Doug Schuler ( has been working at the intersection of technology and society for nearly 20 years. Doug is a meliorist who believes that positive social change is possible and that technology could play a role in promoting it. His book, "New Community Networks: Wired for Change" is now online at Doug is currently a member of the Faculty (part time studies) at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and has just launched the Public Sphere Project and Liberating Voices! A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution.


Computer Professionals and the Next Culture of Democracy

Doug Schuler

The Evergreen State College

Communications of the ACM, January, 2001 (this version may vary slightly from printed copy)

There are many disturbing signs that democracy, the process of government "by the people," is in serious trouble in many -- if not all -- of the nominally democratic "developed" countries. By nearly all measures voting and other forms of conventional political participation has been declining regularly for the past 30 or so years (Castells, 1997). The political process, particularly in the United State, is increasingly described by the media as "ritualized." While citizen participation in the process declines the amount of money spent on television ads and other campaign expenditures continues to break records. By Labor Day, 2000 (September 4) according to an Associated Press analysis two billion dollars had already been spent on the election that was still two months away, a sum higher than the amount spend in total on the previous presidential and congressional campaign in 1996 (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). And as the domination by large economic interests increases, the idea of rough equality that democracy represents becomes increasingly degraded.

For many people, the Internet represents the dashing hero who will rescue democracy from its lingering malaise. Many people believe that the Internet is inherently democratic and its continued penetration worldwide virtually guarantees the triumph of freedom over tyranny. This belief partially stems from its presumed imminent ubiquity and the more or less unconstrained way that people (those that have access to the technology) can dispatch whatever thought comes into their mind into the Internet's various types of communication fora (Hague and Loader, 1999). Focusing on the lack of censorship alone misses much of the texture and richness of systems that are truly democratic: universal access, support for deliberation, and equal participation at the decision stage, and other attributes (Dahl, 1988). Worse, in my opinion, is the belief that an electronic-based participatory democracy -- utopian in its reach -- is destiny. This wishful thinking is based on the mistaken assumption that technological systems are autonomous; that they act only according to their own inherent nature, magically immune to and unanswerable to the powerful economic, political, and social systems, which were responsible, in large part, for their existence in the first place (Basalla, 1988). This error, manifold today, has been commonplace throughout history and has been re-applied, indiscriminately -- at least in the U.S., to each new form of communication (Matellart, 2000).

All this is not to dismiss the democratic potential of the Internet. On the contrary, any communication medium that, in theory, could inexpensively and symmetrically connect everybody on the planet demands that we pay careful attention to democratic opportunities (as well as threats). The error of the utopians is that they are not mindful of history and the powerful non-technological forces that shape it. It may not be easy to transform an open system like the Internet into a closed, privately controlled system like commercial broadcast television but it's probably not impossible. Robert McChesney's analysis of the corporate of the radio airwaves in the United States (1995) provides an excellent case study for thinking about current possibilities for the Internet. One way to think about the future of the Internet is to think about the dominant (and not as dominant) actors who are attempting to influence its development. Certainly there is a large number of powerful and resource-rich institutions that are banking on the possibility that the Internet will repay their investments handsomely. We may learn in time that the investments that provide the largest returns to the investors might not be the same as those that are the best investments for cultivating a civic culture.

Civic Culture

Democracy can be defined and evaluated in terms of formal requirements: universal suffrage, fair and regular elections, voting, etc. These formal requirements in the "developed" countries are still legally met. The threat to democracy in these countries is not generally one of state suppression. It's generally not seen as necessary to fight for formal rights that an increasing number of people aren't exercising anyway. The declining interest on the part of the citizen to engage in these political processes might be the "canary in the mine" whose failing health signals far more serious trouble for the body politic.

The formal criteria of a democracy -- and the statistics that measure them -- do not convey its great potential. The idea of democracy is often held up as one of humankind's most enlightened achievements. In this regard democracy is considered as more of a philosophy or way of life than an obligation that is fulfilled simply through a sporadic discharge of one's duties through voting. Behind the formal requirements of democracy is a general idea of a "civic culture" which may in fact be the wellspring of democracy, whose drying up or corruption might be at the heart of the decline in democratic participation, support, and faith.

