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Karl Marx and The Technology Gap

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from E-Access Bulletin, the free email newsletter on access to technology for blind and visually impaired people, Issue 42, JUNE 2003, http://www.headstar.com/eab. Image: Telephone tangled up in wires

The Office of the e-Envoy (OeE) has begun to show an admirable interest in the subject of e-democracy, defined as the use of information and communications technologies to enhance citizen participation, as opposed to e-government which is supposed to enhance the government's services to citizens.

Now although Marxism is an almost completely discredited political theory, some of its social theories still hold good and are based on historical analysis rather than malicious cynicism. Two such observations are: that in periods of change, the rich benefit more than the poor so that the gap between the two groups widens; and that the faster the change, the wider the gap.

These truisms apply to economic and technological development. In economics, for example, they are demonstrated in the fact that although the government has had a serious and sustained anti-poverty strategy since 1997, the gap between the rich and the poor in the late 1990s actually widened because of the rate of economic growth.

There is no reason to believe that technological development will be any different, and if the government wants to use technology as the basis for citizen participation in democracy then we are on very shaky ground.

For a start, as the government uses on-line consultation instead of the tedious face-to-face method, it shortens consultative periods. This, in turn, cuts out trusted intermediaries for consumers, such as the RNIB or Action for Blind People.

Instead of consultative documents being passed from officers to elected trustees and from them to their constituencies, with a reverse flow back up to officials, officers of interest groups might have to take snap decisions on behalf of citizens in order for an organisation's views to be included. The whole system of civil society we built up in the 20th century is in danger of crumbling in less than a decade.

Second, the use of the home computer for local referenda and other kinds of votes will bias the results in favour of computer owners - in other words, the rich and powerful. If a council wants to know people's thoughts about a planning proposal to build a chemical factory, for example, who is going to be most effective in the lobbying and where do you suppose the factory will be built?

Third, most people make their views known through the ballot box. They may not vote in such great numbers as we would all like, but collectively we lay down a democratic mandate for a council or the government. How will the poor and the disabled figure when mass straw polling can be conducted through the broadband PC, digital television and the text message?

As if these concerns were not enough, there is still considerable reluctance on the part of the government to guarantee access by blind and vision impaired people to digital broadcasting through the Communications Bill currently working its way through the House of Lords (see http://www.communicationsbill.gov.uk). It is only after ferocious campaigning by the RNIB that the matter has even grudgingly been put on the agenda.

At the very least we should insist that all democratic processes should use every available channel, including land line phones. We should also remember that although home computer-based technology is important, access to broadcasting has never been more crucial for all of us in an age of technology convergence and e-democracy.