Political Debate in the "Polis" Conference: Citizenship and Democracy

Fiorella De Cindio
Computer Science Dept., University of Milano (Italy)
E-mail: decindio@dsi.unimi.it
Discussion Paper
e@cn workshop,
May 21-22, 1999

It is obvious that forms of democracy have been evolving in close connection to the forms of communication available at each historical turn. Communication, after all, is the means that leads to concrete opportunities for citizens to participate in the res publica, and it is such participation that underlies the idea of democracy itself. In Athens communication took place through meetings and discussions in the agora. Even as late as the end of the seventeenth century, communication technologies had not substantially improved. As a result, in order to support increasingly large and complex cities and states, there was continuous push and pull between representative democracy and at-large democracy, from the French Revolution onwards. The former is based on delegated authority and guarantees efficiency by creating channels for communication from the top down and vice versa, as representatives are elected to decide and transmit the will of the people. However, at times of rapid social change (and here we may take as recent examples the events of 1968 or the rise of the ‘fax people’ who made themselves heard during the Clean Hands investigation), the principle of delegated authority lapses into crisis. Everybody wants to take part directly, to join in discussion of plans and projects, and to have say in decisions. Nevertheless, even today’s most widespread communication technologies – the telephone, fax, and television – are unable to guarantee mass participation for any sustained interval.

A modern democratic system essentially allows citizens to choose from a set of options drawn up by others, whom we may term professional policy makers. Voting in an election basically amounts to putting an X on a predefined set of options. (Names of candidates, Yes/No alternative in Referendum)

The limits of this level of participation are increasingly evident. Polls are used to ‘take the pulse’ of the electorate more and more often. But polls, too, go no further than recording reaction to questions made up by other people. A further example is the primary election, imported from the American political tradition in order to give voters a say in the selection of candidates. Yet we have seen how hard it has been to incorporate primaries into Italian, and European, political practice. Finally, even participation in political parties and movements, which allows citizens to play a more active role in determining political choices, is becoming ever more burdensome in the hectic lifestyle of today.

The Vision

After years of direct experience on the Internet, typically gained through professional positions in the research and university environment, many people envisioned ICT, i.e. ‘the net,’ leading to a leap in the means of communication that also invites radical change in the very idea of participation and democracy.

At the outset of this extraordinary innovation, Terry Winograd wrote [Win81]:

"In the decentralization of work and the distribution of expertise we see a movement toward reducing our dependence on centralized structures and expanding the importance of individual "nodes" in a network of individuals and small groups.

The use of computer communication in coordination makes it possible for a large heterogeneous organization to function effectively without a rigid structure of upward and downward communication. This shift does more than reorganize the workplace. It puts forth a challenge to the very idea of hierarchical organization that pervades our society. It may open a new space of possibilities for the kinds of decentralized communal social structures that have been put forward as solutions to many of our global problems."

It is no coincidence that the first two experiments with community networks in Italy, in Milan and Bologna, despite their institutional and technological differences, shared the vision of the community network as essentially a vehicle for guaranteeing the right of online citizenship to all.

The net, or, to put it better, networking technology, affords such opportunities for two fundamental reasons:

1. As Winograd emphasizes in the passage quoted above, ICT makes even communication not based on a strictly hierarchical system efficient. Proof of this can be seen in the paradigm shift from the company based on a Ford model to a post-Ford structure that makes liberal use of groupware technologies. That shift can be exported to other environments, typically from corporate structure to social organization.

2. Secondly, ‘virtual’ activity frees individuals from constraints of time and place that belong to the ‘physical’ world. The usual examples of this are examples in the extreme, therefore, it will be helpful to consider some instances related to our actual experience.

A Few Examples

1. For many people (especially for women but also for the self-employed), a readiness to participate actively in politics through a movement or party is hindered by the time commitment required in terms of meetings. Such movements may no longer have chapters and branches but they still are made up of committees and workgroups. Wise use of the net makes it possible to drastically reduce the number of meetings. Meetings are held when they are truly useful and then the work, the discussion, and the creation of multi-author projects and papers can take place on the net, in accordance with each person’s schedule. (Opinions can be expressed by those who are away on business or after the children have been put to bed).

