Information technologies, democracy and economic power

Hendrik Opdebeeck


Information technology can be defined as a medium, as a means to produce or to transfer something. The computer and television are promptly dealt with as ‘media of information’, whereas the concept of ‘mass medium’ is referred to as a ‘community means reaching the general public’. Thus the concept of information technology is very close to the concept of power, which is usually conceived as the capacity to overcome any resistance in order to reach a specific goal. The power of the television e.g. refers to the capability to break people’s resistance to buying a certain product, by advertising.

When the power of the information technologies lies in their capacity to overcome resistance in order to reach a specific goal, today it is highly important to check which goal is concerned, which targets are being set and which resistance is being overcome. Could the power of the information technologies increasingly lie in the capacity to ignore democratic values in order to reach economic purposes of the market place? According to some authors however, power is not mere possession, but a very strategy pursued within an intricate net of ever-changing relations. This approach impels us not to interpret power as something pejorative in itself. The power of the information technologies need not be a negative (ethically condemnable) phenomenon. Crucial is from which ethical motives power is framed and exercised. Utilitarianism is increasingly becoming the exclusive ethical standard of the concept of power. Utilitarianism is so dominant that consequently human activity risks to come loose off the major democratic criterion of justice. From an ethical point of view it is a task to find out, on the one hand, to what extent the power of the information technologies may contribute to bringing about more justice into our democracy and, on the other hand, to what extent justice is being used as a moral standard in these technologies, while exercising power.

It becomes obvious that, in a world in which information technologies and economic power are so prevalent, guaranteeing democratic justice has become an extremely and utmost delicate matter. The main barrier in going for a more just and equitable information society, in which the communication technologies do not threaten to undermine democracy, is apparently the tension between merits, needs and progress. Taking as a principle of distributive justice, ‘everyone his or hers in accordance to his or her needs’, into information society, one reaches more equality, though, but the homo-economicus would be stimulated too little to keep performing in an efficient and productive way. The other well-known principle of justice, ‘everyone his or hers in accordance to his or her merits’, which meets the want of a working stimulus, however implies, that the economic progress is granted ‘carte blanche’. The awareness of the bounds of progress, which has become widely accepted in recent years and which, in the transition to the 21st century, will all the more remain of topical interests on moral level, apparently puts question marks to the exclusive principle of merits in the information society. Even the most optimal forms of mixed market economy in a democratic political system, cannot apparently cope with the negative moral effects of communication technologies on work, leisure, education and regulation. All this has to do with erroneously considering justice a secluded sphere in itself: “Ethics is one thing, information technologies are another”, so it goes. The times in which we live, invite us and compel us to search for an ethical and democratic extension of the information society, beyond this dillemmic view. To the utilitarian ‘ever more’ one opts for a shared democratic responsibility.

Hendrik OPDEBEECK(1955) took his doctoral degree of Economics at the State University of Ghent in Belgium and his Bachelor’s Degree of Thomistic Philosophy at the Catholic University of Louvain. Since his arrival at the Antwerp University in 1980 he has lectured the courses ‘Philosophy of Technology’, ‘Economics and Ethics’, ‘Macro-Economics’ and ‘HRM and Ethics’. He is a staff member of the Centre for Ethics (UFSIA). He published “Schumacher is beautiful” (1986, Kok Agora) and ” Paul Ricoeur’s ethical theory”(1999, Peeters Pharos). At Ethicomp 1998 in the Erasmus University Rotterdam his lecture was on “Technnology, blessing or curse for employment and labour”.