By Dr Eric Jensen, Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer), University of Warwick
This set of blog posts comprise a review and critique of the Sciencewise-commissioned report entitled: ‘In the goldfish bowl: science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world‘ (authors: Susie Latta, Charlotte Mulcare and Anthony Zacharzewski), published in 2013. While the authors make some useful points, they exaggerate the ubiquity of digital technology, overstate the benefits of adopting digital dialogue approaches and understate the potential downsides. I argue for an understanding of the role of online technologies for dialogue in contemporary societies that is better grounded in sociological research.
Overstating digital ubiquity and potential
From the start the report, the ubiquity of digital technology in public dialogue is overstated: ‘Technology is changing the way that all engagement between institutions and citizens is undertaken’ (pg. i). This hyperbolic statement is clearly inaccurate. Many institutions are engaging (or not) exactly as they always have done, impervious to the changes going on around them. Other institutions have explicitly decided to continue with their traditional engagement practices to limit the risk of disenfranchising those who are not confident users of digital technology.
At a general level, the report’s conclusions about the potential upside of digital approaches are largely sound:
‘We believe that a digital approach can support good dialogue in two ways: firstly, online engagement around science-based policy will increase the ability of the public to participate in democratic discussion. Secondly, where specific exercises are planned, digital methods can expand the footprint of dialogue, involving more people and broadening the conversation’ (pg. 1).
However, this optimistic perspective focused on the ‘potential’ of social media underplays the limitations that can be seen empirically from current research on the digital divide and evidence on the structural limitations of social media as a site for public dialogue. Indeed, there is an emphasis on the future in the report (e.g. 2020) when the level of diffusion of digital technologies is expected to be sufficiently advanced that the issue of social inequalities in technical access and ability will be solved. This utopian future-orientation enables the authors to largely sidestep or caveat the unpleasant reality of digital inequalities.
Public dialogue and policy online
The report authors make an excellent point, highlighting the fact that dialogue about current scientific issues amongst publics online is on-going:
‘On any issue, people are already talking about policy, sharing experiences and anecdotes, and spreading information of varying quality. Every dialogue exercise, whether digital or not, is undertaken against a background of digitally-mediated information and conversation’ (p. 4).
Therefore, policymakers’ efforts to curate a public dialogue on current scientific issues will always be interjecting into a continuous conversation that began before the policymakers arrived and will continue after they leave with their assessment of public views on the topic. This raises the idea of more radically re-conceptualising the methods for gathering public views (if this is the aim of public policy dialogues). For example, for issues that are already widely discussed, why not simply commission an analysis of conversations already taking place rather than policymakers constructing an artificial context for dialogue?
The digital divide
The Goldfish Bowl report acknowledges that digital engagement ‘can disadvantage non-users and unconfident users’ but does not pursue this point any further to identify its implications. The report cites the general statistic that 73% of the British population currently use the Internet’, and for social media it only (selectively) highlights the rate of weekly social media usage (80%) for under-25s (pg. 2). However, these general, undifferentiated statistics fail to capture the ways in which people are using social media. Pippa Norris’s groundbreaking work on the ‘digital divide’ highlights three forms of digital divide: global (between rich and poor nations), social (inequality within a nation) and democratic (between those who use digital technology for political purposes and those who do not). It is important to bear each of these divides in mind as we consider the potential value of social media for public dialogue. However, the ‘democratic divide’ is of particular interest for this blog post.
The Democratic Divide
The report’s claim that ‘It is impossible to ignore the trends that the Internet is becoming central to all of our lives’ is simply empirically inaccurate in saying ‘all’ our lives’. It is also problematic because it hides the real digital inequalities that persist in contemporary societies. The democratic divide in how those who are online make use of the democratic opportunities the web affords is particularly salient to the present discussion. Just because people are online or are given the opportunity to engage in public dialogue does not mean they will take up those opportunities. There is rational disengagement and intentional ignorance in the face of disenfranchisement and disenchantment with the political system. There are political and sociological reasons for non-engagement amongst internet users. For example, there may be systematic bias within the online public sphere in who is sufficiently networked and encouraged to participate in democratic dialogue.
At this point, it is worth pausing to consider who public dialogue should be aimed at? Should it be representative of the broader population, or just those who are politically engaged and technologically networked into political systems?
In my next blog post, I will continue to engage with the report ‘In the goldfish bowl: science and technology policy dialogues in a digital world‘, focusing on their conclusions about the benefits and limitations of digital methods for public dialogue.