ICT and democratic values

Göran Collste & Jan Holmqvist


Computer ethics studies how computerisation and information technology influence values in different parts of society. A presupposition is that technology in different ways, both directly and indirectly, intended and not intended influence society. This means that in order to investigate the value impact of technology one has, in an imaginative way, to relate the technology to the social context where it is implemented. Studies like that of Stanley Reiser (medicine) and Sherry Turkle (children’s use of computers) shows that new technology can influence social practices and value systems in unexpected ways.

In this paper we focus on the relation between ICT and democracy and democratic values. IT can be related to democracy in many ways. It can be used as a mean to create new channels between elected politicians and people, it can facilitate voting procedures etc. However, we will examine the relation between ICT and democracy in two contexts: a school context and a global context.

According to the public rhetoric, ICT is a mean to realise democracy and democratic values both in schools and in the global context. But is that true? The thesis that we argue for in this paper is that the relation between ICT and democracy is much more complicated that the public rhetoric assumes.

In schools the realisation of democracy is often understood as a realisation of democratic values such as the autonomy of the student, equality between sexes, human rights and so on. But school can also have a mission in preparing students for living in a country with a democratic system, for example giving them opportunities to develop those personal qualities that are essential in a democratic society. A single school can let itself be a mirror of the democratic society and organise its internal work in a democratic way. In these efforts, it is said, ICT can be used as a tool. In order to evaluate this view of ICT as an instrument for democracy, at least two questions have to be asked. The first question has to do with the best way for school to embody democratic values. What are the most important democratic values for school to embody? The second question has to do with the possibility of ICT to embody democratic values. Is ICT really a good tool for the realisation of democratic values such as freedom, equality etc in schools?

In answering these questions one can examine the intended consequences in relation to democracy and democratic values. But one also has to consider the unintended consequences. Although, ICT can be used to enhance the freedom of the students, there might also be other effects, for example limiting communication among students that will work against democracy and democratic values.

In a famous speech in 1994, Al Gore argues that the Global Information Infrastructure (GII) is a mean for spreading democracy in different ways, in fact, according to Gore, GII is a metaphor for democracy itself. However, the relation between ICT and democracy at a global level is probably more complicated than Gore assumes. In order to discuss this relation one has to distinguish between different aspects of democracy and contextualise these. Although democracy contains some universal values, as for instance protection of human rights and a principle of a right to influence the decisions that affects ones interests, the possible forms of democracy differs, as do the value context of the democratic institutions.

When examining the relation between ICT and democracy, one has to take into consideration the intended consequences of ICT as well as the unintended. For example, through Internet people living in totalitarian states will have access to uncensored political information. This will probably enhance a democratic development in these states. At the same time the Internet is transmitting western values and western life styles that may conflict with the values and lifestyles that are important in a specific cultural context. There is obviously a risk that IT is not only a mean to enhance democratic values, but also a mean for western dominance and hegemony.

In this paper we investigate and compare the relation between ICT and democratic values in school and globally. In doing so, the paper will refer to theories of democracy and democratic values and also to theories about the relation between technology and values.