This is not to say that all hope for these technologies as technologies of democratization and liberation is lost: on the contrary, we will see that there remain bright spots and developments that at least partially counter these darker pictures. But, among all the questions and issues they evoke, central for us, of course, are their ethical dimensions. Broadly we may (must) ask: What are the ethical values, frameworks, duties, and/or virtues of those of us who wish to become/remain citizens in a (post-)digital democracy?
To get to these questions, we first need to ask: What do we mean by “democracy?” We will explore these matters, especially, as diverse conceptions of “democracy” have interacted with the rise of communication technologies – defined here as beginning with orality (as in Marshall McLuhan and Medium Theory), then electric media (specifically, television), and then digital media per se.
Democracy, technology, cultures Not surprisingly – i.e., given their origins and primary spheres of development – the internet and internet-facilitated communication are deeply rooted in the cultural backgrounds and assumptions of the United States. And, contra the assumptions of “technological instrumentalism” – roughly, the idea that technologies are “just tools,” somehow value-free or neutral – what has become very clear over the past 20 years or so is rather that our technologies embed and reinforce our fundamental cultural values and norms, whether we recognize these or not. The same holds specifically for this early optimism – if not utopianism. As James Carey has noted, the Federalist Papers, in debating the proper role of the hoped-for United States federal government, argue that one of the responsibilities of such a government is to subsidize canals and roads – precisely for the sake of democratic polity. This is because a core process of democracy is dialogue and debate among citizens. But, beginning with Plato, there have been arguments that democracy would thus be “naturally” limited. Very simply, in preliterate days – when orality was our primary communication technology – such debate and dialogue would require face-to-face presence. Such presence in turn is limited by available transportation, either on foot or by animal. To make democratic dialogue and debate possible within a new nation spanning the original 13 colonies would thus require more advanced transportation technologies – precisely the roads and canals under discussion – in order to overcome the otherwise quite modest “natural” limits of democracy. Carey argues that this understanding of communication technologies as undergirding democratic values and aspirations became a definitive strand of US culture. Hence, it was not surprising to see the rationales for globally expanding the internet – as almost exclusively “born and raised” in the USA – to include at the forefront this centuries-old US optimism that communication technologies more or less inevitably improve the processes of democracy.