On RCM all the major political groups and movements indeed opened their own spaces, not only to provide information but also "direct lines" open for discussion, which could be he basis for testing such possibilities. However, the most significant examples in this regard are probably the cases of several national mailing lists. One of these, Innovazione, the mailing list of members of the Olive Tree Movement interested in technological innovation, was partly born on RCM and is still hosted there. After starting on an essentially local basis, the list saw the arrival of subscribers from throughout Italy.

2. The chronic challenge for representatives to a nonlocal assembly, such as the national or European parliament, is to be present at the sessions of the assembly without losing contact with their constituency. Contact with the voters is needed not only so as to be reelected but also in order to truly represent their opinions and interests and to keep them informed of events in parliament, aside from communication through official channels or the media. Now that all members of parliament are being equipped with networked computers, truly extraordinary possibilities arise.

The same is actually true on a local level, as well. It is not easy for the members of a city council, a provincial governing board, or a regional assembly, for a department superintendents, or for mayors to maintain direct contact with the citizens they serve. There are overwhelming time pressures in these jobs, exacerbated by the fact that most of those holding such positions continue their professional activity, at least to a limited extent, during their term in office.

On RCM, the opportunity afforded by the forum dedicated to political debate, Polis, which has some of the highest traffic on the net, among other things, has so far been seized by only two elected officials. Senator Fiorello Cortiana of the Greens Party and Regional Superintendent Marzio Tremaglia of the National Alliance have written in at regular intervals to keep citizens abreast of their political initiatives and discuss then with the public at large.

There are also "direct lines" to some of the superintendents and, more recently, to city-council caucuses. These are a step in the direction of improved communication between the electors and the elected, the administrated and the administrators.

The actual innovative element in all this needs to be underlined. It has always been possible for a citizen to send a letter to the mayor, a superintendent, a member of parliament, or a senator. What changes radically with the net is that such a message can now be public, that it may be read not only by the recipient but also by other citizens who may have the same problem or the same point of view. This gives rise to synergies and to new projects but also may lead to an accumulation of negative impressions. However, true democracy is also made up of such stuff.

Neither Subjects, nor Users, nor Clients, but Sovereign Citizens: Added Value in Community Networks

These early indicators show that the net actually offers new opportunities that can renew the idea of democracy. Thus, active integration is encouraged and, with it, everyone’s participation in the social context in which they live.

But these first buds need to develop and much will be needed in the way of… fertilizer! The needed ‘fertilizer’ will take the form primarily of projects, in other words, of clear ideas about what is to be done and how.

There is a great misunderstanding to be overcome on this point, partly as a result of the way traditional media, sometimes even the technicians, talk about the Internet. Let us explain it by way of an analogy. Suppose I want to buy a small appliance to squeeze orange juice. I go into a store and, stricken by a sudden lapse of memory, rather than asking for an orange juicer, request a small appliance that turns and has grooves. The clerk misunderstands the "grooves" and sells me an electric cheese grater. If I attempt nevertheless to make orange juice with it, the outcome will not be up to par.

We are behaving rather in this fashion with the Internet. We use Internet or ‘the net’ generically, without distinguishing its various applications: email, newsgroups, mailing lists, and the web. Perhaps, even worse, we identify the Internet with the worldwide web. This is particularly true in Europe, where the Internet boom took place after the web already existed, unlike the North American experience of the web arriving on the scene after the Internet was already well-known in its two-way applications. Some Internet applications are inherently two-way, while others exist to spread information and services in broadcast mode.

So if we wish to use ‘the net’ to revitalize political debate, foster participation, and enable citizens to express their needs and problems, to suggest solutions, and to exchange ideas with politicians and local administration about the feasibility of these solutions, online communication must necessarily take place using two-way applications. Such applications are typical of yesterday’s BBSs and of more modern intranet systems. Because meaningful discussion has to be based on precise awareness of the regulatory or legislative context, it is appropriate to use broadcast communications, usually the web, to publish laws, rulings, and the like.

