money spent on television ads and other campaign expenditures continues to break records. According to the Associated Press, two billion dollars had been spent as of September 2000 on the U.S. Presidential election that was still two months away, a sum higher than the amount spent in total on the previous presidential and congressional campaign in 1996 [11]. And as the domination by large economic interests increases, the idea of rough equality that democracy represents becomes increasingly degraded.

For many people, the Internet represents the dashing hero who will rescue democracy from its lingering malaise. Many people contend the Internet is inherently democratic and its continued penetration worldwide virtually guarantees the triumph of freedom over tyranny. This belief partially stems from its presumed imminent ubiquity and the more-or-less unconstrained way that people (those that have access to the technology) can dispatch whatever thoughts come into their minds into the Internet’s various types of communication fora. Focusing on the lack of censorship alone misses much of the texture and richness of systems that are truly democratic: universal access, support for deliberation, equal participation at the decision stage, and other attributes [3]. Worse, in my opinion, is the belief that an electronic-based participatory democracy—utopian in its reach—is destiny. This wishful thinking is based on the mistaken assumption that technological systems are autonomous; that they act only according to their own inherent nature, magically immune to and unanswerable to the powerful economic, political, and social systems that exist today; the very systems responsible, in large part, for their existence in the first place [1]. This error has been commonplace throughout history and has been reapplied, indiscriminately, at least in the U.S., to each new form of communication.

All this is not to dismiss the democratic potential of the Internet. On the contrary, any communication medium that could theoretically, inexpensively, and symmetrically connect everybody on the planet demands we pay careful attention to democratic opportunities (as well as threats). The error of the utopians is they are not mindful of history and the powerful non-technological forces that shape it. It may not be easy to transform an open system like the Internet into a closed, privately controlled system like commercial broadcast television, but it’s probably not impossible. Robert McChesney’s analysis of the corporate of the radio airwaves in the U.S. [7] provides an excellent case study for thinking about current possibilities for the Internet. One way to think about the future of the Internet is to think about the dominant (and not as dominant) actors who are attempting to influence its development. Certainly there is a large number of powerful and resource-rich institutions banking on the possibility the Internet will repay their investments handsomely. In time we may learn the investments that provide the largest returns to the investors might not be the same investments for cultivating a civic culture.

Democracy can be defined and evaluated in terms of formal requirements: that is, universal suffrage, fair and regular elections, voting, and so on. These formal requirements in the developed countries are still met legally. The threat to democracy in these countries is generally not one of state suppression. It’s generally not seen as necessary to fight for formal rights that an increasing number of people aren’t exercising anyway. The declining interest on the part of the citizen to engage in these political processes might be the “canary in the mine” whose failing health signals far more serious trouble for the body politic.

Computer professionals can seize this historic opportunity and engage in interdisciplinary and collaborative work with other researchers as well as practitioners in education, development, social services, social activism, and the government to help build (and, in some cases, rebuild) a civic culture.

The formal criteria of a democracy—and the statistics that measure them—do not convey its great potential. The idea of democracy is often held up as one of humankind’s most enlightened achievements. In this regard democracy is considered as more of a philosophy or way of life than an obligation fulfilled simply through a sporadic discharge of one’s duties through voting. Behind the formal requirements of democracy is a general idea of a civic culture that may in fact be the wellspring of democracy, whose drying up or corruption might be at the heart of the decline in democratic participation, support, and faith.

Ideally, democracy can be thought of as a fabric for collective problem-solving or civic intelligence. Since humankind is beset with a wide range of problems related to education, health, the environment, war, and social justice—some of which the computer has helped spawn [6]—it is probably time to think seriously about democracy worldwide as a collective tool that may be losing its effectiveness. It’s probably time to think seriously about how best to shape our nascent digital media networks to support this renewal.

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Computer Professionals in the Community

Who is responsible for the maintenance of a democracy? Making the question explicit is tantamount to answering it: The only possible answer is that every citizen is in some way responsible for ensuring that democracy is viable; that it is vital, collective, and inclusive. Saying that democracy is everybody’s business is not to say there is no role for specialized knowledge of, for example, a computer professional. Practically (and theoretically) speaking, there is no way specialized knowledge could be kept out of the deliberation and decision-making process—nor would we want it excluded even if we had the power to do so. If expert knowledge is applicable to a public issue—and it often is—then it must be included. From a democratic point of view, expert knowledge is not a problem; but the way it is brought in can be. An “organic intellectual” is essentially a hired gun whose services are purchased (and, generally, controlled to a large degree) by an institution of the state or of the private sector. Less frequently, the holder of specialized knowledge does act on behalf of the public interest, or for those people without visibility, voice, or economic clout.

