Rethinking democratizing potential of digital technology. A review of technology and communication studies

Date08 January 2020
Published date08 January 2020
AuthorLuyue Ma
Subject MatterInformation & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information & communications technology
Rethinking democratizing
potential of digital technology
A review of technology and
communication studies
Luyue Ma
Department of Communication, University of Washington, Seattle,
Washington, USA
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examinehow the shifting conceptualization of the democratizing
potential of digital technology can be more comprehensively understood by bringing in science and
technology studies (STS) perspectives to communication scholarship. The synthesis and discussion are
aiming at providing an interdisciplinary theoretical framework for comprehensively understand the
democratizing potential of digital technology, and urging researchers to be conscious of assumptions
underpinning epistemological positions they take when examining the issue of democratizing potential of
digital technology.
Design/methodology/approach The paper is a constructive literature review that synthesizes and
integrates existed literature from communication and STS on the democratizing potential of digital
technology. The author attempts to bridge theoretical perspectives from communication and STS by
identifying core arguments and debates around key concepts and discussing potential implications of
differentepistemological positions.
Findings Tracing the evolving analytical perspectives of technological determinism, the social
construction of technology and actor-network theory, the author argues that researchersshould be aware of
their underlyingepistemological assumptions embedded in relationshipsamong users, technological systems
and social factors. Analyzing the contested notion of power in the democratizing potential of digital
technology from two contrastingperspectives, the author argues that researchers shouldrecognize both the
front end and the back end of digital technology in their analysis.In addition, new challenges of algorithm
opacity and accountability in impacting the democratizing potential of digital technology are further
Originality/value This study provides an originalinterdisciplinary theoretical framework by reviewing
and bridging scholarship from communicationand STS in examining the democratizing potential of digital
technology. Adoptingthis interdisciplinary theoretical framework helpsresearchers develop a more nuanced
and comprehensiveunderstanding of the democratizingpotential of digital technology.
Keywords Digital technology, Communication, STS, Democratizing potential, Digital democracy
Paper type Literature review
Ever since its birth, digital technology has been regarded as a promisingtool for advancing
democratic values of social equality and enhancing citizen participation (Hacker and van
Dijk, 2000). Democracy in the digital age entails not only substantive political transition to
democratic political regimes, the introduction of democratic principles or providing better
public information to citizensbut also afrming self-determination, participation, voiceand
autonomyaided by interactivecommunication technologies (Hague and Loader, 1999,p.7).
Essentially, the umbrella term digitaldemocracyhas been used to refer to a wide range of
Received17 February 2019
Revised16 August 2019
Accepted3 December 2019
Journalof Information,
Communicationand Ethics in
Vol.18 No. 1, 2020
pp. 140-156
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JICES-02-2019-0022
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
technical practices that involves using new digital tools to enhance democratic values and
advance democraticpolitical activities (Hague and Loader, 1999).
Scholars from communication studies are mostly concerned about the democratizing
potential of digital technology in facilitating positive social change. Their theoretical
inquiries often focus on the socialcontexts of messages, privileging the political implications
that the messages bring, and treating mediachannels as neutral. In science and technology
studies (STS), another eld invested extensively on the issue, researchers have devoted
attention to the technology itself,exploring theoretical questions like co-productionof users
and artifacts, the mutual conguration of humans and actants and the perpetuation of
hierarchical consolidation of power through technological design and infrastructure.
Reviewing prominent scholarship on democratizing potential of digital technology, this
paper argues that bringing STS insights to communication in scrutinizing the
democratizing potential of digitaltechnology and discussing important debates around the
issue will provide an interdisciplinary analytical lens that helps us develop a more
comprehensive understandingof democratizing potential of digital technology. Introducing
the evolving epistemological perspectives from STS to communication scholarship will be
helpful in understanding digitaldemocracy as not only incorporating constantly conicting
concepts, values and practices but also providing a more nuanced and systematic
conceptualization of the power dynamics and tension involved in digital democracy, and
reecting on underlying epistemological assumptions embedded in framing research
questions and drawing conclusionsabout digital democracy.
This paper starts off by tracing the evolving perspectives from technological
determinism, the social constructionof technology (SCOT) and actor-network theory (ANT)
to illustrate how relationships among users, technological systems and social factors bring
new dynamics into thinking about democratizing potential of digital technology. Then, the
author analyzes the contested notion of power in democratizing potential of digital
technology and elucidating perception of digital democracy from a front end versus back
end perspectives: decentralization and empowerment at the front end, as opposed to
concentration and control at the back end. Last, the paper discusses the looming algorithm
opacity and accountability that are becoming an increasingly salient challenge for
examining the powerand structure of the democratizing potential of digital technology.
The evolving views of technology: determinism, constructivism and actor-
network theory
A large quantity of communication research on democratizing potential of digital
technology underpins an unintentional technological deterministic orientation that tends to
prioritize the role of digital technology in facilitating and even initiating positive social
change. Taking a STS perspective, technological determinism, in general, assumes that
technology is an out-of-control driving force of social development (Winner, 1977). It
juxtaposes technological progress with social progress and obscures human intervention
and action and their interplay with technology (Wyatt, 2008). According to technological
deterministic heuristic, technology evolves independently from social interaction with
society and humans, profoundly shaping society over time span with its own logic (Dafoe,
2015). Technologicaldeterminism used to be dominant in American cultures fascinationfor
technological development, but the STS community has largely avoided using it as a
theoretical framework to study technology largely because scholars from social
constructivist approaches have been criticizing it for neglecting the explanations of
technical dynamics and oversimplifying the intertwined relationships within the technical
structures (Winner,1993).

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