Ideally democracy can be thought of as a fabric for collective problem-solving or civic intelligence. And since humankind is beset with a wide range of problems -- some of which the computer has helped spawn (Joy, 2000) -- related to education, health, the environment, health, war, and social justice that affect us all and transcend national boundaries, it is probably time to think seriously about democracy worldwide as a collective tool that may be losing its effectiveness. It is probably time to think seriously about how best to shape our nascent digital media networks to support this renewal.

Computer Professionals in the Community

Who is responsible for the maintenance of a democracy? Making the question explicit is tantamount to answering it: The only possible answer is that every citizen is in some way responsible for ensuring that democracy is viable; that it is vital, collective and inclusive. Saying that democracy is everybody’s business is not to say that there is no role for specialized knowledge, of, say, that of a computer professional. Practically (and theoretically) speaking there is no way that specialized knowledge could be kept out of the deliberation and decision-making process -- nor would we want it excluded even if we had the power to exclude it. If expert knowledge is applicable to a public issue -- and it often is -- then it should be brought in. From a democratic point of view, expert knowledge is not a problem; but the way it is brought in can be. An "organic intellectual" (Said, 1996) is essentially a hired gun whose services are purchased (and, generally, controlled to a large degree) by an institution of the state or of the private sector. Less frequently, does the holder of specialized knowledge act on behalf of the public interest, or for those people without visibility, voice or economic clout.

Computer professionals, by the commonly accepted definition, are specialists; it is their duty to understand, maintain, and advance the vast digital machineries of our age. What role should computer professionals play in the consideration of our broadest affairs when their focus is so specific and arguably narrow? They are likely, certainly, to be cast in the role of the "organic intellectual." Does this mean that they are incapable of genuine participation and, therefore, should -- somehow -- be prevented from actively developing new and energizing old civic institutions? Far from it. My contention is that their understanding of these critical technologies compels them to accept greater responsibility and their engagement with the world should be raised -- not as "organic intellectuals" but as concerned citizens -- to greater levels of visibility and appreciation and practice.

How might this transformation be promoted? We must take a hard look at the activities of computer professionals. Is their discipline narrowly construed as a purely technical, instrumental discipline or is it a practice that, although intimately connected with digital technology, is an embedded practice which necessarily relates and interacts with the rest of society. Professional organizations such as the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) or Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) can certainly help promote this transformation of a disembedded practice into an embedded one as can funding agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and non-governmental foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and others. Computer professionals by themselves can also reprioritize their lives to some degree. They can work on collaborative community teams, on policy or social work, or on developing new democratic technology.

Democratic Technology

How can computers help in a transformation of our democracy? Certainly new algorithms, new architectures, faster processors, and more recently, more financial transactions on the web are not expected on their own to help address deficiencies of democracy. With few exceptions the institutions who are furthering these advances are not explicitly concerned with democracy.

The rapid computerization of the world and the immense (and, generally, non critical) attention it's receiving represents an unprecedented opportunity for computer professionals. Computer professionals can seize this historic opportunity and engage in interdisciplinary and collaborative work involving other researchers as well as practitioners in education, development, social services, social activism, and the government to help build (and, in some cases, rebuild) a civic culture.

Working with other people as a team over a sustained period of time is the best way to design and implement systems that meet the needs of a democratic society. Are all people -- including those at the economic and other margins of society -- getting the information they need? Do the existing communication channels work for them? How could they be improved? Do the systems promote economic development, neighborhood awareness or community collaborative work? CSCW tools, for example, perhaps customized in some way, may prove to be very useful for marginalized communities (Schuler, 1998). But they’ve rarely, if ever, field-tested under those circumstances. The assumption, usually implicit, is that these tools are supposed to ultimately find their way to users with fewer resources. But CSCW professionals know that the context is of critical importance to the success or failure of a CSCW application (Grudin, 1988) and contexts vary considerably. There is little reason to assume that low-income or other marginalized communities will play any role in a participatory design process of a CSCW application for their community without a concerted outreach effort.

Community networks (Schuler, 1996) offer a sound technological and philosophical platform for this work. Developed and maintained by civic and community activists in Seattle and other places around the world, community networks represent a new type of public institution similar in spirit to the traditional public library, but built upon more recent modes of communication -- modes that are generally digital and extend the idea of access to include producing as well as consuming. Moreover, like the public library, they are non-commercial. Well before Hotmail offered free e-mail and Geocities offered free web page hosting, community networks were providing these services -- without flashing banner ads or "data mining" of private information -- to anybody who requested them.