Computer professionals, by the commonly accepted definition, are specialists; it is their duty to understand, maintain, and advance the vast digital machineries of our age. What role should computer professionals play in the consideration of our broadest affairs when their focus is so specific and arguably narrow? Certainly, they are likely to be cast in the role of the organic intellectual. Does this mean they are incapable of genuine participation and, therefore, should be prevented from actively developing new and energizing old civic institutions? Far from it. My contention is their understanding of these critical technologies compels them to accept greater responsibility and their engagement with the world should be raised—as concerned citizens—to greater levels of visibility and appreciation and practice.

How might this transformation be promoted? We must take a hard look at the activities of computer professionals. Is their discipline narrowly construed as a purely technical, instrumental discipline or is it a practice that, although intimately connected with digital technology, is an embedded practice that necessarily relates and interacts with the rest of society. Professional organizations such as the ACM or Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) can certainly help promote the transformation of a disembedded practice into an embedded one as can funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and nongovernmental foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and others. Computer professionals can also reprioritize their lives to some degree. They can work on collaborative community teams, on policy or social work, or on developing new democratic technology.

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Democratic Technology

How can computers help in a transformation of our democracy? Certainly new algorithms, new architectures, faster processors, and more recently, more financial transactions on the Web are not expected on their own to help address deficiencies of democracy. With few exceptions, the institutions furthering these advances are not explicitly concerned with democracy.

The rapid computerization of the world and the immense (and, generally, uncritical) attention it’s receiving represents an unprecedented opportunity for computer professionals. They can seize this historic opportunity and engage in interdisciplinary and collaborative work with other researchers as well as practitioners in education, development, social services, social activism, and the government to help build (and, in some cases, rebuild) a civic culture.

Working with other people as a team over a sustained period of time is the best way to design and implement systems that meet the needs of a democratic society. Are all people—including those at the economic and other margins of society—getting the information they need? Do the existing communication channels work for them? How could they be improved? Do the systems promote economic development, neighborhood awareness, or community computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW)? CSCW tools, perhaps customized in some way, may prove to be very useful for marginalized communities [10]. But they have rarely, if ever, been field-tested under those circumstances. The assumption, usually implicit, is these tools would ultimately find their way to users with fewer resources. But CSCW professionals know the context is of critical importance to the success or failure of a CSCW application [5] and contexts vary considerably. There is little reason to assume that low-income or other marginalized communities will play any role in a participatory design process of a CSCW application for their community without a concerted outreach effort.

Community networks [9] offer a sound technological and philosophical platform for this work. Developed and maintained by civic and community activists in Seattle and other places around the world, community networks represent a new type of public institution similar in spirit to the traditional public library, but built upon more recent modes of communication. These modes are generally digital and extend the idea of access to include producing as well as consuming. Moreover, like the public library, they are noncommercial. Well before Hotmail offered free email and Geocities offered free Web page hosting, community networks were providing these services—without flashing banner ads or data mining private information—to anybody who requested them.

The Seattle Community Network (SCN; may be thought of as typical to the extent that any specific community network might be thought of as typical. The SCN computers (mostly Sun SPARCs) piggyback on the Internet connections provided without charge by the Seattle Public Library. The system itself is administered by a nonprofit organization, the Seattle Community Network Association (SCNA), and its progressive philosophy is exemplified by the set of principles adopted in 1993 and presented in the sidebar here. SCN currently has 18,000 users, 200 Web sites, and over 300 mailing lists.

The SCN Web site is divided into 18 main categories (as seen in Figure 1, the right column under “Community”). The “Activism” category comes first, reflecting SCN’s philosophy as well as a fortuitous side effect of an alphabetical listing. Other categories include civic, health, neighborhoods, and spirituality. Each category has its own page, which is maintained by a topic editor. The editor is free to organize the category and the page as seen fit, keeping in mind any Web page owner on SCN has a right to have a link on a category page (and everybody has a right to have pages on SCN).

