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Computer technology and democracy

Éric Guichard
Round table on «Computer technology and democracy»
Institut français, Athens, 11 March 1999

We are currently witnessing a resurgence of debates on the interactions between technology and society. The focus of these debates is innovation, in the form of the Internet. But what is forgotten is that the Internet is only one component of computer technology and that the study of an innovation cut off from the larger system that surrounds it leads to grave errors of interpretation. In this respect, I'm pleased to see that the subject of this round table is not the search for a «Renaissance of a new humanism» tied to the spread of the networks, as was the case with a recent conference held at the Futuroscope in Poitiers that featured various public figures such as former French presidential advisor Jacques Attali and cost a mere 9,000 francs for 5 days (http://www.fwsymposium.org/UK_PART_1/index.html), but a much more serious topic: computer technology and democracy.

It seems to me that a successful innovation quickly leads to monopoly, and economic monopolies are a threat to democracy.

By democracy, I obviously mean a «political system in which the sovereignty belongs to all the citizens, with no distinction whatsoever», but above all, the whole of the social practices that reflect the reality of that political system -the respect of basic human rights, notably political, civil, individual, and also intellectual liberties. And I also mean the possibility of making relevant choices, for the citizen as well as the consumer or the producer. There is thus a direct link between democracy and culture, democracy and the expression of rationality.

The collective image of computer technology

In the 1970s in France, computer technology was seen as a State-run monster dedicated to public surveillance and file-keeping on individual citizens. By contrast, recent years have seen a proliferation of arguments vaunting the democratic, cultural virtues of the Internet. This phenomenon is significant, insofar as such arguments, originating in the United States, have finally rendered the earlier French analyses I've just mentioned obsolete. (NB: what the spread of the Internet and free software proves is not that this computer technology generates democracy, but that a democratic spirit -within a given group- encourages the production of high-quality technology.) Indeed, this is so much the case that we are currently faced with a paradox: in the midst of a utopian euphoria tied to the spread of the Internet, France's Socialist government is preparing to launch an operation that would threaten individual liberties by merging computerized social security and tax files; some would even like to link computerized police records to the other two groups of files. It would thus seem that such «utopias» are likely to anesthetize the vigilance of private citizens.

How to assess these optimistic views associating social and technological progress?

Various specialists in the history of technology, such as David Edgerton (Annales HSS [ex ESC], July-October 1998, pp. 815-837), recall the fundamental errors underlying the study of technical innovations. In strict scientific terms, such studies are of little or no value--the social effects of a technique can only be measured after it has been disseminated throughout the society for a considerable amount of time, because the appropriation period is often long -more than a generation- and may take unpredictable detours. But above all, analyses of technical innovation are, implicitly or explicitly, marked by the idea that technical progress is always related to social progress.

- First of all, I would argue that this assumption is false, because the only innovations analyzed are those that have succeeded. Not only do these constitute a tiny proportion of inventions, but it can be demonstrated that new technologies rarely lead to new uses. Meanwhile, there is no mention of the fact that social practices lead to innovations by transforming existing technology.

- At the same time, analysts of innovation also maintain that a region that does not have access to an innovative product will fall behind, technically, economically, and therefore socially. This argument is also false, because the site of innovation must be distinguished from the site of utilization. Germany, for example, fell far behind with regard to the automobile at the beginning of the 20th century, but this situation did not prevent it from becoming a major production site several decades later. Another example: the United States enjoyed a great advance in aeronautics at the beginning of this same century, but it was subsequently outdistanced by Europe in the interwar period.

These observations show that the double assertion «innovation=social progress, national innovation=technical and social progress of the nation concerned» is erroneous. And they impel us to ask why «accounts of techniques focused on innovation and positive knowledge are essential in 20th-century culture.» The respected computer technology economist Paul David offers two explanations for this phenomenon:
- 1. The importance of the inventor, placed in the role of national hero, which allows foreign inventions to be rejected while reinforcing collective identitites;
- 2. «The political attraction of the future, which allows the present to be forgotten in a democracy.» Thus, according to David, «there emerges a revolutionary rhetoric that does not revolutionize itself.» Discourses on innovation have above all an ideological function, which generates illusions and clouds democratic debate.

I am thus perplexed when I hear that a new technology is going to transform society and politics. The «visionaries» who extol the future and pressure politicians to make up for their technological backwardness, which they associate with their «deficit of democracy» worry me. These analysts who see themselves as «visionaries,» and who are quite numerous in France, are simply the defenders of an established order that has very little interest in the expansion of democratic debate.

NB: The pony express was an essential instrument of political and military power in China, the Middle East, and Europe. The fact that French and American citizens were able to make use of it to exchange ideas and news from 1792 on was the result of a political choice. Which shows us that a sophisticated technical instrument can, depending on the uses that are made of it, serve the worst of totalitarianisms and democracy alike.

I would now like to go still further by taking up examples from the past. Imagine that our conference was called «Book and Democracy». In that case we would be much more familiar with the debate, perhaps because it has been going on for centuries if not millennia. We know that the book, our cultural paradigm, can be criticized or banned, or, conversely, that the mass distribution of a few rare «authorized» books can be dangerous for critical thought or freedom (e.g., the official biography of Kim Il Sung in North Korea). But what we appreciate about books is that they teach us to think, to develop our critical sense, our culture. Provided that we have access to a great variety of them.

It is often said that one of the best historical examples of the abundant influence of technology on the social body is the invention of the printing press, which is credited with being one of the key conduits of humanism in Europe. I would argue on the contrary that the first humanists were the source of this invention. Let us briefly analyze the socialilzation and economic consequences of this discovery. It took 60 years for printing to catch up to earlier reproduction techniques. Afterward, during the 16th century, both printed and handwritten books were only accessible to a small elite. And the «beneficial» cultural effects of this technical transformation arose, depending on the viewpoint adopted, between 50 and 200 years after the invention. The relationship between the press of Gutenberg (one inventor among others) and the democratization of European societies is thus far from being direct.
And if we consider the situation not from the standpoint of the readers but from that of the manufacturers (publishers, printers, booksellers), we discover with Henri-Jean Martin ([Atlas des] LittÝratures, Encyclopédie Universalis, 1990, p. 368) that, «the first image we can have of the book trade in the 16th century is that of savage competition in a market quickly beset by overproduction and was only slowly organized.» It seems to me that this situation can easily be compared to the current struggle for the monopolies in computer technology.

If need be, I could cite other major technological or intellectual transformations that have allowed the emergence of social groups asserting themselves at the economic or political expense of others--as the bankers and merchants at the end of the Middle Ages or the industrialists and bankers of the «Industrial Revolution.» Thus, it might well be thought that as soon as a new technique has significant economic implications (the prior condition and proof of its success), it whets monopolistic appetites and frequently leads to a loss of rights for large elements of society (cf. the MIT analysts).

It would thus seem that a new technique, in the early years of its mass distribution, profits those who succeed in appropriating it for themselves, often in the form of a monopoly, and that this economic confiscation often has harmful political and cultural consequences. But in order to spread, such a technique needs discourses that legitimate it, that proclaim utopias (or generate anxieties for those who do not yet possess it). These discourses mask the reality, falsify the political debate, and, in so doing, threaten democracy.

I would thus insist on the need for vigilance, which means rejecting the idea that a new technology can make us forget the questions that we might have posed in the past on relations between technology and society. This much said, I am optimistic by nature and remain confident in the critical sense of that portion of humanity that has the cultural and political means to make use of it. Even if this means employing all the technologies at its disposal to that end.

Copyright © Éric Guichard, 1999. All rights reserved.
Translation: Miriam Rosen


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