On Potential Alternatives to the Use of Democratic Criteria

copyright 1998 Richard E. Sclove, The Loka Institute

The following few paragraphs are excerpted from Richard E. Sclove, "Using Democratic Design Criteria in Participatory Technology Assessment," Loka Institute Working Paper, Amherst, MA, Dec. 1998, 34 pages:

The basic concern of the Loka Institute's project on Identifying Democratic Technologies is how to strengthen societal attention to technologies' social and political effects, and especially how to ensure that technologies (and more generally the built environment) are compatible with the conditions required to maintain a healthy democracy. In so doing, we are not fixated on using democratic design criteria as the only, or necessarily even the best, participatory tool for achieving that purpose.

For instance, as I note in "Democratic Politics of Technology: The Missing Half," in the U.S. the Old Order Amish people seem to do a very satisfactory job of screening technologies to ensure that Amish culture -- including its basic democratic character -- is perpetuated. They do this without relying on explicit democratic design criteria. Instead, having developed participatory processes for testing, evaluating and debating alternative technologies' social effects; and deploying these methods within a social and political context that already embodies a rather robust democratic character; they are able, "naturally" as it were, to make technological choices that perpetuate their culture's democratic quality. (In fact, while they do not use democratic technological design criteria, they are deploying Biblically derived religious criteria concerning the proper ordering of Amish society. These socio-religious criteria have had the accidental byproduct of helping the Amish make technological choices that preserve their capacity for robust democratic self-governance.)

Similarly, Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus have explained that when people are truly expert at something, they do it "naturally" -- that is, without thinking consciously about what they are doing, and without following any explicit rules.[1] That implies that if a society's citizens become "expert" in making democratic decisions about technologies, they will "naturally"--as the Old Order Amish already do--develop and choose technologies that perpetuate their society's democratic character.

The problem facing most contemporary societies, however, is that they are rather imperfectly democratic, and they are especially imperfect when it comes to deploying democratic procedures for evaluating and selecting democratic technologies. Moreover, the task confronting most non-Amish societies is made more difficult by their larger size and, accordingly, greater institutional and technological complexity. Hence to become "expert" in democratic politics of technology, citizens of non-Amish societies confront a steeper learning curve.

In such a circumstance -- where we are not yet "expert" in technological citizenship -- Dreyfus and Dreyfus argue that we need to rely on explicit rules or methodologies as a somewhat cumbersome crutch for enabling us to function competently and to learn until such time, if ever, as we can toss our crutches aside and proceed unencumbered without them. ("Until such time, if ever"? Becoming expert as an individual practitioner -- say, as a tennis player -- is different from becoming expert as a large group -- say, as citizens of a large nation. Reverting to one of my favorite analogies: The organization of political life in the United States is governed ultimately by the "design principles" embodied in the articles of the Constitution. U.S. political culture and civic competence have not yet evolved to the stage where anyone has seriously proposed abandoning the Constitution as an outgrown crutch. Nor do I anticipate that happening anytime soon.)

Furthermore, when our task is to evaluate alternative technologies' democratic strengths and weaknesses, we must surmount a common misconception that our only concern is to develop technologies -- such as tele-voting -- that are explicitly designed to facilitate formal political tasks. That notion is badly inadequate, because it neglects the countless ways in which technologies of all kinds conspire indirectly to shape a society's basic political structure.[2]

It is in order to address the two preceding concerns -- our relative ineptness at knowing how to evaluate technologies' democratic significance, and our specific need of encouragement in evaluating technologies' indirect political effects (both alone and in combination with other technologies) -- that we need tools to help us. For this purpose democratic design criteria, and various methods and procedures for using them, may be among the tools that can be of assistance.


This work has been made possible with the financial support of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF Award No. SBR-981003), the Danish Board of Technology, the Dept. of Technology & Social Science at the Danish Technical University, the European Awareness Scenario Workshop program, and thanks to general support to the Loka Institute from the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Albert A. List Foundation, the Menemsha Fund, and the generosity of individual Loka Institute donors.


1. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Stuart E. Dreyfus, "From Socrates to Expert Systems: The Limits of Calculative Rationality," Technology in Society, vol. 6, no. 3 (1984), pp. 217-33. [Return to text.]

2. Richard E. Sclove, Democracy and Technology (New York and London: Guilford Press, 1995), especially pp. 30-31, 59-151. [Return to text.]