How could computer professionals assume a role working with SCN or with other community networking projects? For one thing, community networks provide an ongoing and ready-made test-bed for real-world applications. I suggest computer science (or information and library science or public policy or other academic departments) become long-term partners in these projects. In this way, students would have the opportunity to experience firsthand technology development projects designed for actual users. Students (and faculty) would play a role in the shaping of public applications and would come to appreciate the importance as well as the challenges of supporting a democratic culture with technology. For their part, the community network practitioners would ideally become exposed to innovative ideas, skilled partners, and invigorating enthusiasm.

Technologists and researchers can also forge partnerships with local government and the citizenry. The city of Seattle’s groundbreaking “Information Technology Indicators of a Health Technology City” project is a good example. This project has worked with Seattle-region citizens to develop a set of indicators that, when measured over time, will reveal important trends about the uses and effects of communication technology in the region. There are several types of indicators including access; literacy; business and economic development; community building; civic participation; human relationships to information technology; partnerships; and resource mobilization. They are intended to explore negative as well as positive consequences about technology. Indeed, one of the guidelines in the developmental phase was to think about these indicators from a citizen point-of-view that overlaps but is not completely coincidental with points-of-view of government or business. Clearly, a project such as this helps to build a civic culture by helping to surface the issues and concerns that people have in relation to computer and communication use in an era of rapid change. Projects like this can serve as both motivators and evaluative yardsticks for computer professionals who are interested in long-term development of democratic technology.

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If computer professionals are exclusively organic intellectuals destined for academia or industry to practice a solely technical discipline, their ability to be a proactive and progressive force in society will be insignificant. There are now countless examples of computer professionals helping to create new institutions, bridge the digital divide, educate the public, and build new technologies specifically for marginalized communities. The evidence for this involvement is overwhelming and largely unprecedented. Witness the outpouring of papers for the “Shaping the Network Society Symposium,” May 2000 [4] and the resulting Seattle Statement [12] calling for a “new public sphere.”

Computer professionals as founts of knowledge, skill, and innovation, could be key agents in the redirection of communication technology toward democratic ends. Democracy, however, is not manifested solely though computer or other technology. Computer professionals can realize their historical possibilities only through involvement at several levels. Working with community activists, researchers, independent media producers, policymakers, and librarians are all good places to start. Other intriguing possibilities include working with activists in the Free Software Movement to develop CSCW technology that could be used by people in low-income communities who cannot afford the advanced technology employed in today’s businesses. The operative expression in all of these cases is “working with.” The design process itself should be democratic and participatory [8].

At the same time computer professionals must be aware of the threats to democracy that exist. For one thing, there is a curious lack of critical analysis of the immense economic forces nearly everywhere at work. These forces tend to crowd out efforts that don’t fit within the dominant ideological framework. In other words, working to develop communications technology that fosters deep democracy is not likely to be easy, popular, or lucrative.

It’s difficult (for me at least) to foresee the consequences of a continued decline in democracy. At the very least we would expect that its use as a tool for collective problem-solving would diminish if interest and engagement wanes. As the world—and its problems—continue to become globalized, ignoring the rich potential of democracy may be our biggest mistake.

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F1 Figure 1. Seattle Community Network.

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    1. Basalla, G. The Evolution of Technology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1988.

    2. Castells, M. The Power of Identity. Blackwell Publ., Malden, MA, 1997.

    3. Dahl, R. Democracy and its Critics. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, (1988)

    4. Day, P., Holbrooks, Z., Namioka, A. and Schuler, D. Shaping the network society. In Proceedings of DIAC-00, Palo Alto. (CPSR, 2000);

    5. Grudin, J. Why CSCW applications fail: Problems in the design and evaluation of organizational interfaces. In Proceedings of CSCW '88. ACM, New York, NY, 1988.

    6. Joy, B. Why the future doesn't need us. Wired (April 2000).

    7. McChesney, R. Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1995.

    8. Schuler, D. and Namioka, A., Eds. Participatory Design: Principles and Practices. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1993.

    9. Schuler, D. New Community Networks Wired for Change. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1996;

    10. Schuler, D. Computer Support for Community Work: Designing and Building Systems for the Real World. Tutorial. CSCW '98 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Community Work. ACM. Seattle, WA;

    11. Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Political Almanac. (Oct. 2, 2000).

    12. Seattle Statement.

    This work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation, 0002547.

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