Digital Processes and Democratic Theory

Dynamics, risks and opportunities that arise when democratic institutions meet digital information and communication technologies

also published with Google Books (click here)



  Introduction  11
  Three basic axes for the theoretical analysis of democracy 23



  Polis democracy in the information society 35

  Cyber democracy in the information society  46

  Plebiscitarian leadership democracy in the information society 52

  Big Brother democracy in the information society 58

  Economic democracy in the information society 64

  Pushbutton democracy in the information society 73

  Roman republic in the information society    81

  Deliberationware democracy in the information society  88


The functionality and the modus operandi of democracy was repeatedly reinvented and further developed by numerous societies during the 2,500 years of its history. The given historic setting and the evolution of available technological opportunities contribute significantly to the fact that the concept of equally entitled political co-determination over society's destiny continues to be engaged in a painstaking search process until today. As democratic processes consist essentially of information flows and communication practices, it is first and foremost the current state of technological development in the area of information and communication technologies (ICTs) that influences the implementation of democracy in the frame of a chosen institutional setting.
Since the end of the 20th century, the Internet and other modern ICTs have forever changed the way in which people communicate, exchange information and form the common will of society. In less than 15 years, every fifth human being on this earth has linked up virtually with his fellow citizens in the Internet and almost every second person can be reached through the mobile telephony network (data for 2006). We already know that digital information follows its own laws that differ decisively from analogue or offline communication options. Examples of this include the possibility to communicate in real time over large distances, the option to multiply digital information at marginal cost nearing zero and the use of multidirectional networks that converge a variety of communications channels. Notwithstanding the extremely fast worldwide digitization of information, its consequences for democratic processes and the ensuing risks and opportunities are largely unknown. Due to the rapid evolution of technological solutions, it is difficult to assess the future. Moreover, actual developments are still quite recent, and reliable empirical data are rare. Digital networks, however, will not disappear, and the massive and rapid spread of technology lends a certain degree of urgency to the matter. This study intends to make a contribution towards an improved understanding of the current and future developments in the digitization of democratic processes.

In this context it is assumed that digitization of democratic processes depends to a large extent upon the institutional framework conditions of the chosen democratic model. In order to be able to separate the impact of digitization from the influence of the different institutional conditions, a frame of reference is presented that aims at reducing the complexity of the institutions to dimensions that lend themselves to analysis of several opposing scenarios. General patterns of digital interactions and first experiences collected regarding the impact of ICTs upon democratic processes are examined from the viewpoint of democratic institutional settings that have been stylized through the frame of reference. In this sense, there is no intention whatsoever to focus on the discussion whether democracy or digitization is good or bad for people, but rather whether the digitization of information and communication is good or bad for the implementation of the chosen democratic model. ICTs might be functional to implement a certain kind of democracy, while it might lead to undemocratic results in another institutional setting. To achieve the analysis of different democratic models, democracy is defined very broadly: democracy is the opposite of coercion of power. Less coercion of one person over another leads to more equal standing among citizens, and therefore equal participation in the formation of the common will is seen as positive and more power relations among people as negative.

A variety of democracy models have been developed and implemented during the course of the past millennia. The polis democracy of Athens, Max Weber's leader-democracy or Schumpeter's economic model of democracy, are but a few examples. The frame of reference that was chosen for this paper in order to distinguish between the various models is based upon three main axes formed by the three fundamental questions about the functionality of democratic processes: “Who?” “How?” and “What?”. Democratic models are identified according to the criteria: who participates in ascertaining the truth and determining the common rules (all citizens directly or only a select group of representatives); how flexible are democratic powers (is the system based on the rule of human beings or on the rule of democratically produced laws); on what kind of citizenry is the underlying social contract founded (republican or liberalistic). For the sake of simplicity, the model depicts each of these three axes as bipolar with two extreme points, whereby the grey zones between these two end points are neglected in favor of analytical clarity. On the basis of these axes eight democracy models are established corresponding to the eight corners of a three-dimensional space. These models represent different combinations of institutional framework conditions of democracy. It is examined how the digitization of democratic processes impacts upon each of the eight models, which leads to different scenarios. The scenarios are exploratory not predictive and describe a possibility space that forces to reflect on the longer-term consequences of employing different institutional settings to lead to a truely democratic information society.

