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Democracy.com? Governance in a Networked World

Author: Elaine Kamarck, Joseph Nye
Publisher: New York: Hollis Publishing, 1999
Review Published: April 2001

 REVIEW 1: Randy Kluver

Now that the technology bubble in the economic and business realms has burst, we are ready for more steady and enlightened approaches to understanding the impact of information technologies on contemporary business and commerce. Similarly, we are ready for a more steady and enlightened analysis of the impact of these same information technologies on political and structural forms. Unfortunately, the political equivalent of the Nasdaq plunge has not happened and, consequently, political leaders have not realized the need for temperance in their zealous announcements as to the impact of information technology on governance in the new millennium. For example, both Bill Clinton and Madeline Albright have declared that information technologies will democratize China, a sentiment that betrays terribly simplistic understandings of both technology and China.

The collection of essays in Elaine Kamarck and Joseph Nye's book Democracy.com is a step in the right direction. In this book, the contributors examine various aspects of governance in an attempt to speculate on the ways in which information communication technologies will impact the tasks of governance.

Joseph Nye is the Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and Elaine Kamarck is the Executive Director of Harvard's Visions of Governance for the Twenty First Century Project. The book, then, fits into a larger project attempting to trace the ways in which governance will change in the 21st century. The essayists, largely from the Kennedy School, offer various visions of the impact of technologies, with some shorter responses. There is value in this approach, in that the Kennedy School is indisputably a key resource for political expertise, both academic and practical. The drawback to this approach is that it severely narrows the scope of discussion and perspective, which I will explain more fully later.

The book is organized into six key parts, each examining one aspect of governance and information technology, including the nature of political representation, the development of political community, the use of technology in political campaigns, the impact of information communication technologies (or ICTs) on bureaucracy, and issues of international relations in a networked world.

The first part consists entirely of an essay by Nye that attempts to chart out the historical significance of ICT's on governance. Although Professor Nye's essay introduces some very important issues, including decentralization and the role of ideology in the promotion of technology, his essay is too short to adequately answer the key questions which he himself introduces, and he largely assumes the advent of an "information society," which, as Frank Webster (1995) has demonstrated, is by no means a given. Perhaps another essay might have called into question some of the assumptions underlying the revolutionary nature of information technology (IT).

Part two, entitled Representation.gov, is organized around the question of whether ICTs increase political representation or diminish it, or to put it historically, does email increase James Madison's vision? This section provides the most insightful discussion of information technology, firmly grounded in a philosophical basis. As Arthur Isak Applbaum's essay argues, "no serious discussion of cyberdemocracy can proceed without doing some political philosophy first" (20), and the essayists attempt to do just that. Applbaum's essay is quite helpful in attempting to sort through the confusing claims about cyberdemocracy, and his distinction between the impact of IT on directness and and its impact on deliberativeness will certainly be part of the discussion for some time.

The focus of part three is the role of ICTs in promoting community, and William Galston's essay benefits from its willingness to examine literature outside of traditional political science, specifically sociology, and he provides an persuasive argument on the perennial question of whether the Internet really does provide community. Galston's answer: no. Jean Camp's response to Galston seems to this reviewer to be quite inadequate to his argument, as it relies on a superficial definition of community, and reminds one of Howard Rheingold's early proclamations of online community, which have since come under severe scrutiny.

A critical question for Galston and Camp seems to be inadequately addressed, and that is the role of the sort of ideal communities on the development of civil society. Given the massive corpus of works on civil society that has emerged recently on this critical issue, it seems an obvious connection to make. Although civil society is only one component of democratic governance, it seems a major oversight to not include some discussion in this volume. Likewise, there is little attention paid to the impact of communications technology in creating civil society, which really is something different from the sort of community that often concerns sociologists.

A fourth section, entitled politics.com, attempts to map out political activity on the Web, including both Web- and Internet-based campaigning as well as using the Web for news and information gathering, political mobilization, and making political decisions. Two essays, one by Pippa Norris using Pew Center data on Internet use and another by Kamarck on Internet campaigning, attempt to assess the ability of the Net to affect political outcomes based on a snapshot in time, particularly the period from 1996 to 1998. The difficulty in making any sort of resolved judgment based solely on data from a snapshot in time is acknowledged; still, the essays provide good summaries of political activism on the Web. The 2000 campaign provided a further example of ways in which IT can accelerate and deepen the impact of political mobilization, as Al Gore's massive mobilization efforts -- detailed in the New York Times -- to overturn the Florida vote count demonstrates, for example. In spite of the dated nature of these two pieces, they remain relevant to understanding the ways in which both candidates and citizens are using the Internet.

