Topics in Emerging Media and Communications

E-Democracy Now!

with 8 comments

Reading Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage” was a revelation to me, a revelation for the new digital age written in 1961.  The significant idea in McLuhan’s argument is that society is crippled because  of the “attempt to do a job demanded by the new environment with the tools of the old (McLuhan 94)”. In essence, we must shift our systems, institutions, perception of life and relationships to fit the new Mass Age.  McLuhan admits that there will be tension and dissension-based fear during this transition process, but he sees a Techno-Utopia is possible.

When I consider the possibility of complete integration via mass connectivity, I think of the legal implications. This may be because my dad’s a judge, but there has to be a foundation of legislation and protections put in place in order for democracy to thrive. During the last election I got involved in the grass-roots movements and I believed in the power of social change through small efforts. I signed up for tweets, Facebook updates, I even took to the streets and caucused, all in an effort to have my voice heard and to hear the voices of others. This was a great debut into the political landscape, but I will admit that I got frustrated by peoples’ fear of us crazy generation Y-ers and our activist, hands-on spirit.

Despite the frustration and the verbal threat or two I received, I came away believing that democracy and the digital, mass age are a perfect match. McCluhan commented on this shift, “A new form of politics is emerging and in ways we haven’t yet noticed. The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television in Freedom Marches, in war, revolution, pollution, and other events is changing everything (McLuhan 22)”. Together they can facilitate full participation and real-time, meaningful exchanges of information and ideas, without the heavy hand of powerful wheelers and dealers.

Brazil is planting the seeds. In 2006 the Brazilian government implemented a social media component to their democratic process. The original system was participatory democracy with mandatory voting responsibility. Community based citizen committees were designated to meet and vote on legislation that best supported their community’s needs. By adding web-based interactions via email and wiki-type platforms,the face-to-face meetings shifted to online forums, giving the opportunity for better, faster, more accessible communication.

The results of the e-democracy efforts show an overwhelming increase in participation, “Overall online civic engagement dwarfed traditional offline participatory budgeting and accounted for a sevenfold increase in votes cast over the prior year when no online component was present (Ferenstein)” but the best advantage of their new system, in my opinion, has been that the poorest areas of Brazil are now some of the most represented. One would think the opposite would be true, due to the lack of computer literacy among poorer demographics, which gives hope that technology can extend beyond the lines that typically separate voting groups.

Of course there are disadvantages; primarily the mire of legal jargon that goes into bills, public hesitancy of anything new-fangled, and constant concern over the safety of technology but the possibility is there and it threatens those in power. To have the power to make real decisions about government funding and political office given to the people through web-based communication could mean major shifts in the U.S. political system. It would also mean a huge shift in those who are represented. It could even mean a shift in our perceptions of what it means to be an active citizen, a member of the global community.

“Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change (McLuhan 41)”.


Topics for discussion:

  • How do you think McLuhan would see this attempt at e-democracy?
  • Are there any other implications to consider when giving that much power to people?
  • Do you think it’s possible for the U.S. to adopt a similar system of democracy?

FYI: if you’d like to hear the audio version of Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Massage” check it out here


Written by HiuHiMedia

September 15, 2010 at 4:09 am

Posted in Politics

Tagged with , , ,

8 Responses

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  1. In response to one of your discussion questions about whether or not there are any other implications to consider when giving that much power to the people…one issue that might be a “consequence” to the message of the Internet’s impact on democracy might be users abilities to interfer with local democracy.

    For example, “outsiders” have the ability to contribute and participate in local elections far beyond their communities. Representative Joe “You Lie” Wilson from South Caraolina generated campaign donations from all over the country when news got out that his rival made over $200 k overnight in response to Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s House Address last fall in 2009.

    Tea Party members from across the country are swarming local primaries with financial support and various ways of social engagement to build awareness of “underdog” candidates who are defeating establishment candidates.

    So, can politics be local any more now that social networks can connect citizens all over the world in order to support and promote candidates — as well as issues and initatives like Gay Marriage and tax proposals? Proposition 8 in California was significantly impacted by people and organizations in Utah because of Internet activity and social networking engagement.


    September 15, 2010 at 10:55 am

    • You have a valid point. By moving toward a global community, we become just that, global. Many people, organizations, communities, governments, are fearful of the shift in perspective, and their fear is not unfounded.

      In the case of Prop. 8, what was original a California initiative became a US crisis that effects legislation in every state. The grassroots organizations took advantage of media to get the money and votes they wanted, particularly churches that have world-wide membership and large coffers. But this is not the first time, and social media is not the cause. In decades past those organizations went after women’s rights, civil rights, union rights, without the media tool in their belt.

      When I think about the massive reach of social networking I get a little frightened, but I’m not sure of a solution. There will be growing pains as we shift towards a Mass Age, but the shift will happen, regardless of our fears.


      September 15, 2010 at 9:50 pm

  2. For me e-democracy is a very frightening prospect. I am all for getting input from your constituency via new technology and social media but anything beyond that is questionable to me.

    To be fair I am a crazy conspiracy theory person who is very skeptical of everything. Maybe I watched Sandra Bullock’s The Net too many times but I don’t believe computer voting is safe or good for democracy.

    Just think about how much your personal computer, twitter and software screw up or stop working entirely on a daily basis. The computer is prone to screw ups and outside manipulation that it seems like a bad choice for accounting if transparency and accuracy are what we are aiming for.

    Simply put computers can and have been used to change votes. There are four main electronic voting machine companies and they all use their own software. Three of the four companies have close ties to the Republican party. In a fund raising e-mail Walden O’Dell the CEO of one company promised that he would deliver Ohio to Bush in the 2004 election.

    I think that there needs to be a physical paper trail. We need to only use paper ballots so we can recount votes with less manipulation than electronic voting machines ballots.

    Wait what was that noise…

    Lewis Giles

    September 15, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    • Lewis, you might want to start working on your fallout shelter now.

      I agree, an electronic trail replacing a paper trail is a scary, scary thing. I hope that there will be some things left sacred, like voting ballots, but I know better. People want the newest and shiniest and if they could potentially vote on their ipads and see instant election results, watch out!

      Part of the reason I chose to address e-democracy is because it is so controversial and brings up pretty intense emotions and opinions. I don’t know if I’m for or against, but I am requesting you save me a spot in the corner of your shelter, I’ll bring the cookies.


      September 15, 2010 at 9:55 pm

  3. I am intrigued by this, “but the best advantage of their new system…has been that the poorest areas of Brazil are now some of the most represented…which gives hope that technology can extend beyond the lines that typically separate voting groups.”

    Race and socioeconomic disparities at the polls has always (and still is) an issue. I would be open to exploring alternative voting procedures that allow notoriously underrepresented groups access to voting. The skeptic in me does wonder how long it be before we figured out a way to manipulate the electronic vote. Paying poor voters for their IP addresses perhaps.

    E-democracies already exsist on the majority of college campuses, and participation hasn’t always increased. I would be curious to see if this trend would change (for better or worse) or stay the same on a state or national level.

    Brianni Nelson

    September 15, 2010 at 3:01 pm

  4. Brianni,

    I wish I’d had more time to research this issue. I feel like it needs more attention to voting trends and the impact of other e-democracy efforts.

    Oh if only there was more time…. But thanks your your comment 🙂


    September 15, 2010 at 10:16 pm

  5. Wait who told you about my bomb shelter?

    Lewis Giles

    September 15, 2010 at 10:39 pm

  6. Love, love, love this post, Meagan – well done! Thoughtful, relevant, and look at the discussion you sparked. This seems like a possible topic for your final project…


    September 15, 2010 at 11:34 pm

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