As ICTs are only the means to an end and not normative by their nature, an examination of the models shows quickly that ICTs per se are neither democratic, nor undemocratic. They are neutral tools that may be deployed to achieve certain goals. However, certain institutional framework conditions may either support or hamper the use of ICTs for the benefit of democratic processes.
The analysis of each of the eight democracy models has been divided into three research sections. First, some of the relevant theoretical foundations are examined. The inclusion of traditional literature on the theory of democracy is essential to place the model within the historic context, in order not to reinvent the wheel of democratic theory once over and over again. Given that democratic processes have always been founded on information flows and communication mechanisms, there is no fundamental change of the theory of democracy in the so-called information society. However, digitization sheds a different light on the functionality and the possibilities of the democratic processes. These changes are examined in the subsequent research section on the development of the democracy model in the information society. Certain digital applications and other peculiarities of digital interactions regarding the chosen institutional framework are examined. In the third section of each chapter the consequences of the development of the respective democracy model in the information society are critically examined.

The eight chapters of the paper's analytical part comprise the following democracy models: polis democracy, cyber democracy, plebiscitarian leadership democracy, Big Brother democracy, economic democracy, push-button democracy, the Roman republic and deliberationware democracy. The names of the various models should be viewed as symbolic rather than descriptive and only serve to distinguish them. The following table gives a broad summary of the explored issues in each Chapter.

         Broad summary of eight development scenarios, with involved opportinuties and risks

 Name of scenario  Characteristics  Opportunities  Risks
Polis democracy All power with the people through direct decision making and weak institutions Direct participation and deliberation, more involvement and satisfaction, overcoming geographical barriers, identification of like-minded Tribalization of digital public sphere and missing integration, social instability
Cyber democracy Focus on liberalistic and individualistic decision making Optimization of the subsidiarity principle for separation between public and private conduct Tyranny of the majority and constant discrimination of minority
Plebiscitarian leadership democracy Legitimization of political leaders through the led Constant contact and checks between people and their political representatives Shift from free mandate to imperative mandate and populism
Big Brother democracy State uses ICT as surveillance instrument Facilitation of e-government services and fight of terrorism and crime Manipulation of individual and public will and informational dictatorship
Economic democracy Marketplace with supply of politics against payment by people through power legitimization of representatives Diminishing information asymmetry between people and representatives, leading to more involvement and satisfaction Theatralization of politics and fragmentation of public
Push-button democracy Optimization of direct voting and referendums Constant involvement of the people through comfortable vote-from-home ICT Unequal access to digital public sphere, threat for secret ballot, crude and emotional decision making
Roman republic Publicity principle and focus on inner reflections and public spirit Optimization of freedom of information legislation and participative policy making Tendency to elitist approaches, missing link between virtual opinion and real power
Deliberationware democracy Digital intermediation of public deliberation and decision-making Transparent identification of consensus and disagreement, value neutral intermediation of arguments, fine-tuning of collective opinion structure Architecture and design of the deliberationware is decisive, investments are necessary to develop democratically valuable ICT

Source: Hilbert, Martin (2007), “Digital Processes and Democratic Theory: Dynamics, risk and opportunities when democratic institutions meet digital information and communication technologies”, peer-reviewd online publication;