In concrete terms, this means that, in order for the network to enable greater citizen participation, it is not enough for the municipality to open a web site where citizens can send mail to the mayor or some superintendent or a certain office. Such messages may fall into a black hole and no one will be the wiser, save the sender, who then has no way to use the network, which consists of the website itself, to call attention to the fact.

Participation must be nurtured and designed by enticing citizens, involving them in the creation of a virtual city interwoven with the real city that brings support for communication and work and extends the community into new spaces for meetings and discussion, opening it to the future. It is no accident the RCM’s slogan translates as: "You are the network." On the other hand, a website designed with a conception of the citizens as users, as computer technicians tend to have, or as clients, as often found in the public sector’s striving to provide efficient services by applying business principles to managing the commonweal, leads to absolutely no innovation.

A city website with no real participation is like a city with no inhabitants. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau put it in Du Contract Social: "Les maisons font la ville, mais les citoyens font la citÚ." That might be roughly rendered as: "Buildings may create an urban environment, but only citizens can make it civilized." Phrased in Latin terms, civitas is rooted in the urbe but it means much more than that.

The principles outlined above are what distinguish community networks from other local online projects that take on various names: digital cities, ‘telecities,’ civic networks, city nets, and city websites. All these initiatives also claim that they are interested in improving relations with the citizenry. But in fact they contrast with community networks in the role the assign to citizens, the role of users or clients of services. This is not the same as treating people as sovereign citizens with the right to participate in the transformation of the very idea the city that globalization brings with it.

It is useful in this regard to consider the idea historians use in characterizing the Italian maritime republics as global cities. Venice had a strong identity of its own but was at the same time a port open to the world (i.e., the Mediterranean). The challenge facing cities at the turn of the twenty-first century, in the information society, is probably finding a way to recover the value of local culture and specific identity in a global context.

This challenge requires a well-rooted awareness of what it means to be online on the part of all segments in the local community, citizens, associations, the public sector, and private enterprise. This is the way to ensure that each can do her, his, or its part, in synergy, in contributing to redesigning the res publica.

How can this participation be achieved? From ICT to Information Society Technologies

In order to answer this question, we must bear in mind that our context is still the development of applications base on ICT. We must look to the technologies and methods developed in this environment to understand what information society technologies can become, as the Fifth Framework Programme calls for. There are two pivotal elements we wish to consider here.

1. In technological terms, it must be recognized that current platforms do not meet the needs identified above.

2. In methodological terms, information society technologies require that computer-based systems and applications be planned using the principles of participatory design [SN93]. This means that design must be not only for those who will ultimately use the systems and applications, not only with them, but also by them [BCS83]. RCM’s experience has already shown the fruits of this approach, which are thoroughly described in [CDGS98].

It is necessary and possible to develop telematics on a local scale by actively involving citizens, i.e., by making them codesigners of the community network. This principle is what inspires the community networks grouped in A.I.Re.C. and those working to create the European Association for Community Networking.

At the same time, existing community networks must encourage the design and implementation of online platforms (on the server side but especially on the client side) that favor the creation, management, and vitality of community networking. This must be done in the knowledge that the experience of running a community network represents a background of know-how that is imperative in running business-oriented virtual or network communities [HA97], [Mic97].


[BCS83] Briefs, U., Ciborra, C., Schneider L. (eds.), Systems design for, with and by the users. North-Holland, 1983.

[CDGS98] Casapulla G., De Cindio F., Gentile O., Sonnante L., A Citizen-driven Civic Network as Stimulating Context for Designing On-line Public Services in Proceedings of the fifth biennal Participatory Design Conference "Broadening Participation", PDC98, Seattle, WA USA, November, 1998

[HA97] Hagel, J., Amstrong, G. A. Net Gain Expanding the Market through Virtual Communities, Harvard Business School Press, 1997

[Mic97] Micelli, S., ComunitÓ virtuali di consumatori, in Economia e Management, n.2, 1997

[SN93] Schuler D., Namioka A. (eds.), Participatory Design: Principles and Practices, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 1993.

[Win81] Winograd, T., Computers and the New Communication, unpublished note, August 12, 1981.