Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Technologies of Democracy

Posted on | June 12, 2014 | No Comments

I’m rereading a book, Technologies of Power: Information Machines and Democratic Prospects by one of my mentors from graduate school. Majid Tehranian was a Professor of International Communications at the University of Hawaii and Founding Director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research. I do believe that it Technologies of Power: Information Machines and Democratic Prospects is one of the best books of the 20th century on the topic of media technology and democracy.[1] OK, I’m biased, as a graduate assistant, I actually did the index for the book. But looking back at the book, I’m pleased to have played a small role in its birth.

At the time, we were debating Ithiel de Sola Pool‘s Technologies of Freedom. The MIT professor did a lot of the research on his book at the University of Hawaii Law Library a few years before and put forward a strong libertarian thesis about communications technologies and how technical change in this dynamic area should be treated by the legal/regulatory system.

Tehranian felt compelled to respond with his own book in which he used a “technostructuralist” approach emphasizing that new technologies are guided in their development and deployment along existing lines of corporate, governmental, and military power. However, he proposed a “dual-effects hypothesis” for studying the historical influence of new “information machines” as they have often “played a dual role in the service of centralization and the dispersion of power.” These potentially disrupting effects led him to focus on the importance and promises of information technologies for democratic processes.[2]

Originally from Iran, Tehranian was not Islamic, so returning home was problematic after the revolution in 1979. But he was mindful of its lessons, particularly the role of small media, including cassettes and photocopying. Both were used effectively in the overthrow of the Shah. Cassettes were often made by the Ayatollah Khomeini who, while exiled in France, sent recorded messages to mosques throughout Iran, stirring revolt. Tehranian sometimes referred to the impact of small media in Iran as the reign of Xeroxcracy.

Tehranian was influenced in part by University of Hawaii colleagues Ted Becker, Chair of the Political Science Department at the time, and his wife Christa D. Slaton. teledemocracyTheir The Future of Teledemocracy offered a compelling vision for the use of computers to enhance democratic efforts. In a benchmark study that was part of the futures movement at the University of Hawaii, in collaboration with Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, they charted a path towards a more deliberative direct democracy. Using interactive TV, televoting, and other digital initiatives, they proposed technology could be designed to engage the public and bring them back into political affairs. They particularly stressed the development of collaborative designs for scientific deliberative polling in electronic town meetings. Later they would embrace the Internet as a tool to facilitate this process.[3]

Tehranian was not prone to simple definitions, but he also saw the value of conceptualizing ideas for the sake of argument. He framed one definition of democracy in terms of the contributions by technology. Thus he provided this rather technocratic perspective on the conditions for democracy. “If we view democracy as a cybernetic social system of networks in which there are many autonomous and decentralized nodes of power and information with their multiple channels of communication, the new media are increasingly providing the technological conditions for such a system.” (p.6)

Tehranian identified six cybernetic conditions for democracy: interactivity; universality; channel capacity; content variety; speedy transmission; and, low noise.

Interactivity recognizes the value of horizontal communications – people talking to each other, sharing information, engaging in social discourse. Tehranian grew up in a world where media was primarily one-way and vertically oriented from top to bottom. So he was intrigued with the emerging capabilities of media technologies to provide “multiple feedback systems” and allow autonomous centers of power to engage with each other in a pluralistic system of checks and balances.

Universality is another important condition for teledemocracy. This refers to access to the technological devices needed to participate in tele-democratic deliberations. Lower costs for mobile phones and computers mean increased penetration and participation in the political process. Higher rates of literacy and education also increase the population who can follow civic activities and participate in public discussions. Social media is now seen as a potential new “networked public sphere” for political debate and sharing relevant information.

Content Variety refers to the increasing diversity of professional and user-generated programming. Tehranian was disappointed in the global diet of television programs such as Dallas and Days of our Lives that were scheduled at the expense of more cultural and educational programs. He contrasted official messaging associated with more authoritarian political systems with the “symbolic variety” needed for democratic communications systems. Access and active participation mean little if the content available is limited in accuracy, relevance, scope and quality. In the age of Youtube and social media, the variety of ideas and messages have increased dramatically, although concerns have been raised about the statistics and surveillance of who watches what.

Channel Capacity involves the ability to transmit and receive high fidelity and high resolution professionally produced or “user-generated” information. While broadband and wifi speeds have increased regularly, the results are distributed unevenly. I’m writing this in South Korea, which, at an average connection of 63.6 megabits per second, is second only to Hong Kong for the highest broadband rates in the world. I have a house in Austin, Texas that is one of the Google Fiber cities beginning to offer 1 gigabit per second transmission to homes and businesses.

Low Noise is an interesting concept that has both a technical and political dimension. Technically, noise is a long-recognized impediment to message delivery. Politically, Tehranian pointed to the need for democratic rules and procedures that facilitate rational discourse. I lived a block from Washington Square Park in New York City when the Occupy Wall Street movement would meet there. The protesters gathered and utilized an interesting set of protocols to amplify messages and to communicate silently. The crowd who could hear the speaker would repeat their words like a “human mic” so people in the back could hear. They would also use hand signals to agree, disagree, or morally oppose anything being proposed. CNN reporter Jeanne Moos had this satirical piece on the Occupy Wall Street’s communication protocols.

Teledemocratic systems will need to develop their own rules of political communication to develop a unique public sphere concept of citizen participation, protest, and voting.

Speedy Transmission is a related concept that also has technical and political conditions. Faster communications has been a major motivator for information technology development from the telegraph to the ARPANET. He applies it also to level in which the public communicates concerns and demands to the political system and vice-versa, official responses are returned to public and actions through initiatives such as the Internet domain level .gov and .us.

The capabilities of digital media have accelerated and I plan to look at additional characteristics that might provide insights into the possibilities of teledemocracy. This list would probably include mobility, search, capture, representation, storage, and viral or spreadable media.


[1] Tehranian received a PhD in Political Economy from Harvard University and did his PhD dissertation on the global politics of oil cartels.
[2] Dual-effects hypothesis from Technologies of Power, p. 53.
[3] Ted Becker is the Alumni Professor of Political Science at Auburn University.
[4] Conditions for democracy can be found in Technologies of Power in Chapter 1 primarily pp. 6-9, and at the conclusion of Chapter 2, pp. 52-53.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a professor of global media at Hannam University in South Korea. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas and was on the faculty of New York University from 2002-2012. He taught at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand and was a Fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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