The theoretical foundations of the polis democracy go back to the democracy model of ancient Athens in 500 B.C. All citizens participate in the democratic process of finding the truth and of determining the rules that govern their daily life. The social contract among them is republican in nature, there is no separation of power, and the rule of law is continuously subject to the will of all citizens. The information society mirrors this democracy model in the communitarian model of virtual deliberation groups. They are geographically unbounded interest groups that gather in virtual forums in order to conduct discussions of various topics. Since likeminded participants are only one mouse click away, homogenous discussion groups find each other quickly, while those who have different opinions leave the group and search the web for people like themselves. As the analysis of such development shows, the tendency towards group polarization among likeminded people plays a decisive role in this democratic model. This leads to the danger of a renewed tribalization of the public space, as parallel partial publics are formed inside one society, hardly having any contact with one another. This development opens up questions about the role of the classic political integration parties and the adequate institutional settings for virtual deliberations.
Cyber democracy differs from polis democracy in its liberalist focus. The liberalistic priority of private interests over social ones does not require the endeavor of the individual and his or her interest group to seek Rousseau's volonté générale. The focus on efficiency and the reduction of bureaucratic centralism, together with the flexible and dynamic organization of social life are regarded by many as the quintessence of the Internet age. It must be ensured, however, that the peaceful coexistence of various interest groups does not lead to the tyranny of the majority of groupings over weaker ones. This underscores the importance of institutional framework conditions in the information society, such as protection of minorities in the digital expression of opinions and transparency in public decision taking.

The model of plebiscitarian leadership democracy focuses attention on the legitimacy structure between the political leader and the led. Hence it is a kind of representative democracy whereas the representative is dependent on his or her electors and must heed their will, if he or she wishes to remain in power by democratic means. Thanks to opinion polls and other surveys, politicians and political parties of the information society are much better and more frequently informed about what voters are thinking than they used to be. Just as corporate managers incessantly track their company's share prices on the stock exchange, politicians are confronted by polls seconds before speeches and parliament votes and will be able to assess initial reactions immediately afterwards. The constant feedback-loop is becoming an indispensable guide for the people's representatives. In practice, however, the free mandate of the representatives will turn into an imperative mandate. Those who are better at saying what the people want to hear will be at an advantage over those who do not follow the imperative mandate of the digital feedback and instead listen only to their reason rather than orders and instructions. As most current democratic models are based on the free mandate of the people’s representatives, a plebiscitarian leadership model creates an institutional challenge for the entire democratic system in the information society. By definition populism and not representation of the people will dominate democratic processes in this scenario.

Big Brother democracy goes back to Orwell's famous vision of an information-based surveillance state. The issue of digital monitoring and omnipresent controls suddenly took on new topicality in particular in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Motivated by the e-government approach and questions of public safety, the intentions behind the effort to digitize as much information about individual citizens as possible are quite laudable. Nevertheless, separation of powers and a tight law structure must protect people's privacy lest the available information be used to manipulate democratic processes and centrally steer the shaping of public opinion.

In the marketplace envisaged by the economic democracy model, good polices are offered by politicians and paid for by the electorate on the demand side through approving representatives as their democratic leaders. Similar to evolution of the digital economy, asymmetrical information between supply and demand is reduced in this model. This leads to the revealing of preference structures on the demand side and a more customer-oriented focus on the supply side. Using one-to-one Customer-Relationship-Management tools (CRM), it becomes very easy for political representatives to identify special interest groups, facilitating the creation of separate sub-groupings. This could result in a fragmentation of the public by political representatives who specialize in defending special interest groups. The additional commercialization of political information leads to politics becoming increasingly theatrical (infotainment). The result is a combination of the threats provoked by the dominance of the economic powerful and the trend toward an imperative mandate, which might produce a self-sustainable power circle between the policy supplying politicians and the legitimizing people.