Part five turns to the issues of bureaucratization and information technologies. These essays, though relevant to the topic of governance, take the reader in a very different direction, towards the effect of IT on governing bureaucracies and systems. The two most valuable pieces here are the longer essays by Jane Fountain and Jerry Mechling, which attempt to provide concrete shape to a virtual bureaucracy. Fountain's essay explores the impact of IT on an ideal Weberian ideal of bureaucracy, while Mechling's contribution remains much closer to the ground, examining the impact of IT from actual case studies.

The book closes with an essay by Nye and Robert Keohane on the likely consequences of IT on global interdependence and power relationships. The authors argue that in spite of the technology, certain things remain true in international relations. They conclude that many of the utopian ideals of the elimination of conflict, the decentralization of power, and the elimination of the state are just that, utopian. However, the relations between states will be transformed in unpredictable ways, as soft power becomes more important and technology empowers NGOs and smaller states to interact on a global stage more prominently.

Unfortunately, this concluding essay is the only one to address issues of international concern. The reason that this is such a glaring omission is because of the ways in which foreign policy is already being profoundly influenced by expectations of IT, in areas such as technology transfer, economic and trade relationships, and reassessment of United States relations with nations such as China, Cuba, and Iran. Also left unaddressed is the likely impact of IT on democratic processes on nations other than the United States, in such technologically advanced areas as Singapore, Hong Kong, and even China itself. An informed assessment of the assumptions that the Internet is inherently democratizing, regardless of the cultural or national context, would have been a nice addition to this collection of articles.

Overall, the volume provides a nice overview of several critical issues in governance, and the likely impacts of IT. The title, however, is something of a misnomer, as only two sections focus on democratic representation and activism.

One serious drawback of Democracy.com is the lack of other perspectives. Of the fifteen authors, thirteen are from the Kennedy School. Although the Kennedy School scholars undoubtedly are qualified to speak their piece, the closed community of this group causes them to overlook serious scholarship that exists elsewhere. This is evident in the editorial introduction that states that Anna Greenberg's essay in the volume is the first comprehensive study of campaigning on the Internet. This is just not true. Communication scholars have been studying communication on the Internet since the early 1990s, although communication scholars rarely have the visibility of Kennedy School scholars.

Perhaps the most serious weakness of the book is the uneven quality of the essays. The book is derived from a retreat for scholars to explore these issues, and some of the essays have not been developed much beyond that original presentation. Each section typically rests on one major essay and a few smaller responses, an inadequate format to explore adequately the issues. One example is the section on community, with only two essays, and one of those is a mere six pages. For the most part, however, the major essays are well-conceived and persuasive, advancing our understanding of the complex relationship between technology and governance. By contrast, many of the shorter response pieces do not exhibit the same degree of care and thoughtfulness. Of course, it isn't fair to criticize what is meant to be a short response for not being a more sustained argument. In most cases, the responses stay focused and contribute helpful qualifications and rejoinders to the main arguments. But their inclusion in this volume does not contribute to the overall strength of the book. Scholars, or even students, who are grappling with these issues would find sustained and developed arguments on the key issues much more helpful.

This reviewer is particularly distressed that this volume contains little help in negotiating the critical issue confronting national governments around the world, which is the impact of technology on democractic processes, economic growth, and security. Although the final essay by Keohane and Nye takes up international stability in an information society, there is little discussion of issues of information technology in the developing world, as well as issues of political importance that will emerge. Is, for example, the digital divide likely to increase tensions with the developing world or diminish them? Should export policies favor the introduction of sophisticated technology into hostile states if they truly have a democratizing impact? When advanced technologies that have potential militaristic applications, such as Sony's PlayStation 2, permeate the developed world, should international bodies seek to limit their development, much as other weaponry is limited? It seems ludicrous in the West to think of limiting video games, but surprisingly enough, it has become a policy option.

Finally, the book includes no essays on information policy. Although it is imperative for each administration to make communications policy an important agenda item, the volume leaves this area untouched. Again, it seems a glaring oversight, as policy has important implications for the issues that the authors do address, such as representation. Access to technology, for example, seems to be at the heart of any discussions of what it would mean to be a "netizen." I must acknowledge that this concern is implicit in Applbaum's essay, but a much fuller development would certainly be a positive addition to this volume.

In summary, Democracy.com contains several important essays that can stimulate further analysis of critical issues. The volume suffers primarily from an insufficient treatment of important issues and a lack of consistency across the various issues covered. With a more sustained attempt to articulate the critical issues and various perspectives, as well as a more international outlook, the book would have proved more valuable as an attempt to make meaningful political decisions in an age empowered by information technologies.

Frank Webster, Theories of the Information Society (London: Routledge, 1995).

Randy Kluver:
Randy Kluver is a Visiting Fellow at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of Legitimating the Chinese Economic Reforms: A Rhetoric of Myth and Orthodoxy (State University of New York Press, 1996) and co-editor of Civic Discourse, Civil Society, and Chinese Communities (Ablex Publishing, 1999). He is currently studying the impact of information technology in the Peoples' Republic of China.  <icmrk@nus.edu.sg>

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