Dream of Enlightenment: Howard Nothhaft NEMO Seminar

The Dream of Enlightenment within Digital Reach, presented by Howard Nothhaft, Campus Helsingborg, NEMO/ISK Seminar, Tuesday April 9.

Foto_Nothhaft_01Developing ideas first discussed at the October 2012 NEMO Conference, Howard Nothhaft is examining notions of democracy as part of a wide-ranging and ambitious literature review that will underpin both his own explorations of the public sphere in the Web 2.0 world and provide a theoretical foundation for broader NEMO-funded studies.

As Jan Teorell suggested in his NEMO Seminar, Varieties of Democracy, defining democracy is fraught with difficulty.

Taking a cue from Manuel Castells, who argues that “there is nothing that cannot be changed by conscious, purposive social action, provided with information, and supported by legitimacy,” Howard seeks to identify comprehensive answers given by scholars, to the question whether,  for what reasons and under which conditions Western citizens can expect ICT advances to bring a more democratic society.

Most people think democracy is a good thing, and some hope that through a combination of greater access to information, moves towards greater transparency, and the increasing availability of tools for online interaction, good things will somehow grow and flourish (see Harkaway).

There are very different understandings of the form of democracy that digital media may promote, with associated differences in digital democracy rhetoric and practice. Despite this diversity, digital democracy (or e-democracy) is often talked about as though there was a general consensus about what it is.’ (Dahlberg 2011)

Howard  argued: “We all agree that democracy is wonderful, but once we move closer, it its meaning dissolves under scrutiny.” It becomes an empty signifier (Levi-Strauss), a word that has positive connotations but at centre has no meaning.

Building from Dahlberg, Howard identified and defined five Conceptualisations of Democracy:

  • Aggregative democracy: everyone has some right to choose who is in power, but power held by an elite political caste
  • Deliberative democracy: (Habermas) Everyone has a say until agreement is reached
  • Synthetic democracy: everyone has a say, but decisions passed on to experts/technocrats, which
  • Pluralist-agonistic democracy: everyone has a say, and decisions follow victory in passionate ideological debate
  • Material democracy: voices don’t matter as much as ownership of means of production (post-Marxist)

It is arguable that digital advance strengthens the potential of the Habermasian deliberative model, with consensus emerging in virtual public spheres, but critics argue that in the real world this falls apart in the face of self-interest.

Perhaps the synthetic model has closest links with strategic communication in that it somehow disengages politics from the political apparatus, in part through the actions of spin doctors and framing devices that reduce ideological conflict to technical decisions to be made by experts.

In contrast, the pluralistic model puts the focus firmly on politics, focusing on issues and attempting to cut through and move beyond the distortions of spin.

Material democracy might argue that new technology allows people to take back control, by breaking down barriers of ownership, and promoting open source models that make the state smaller.

Proponents of each models can find arguments to support the view that digital and online platforms and channels empower their cause, but Howard closed by suggesting that serious scholars were less optimistic about the the possibility of digital technologies to deliver true change than were such evangelists as Nicholas Negroponte (Being Digital etc) at the advent of web-based discourse some 15 or so years ago.

Download Howard’s presentation in pdf format: Howard Dream seminar Apr 9

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