The sixth democracy model to be analyzed is pushbutton democracy, a variation of direct democracy in which all public power is exercised by refenderums among the electorate. The election of representatives and exhaustive deliberations are foreign to this model. Home-based e-voting technology enables citizens to vote on all aspects of social life, be it the building of a new hospital, the government budget or war and peace. The first prerequisite for this model is universal ICT access for all citizens. Furthermore, it must be assured that the decision of the home-voter is not forced by any peer citizen, eliminating the benefit of the secret ballot and going against the protection of the weak by fostering the control of the dominant. Besides, it must be borne in mind that digital interaction is incredibly fast whereas the formation of the democratic will is extremely slow. There is a risk of taking overhasty and short-sighted decisions that are not mutually coherent, ignoring the long-term development of civil life. An analysis of all of these variables shows the undemocratic nature of home-based e-voting. This is especially worrisome considering that pushbutton democracy is often celebrated as the prototype of ICT-based democratic processes.

That is why the Roman republic model combines the institution of republican rule of law with representative democracy. The influence of ICTs on the principle of public information, such as embodied in freedom of information legislation, forms the crux of this model's analysis. ICTs also offer a variety of possibilities for digital interaction between citizens and legislators, for example through e-rulemaking.

The most comprehensive examination in the analytical part is dedicated to deliberationware democracy. This is the most futuristic vision of the democracy model in the information society and strives to completely digitize the public decision-making process. The will of all individual citizens is collectively formed and remaining contradictions are intermediated by value-neutral software systems. The aim is to find the common will of society, that is the will that encompasses the entire population, without the need for delegation or representation. The social volonté générale is to be formed digitally with powerful information systems enabling an unlimited number of citizens to participate in the deliberations that form the public will. Intelligent software agents feed all opinions expressed during the deliberations into the digital intermediation system, based on the value-free correctness of artificial intelligence, hyperlink quotation procedures, computer supported cooperative work, semantic text orientation, text and argument visualizing procedures and automatic text classification. Consociational-democratic procedures provide the information-channeling decision structures so that the individual opinions of various interest groups can be evaluated in such a way that the people's will is gauged on the basis of a generally acceptable common will, in a republican sense, rather than on a confrontation of aggregated individual wills in a liberalistic sense. This leads to the question of how to program the decision and participation structures in the deliberationware. This question brings us back to the opening hypothesis of this paper, namely that the digitizing of democratic processes not only leads to the reorientation of democratic processes, but also makes it necessary to rethink the involved institutional settings.

In contrary to the majority of literature regarding the topic ICT and democracy, this study comes to the somewhat unexpected conclusion that there is an abundance of undemocratic features in the digitization of democratic processes. All of the investigated models show severe democratic flaws, or at least large challenges. The conclusions to be drawn from analyzing the eight democracy models include the finding that the rule of law and strict separation of powers are more important than ever to guarantee equal participation in the formation of the common will in the information society. It also becomes clear that the liberalist focus of democratic processes in the information society can all too easily lead to undemocratic systems of domination. The option of direct digital participation throws into doubt the long-standing justification of a representative-democratic system. The augmenting risk that politicians could abuse the media for politically motivated repression is also among the conclusions. On the other hand, if ICT are employed according to democratic ideals, especially the last two models illustrate fascinating possibilities.

It comes as no surprise that the study of a relatively new issue cannot present concrete solutions and policy suggestions. The outcome of this study is more akin to a research agenda that identifies areas in which democratic processes are particularly influenced by digitization. In this sense, five aspects of democratic processes have been identified: the new light and importance in which the rule of law and the strict separation of powers appears, including appropriate failsafe legislation and protection of the private sphere; the need to overhaul the party system and redefine the role of multi-channel mass media in the democratic decision-making process; the unequal access to the digital tools of democratic participation and the digital divide; the blurring borders between direct and representative democracy in the information society; and also the demands on research into the development of democracy-fostering ICT applications. All five are integrated aspects of a coherent research agenda so that digitization of democratic processes cannot only be better understood but steered in a direction that promotes and fosters true democracy.

Please cite this online publication as:

Hilbert, Martin (2007), “Digital Processes and Democratic Theory: Dynamics, risk and opportunities that arise when democratic institutions meet digital information and communication technologies”; peer-reviewd online publication; Google Books;





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