Let's call it Black's law of technological change. For each expansion in technology's presence in our lives, there is a corresponding fragmentation of consensus about the consequences of ordering pizza via TV or calling home from Everest. Every advance brings its own lobbies, vested interests, and critical responses, and enfranchises a new technological elite, even as the public's ignorance of the machines on which it relies deepens.
Technological convergence, in other words, brings an equal and opposite divergence in public opinion. Caught between Luddism and technological hype, we desperately need to match each new marvel with social models that will make the gadgets respond to human scale. The importance of an appropriate cultural response to machines grows with every innovation.
Two recent books on technology, each the product of extensive collaboration among many contributors, offer a state-of-the-debate overview which rises to this important occasion by considering technology's relationship to politics-that dimension of our lives where we are, for better or worse, at our most human.
Steven A. Rosell's Renewing Governance: Governing by Learning in the Information Age features senior public and private sector executives who participated in a "Changing Maps Roundtable". The roundtable was organized by Rosell's Meridian International Institute, a Canadian think tank specializing in technology, governance, and leadership. The product of seven years of discussion, Renewing Governance models a world to be made in the image of these elite participants: liberal, pluralist, and postmodern.
For their part, Cynthia J. Alexander and Leslie A. Pal have selected academic papers from a 1996 Atlantic Provinces Political Science Association conference on politics and cyberspace to provide a more balanced and critical examination of new media in their book, Digital Democracy: Policy and Politics in the Wired World.
Both books agree in their definition of the problem: the new technologies threaten politics-as-usual. The public sector's traditional monopoly over information is weakened as wired transnational corporations and interest groups develop their own networks. Party and parliament are compromised by a direct democracy movement that sees electronic populism as an alternative to the legislative process. And consensus is much harder to achieve where a new diversity of opinion, identity, and power challenges the government's claims to represent us.
Renewing Governance is programmatic in nature: it offers a manual for effective government at light speed. The analysis is typical of the information society literature, a species of social criticism that dates back to American sociologist Daniel Bell's book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, in the early 1970s, and is traced more recently through popularizers like Alvin Toffler, John Naisbitt, Nicholas Negroponte, and Canada's own Frank Ogden.
According to the information society thesis adopted by Rosell, the new technologies pluralize culture, fragment society, dissolve hierarchies, transcend national boundaries, and urge us into a high-skill, service-oriented economy. So transformative are these technologies that they warrant a new social order; hence the moniker. "The `information society'...," the organizational behaviour specialist writes, "is characterized by a vast increase in the availability of information,... compression of both time and space, and growing turbulence and unpredictability."
A wiser form of governance recognizes that such complexity requires new "mental maps" for reality. The state redefines itself as a broker by which various social interests are reconciled, and maps adequate to this terra incognita drawn. Renewing Governance, at times, comes close to believing in a gentler kind of technological determinism, an ideological residue of the information society thesis which allows that technology is the engine of change, while it marginalizes human factors. Nevertheless, the book's solutions are interesting, even where its analysis is derivative.
Borrowing from political philosophy and management literature, the book calls for the renewal of, what it terms, "social capital", or the informal but durable bonds of trust, reciprocity, and civic duty on which civil society rests. It also appeals to communitarianism, a position identified with roundtable participant Charles Taylor, and which is here used as a platform for the renewal of the public sphere and a state which must regulate less and navigate by values more. This conceptual package is then given a vehicle in "the learning society"-one where power is decentralized, knowledge primary, and a high degree of tolerance for difference and new ideas is sustained.
Digital Democracy is more guarded as to the revolutionary nature of new technologies, preferring to hedge its bets and argue that, while new faces and forces enter the scene, the structure remains the same. Where Renewing Governance holds that information systems add intelligence and memory to traditional institutions, Digital Democracy doesn't confuse technological with social development. The editors, Alexander and Pal, write that "technological developments do not automatically enhance our communicative competence, not just in terms of communicating our own views and assumptions, but equally important, in terms of our willingness to hear alternative perspectives and perhaps to acknowledge their legitimacy."
Digital Democracy also argues that new technologies don't merely leverage old structures, but come with political consequences all their own. Heedless government deregulation and corporate concentration in the cultural industries, argues contributor Michael Ogden, take wattage out of the bright future promised by information society rhetoric. Ogden's preference is to build democratic principles into the technology itself and, therefore, provide "new levels of interactivity and connectivity rather than applications that are simple extrapolations of the passive models of the past."
University of Toronto's Ronald Deibert, author of Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia, injects a measure of electronic realpolitik into the discussion. Global capital flows, made possible by new technology, force states to compete with each other for investment capital, and leave them far more reactive than the bureaucracies imagined in Renewing Governance. But technology's future is not necessarily so pessimistic. Just as it enables governments and corporations to "panoptically" survey our behaviour, so, too, can we better watch and elude power. "Instead of `Big Brother is watching you'," Deibert writes, "Big Brother is you, watching."
Both books get beyond dystopian dramatics about how technology destroys jobs and marriages, and engage the topic with an intelligence still greater than the most high-powered computer chip. The major difference between these two approaches to politics at the millennium, however, is that they together represent a portentous fork in, what Bill Gates prosaically called, "the road ahead".
Renewing Governance is an elite, although compassionate and smart, perspective on governance which assumes that the general public is as rich in economic and cultural capital as the elite. It imagines a world where people aspire to the condition of data, and are mobile, liquid, and able to reinvent themselves endlessly as conditions require. Michael Ogden writes perhaps the best description of this elite and its ironies: "So far, the information revolution has been largely waged by highly educated and informed advocates, people who often have tremendous resources at their disposal. These advocates have spoken quite well on behalf of their own needs; some have even attempted to speak to the needs of the `information-poor'. But the `information-rich', however well-meaning, have largely determined and prioritized the issues of the information revolution and the emerging cyberdemocracy according to their own visions and realities."
Not everyone can achieve the velocity urged by Rosell to "learn together across boundaries-to recognize, construct, and change the shared frameworks within which we learn." One of the hardest lessons of the "learning society" might well be that there are very good reasons for resisting such enlightenment if that means irresponsible rates of change or technological dependency. Having lived through the Industrial Revolution, the atomic bomb, and now biotechnology scares, it is clearly time that we realize ours is a "software" problem, in the profoundest sense of the term.
In its criticism of the information-society model and more dialectical approach to technology, Digital Democracy better meets the standard appropriate to converting abundant information into that far more precious commodity, wisdom. Both books are evidence that our intellectual antennae are now tuning in to frequencies of much greater bandwidth in order to make cultural sense of a technological world.
J. David Black is Assistant Professor in the Communication Studies Program at Wilfrid Laurier University, where he specializes in media and cultural theory. He recently defended his PhD dissertation, Wiring Birmingham: Cultural Studies, Romanticism, and the New Media, in Social and Political Thought at York University.