The Seattle Community Network (SCN) ( may be thought of as typical -- to the extent that any specific community network might be thought of as typical. The SCN computers (mostly Sun SPARCs) piggyback on the Internet connections provided without charge by the Seattle Public Library. The system itself is administered by a non-profit organization, the Seattle Community Network Association (SCNA) and its progressive philosophy is exemplified by the set of principles (Figure 1) adopted in 1993. SCN currently has 18,000 users, 200 web sites, and over 300 mailing lists.

SCN Principles

The Seattle Community Network (SCN) is a free public-access computer network for exchanging and accessing information. Beyond that, however, it is a service conceived for community empowerment. Our principles are a series of commitments to help guide the ongoing development and management of the system for both the organizers and participating individuals and organizations.

Commitment to Access

• Access to the SCN will be free to all

• We will provide access to all groups of people particularly those without ready access to information technology.

• We will provide access to people with diverse needs. This may include special-purpose interfaces.

• We will make the SCN accessible from public places.

Commitment to Service

• The SCN will offer reliable and responsive service

• We will provide information that is timely and useful to the community.

• We will provide access to databases and other services.

Commitment to Democracy

• The SCN will promote participation in government and public dialogue

• The community will be actively involved in the ongoing development of the SCN.

• We will place high value in freedom of speech and expression and in the free exchange of ideas.

• We will make every effort to ensure privacy of the system users.

• We will support democratic use of electronic technology.

Commitment to the World Community

• In addition to serving the local community, we will become part of the regional, national and international community

• We will build a system that can serve as a model for other communities.

Commitment to the Future

We will continue to evolve and improve the SCN

• We will explore the use of innovative applications such as electronic town halls for community governance, or electronic encyclopedias for enhanced access to information.

• We will work with information providers and with groups involved in similar projects using other media.

• We will solicit feedback on the technology as it is used, and make it as accessible and humane as possible.

• We will build a system that can serve as a model for other communities.

Fig. 1

The SCN web site is divided into 18 main categories (under "Community" on the right column). The "Activism" category comes first, reflecting SCN’s philosophy as well as a fortuitous side-effect of an alphabetical listing. Other categories include civic, health, neighborhoods, and spirituality Each category has its own page which is maintained by a topic "editor" who maintains that page. The editor is free to organize their category and the page in any way that they see fit, keeping in mind that any web page owner on SCN has a right to have a link on a category page (and everybody has a right to have pages on SCN).

How could computer professionals assume a role working with SCN or with other community networking projects? For one thing, community networks provide an ongoing and ready made test-bed for "real-world" applications. My suggestion is that Computer Science (or Information and Library Science or Public Policy or other academic departments) become long-term "partners" in these projects. In this way, students would have the opportunity to experience first-hand technology development projects that were designed for actual users. Students (and faculty) would play a role in the shaping of public applications and would come to appreciate the importance as well as the challenges of supporting a democratic culture with technology. For their part, the community network practitioners would -- ideally -- become exposed to innovative ideas, skilled partners, and invigorating enthusiasm.

Technologists and researchers can also forge partnerships with local government and the citizenry. The city of Seattle’s groundbreaking "Indicators of a Health Technology City" project is a good example of this. This project has worked with Seattle region citizens to develop a set of "indicators" that, when measured over time, will reveal important trends about the uses and effects of communication technology in the region. These indicators include several types of indicators (access; literacy; business and economic development; community building; civic participation; human relationships to information technology; and partnerships and resource mobilization) and are intended to explore negative as well as positive consequences about technology. As a matter of fact, one of the guidelines in the developmental phase was to think about these from a citizen point-of-view that overlaps but is not completely coincidental with points-of-view of government or business. Clearly a project such as this helps to build a civic culture by helping to surface the issues and concerns that people have in relation to computer and communication use in an era of rapid change. Projects like this can serve as both motivator and evaluative yardstick for computer professionals who are interested in long-term development of democratic technology.


If computer professionals are exclusively organic intellectuals destined for academia or industry who practice a solely technical discipline, their ability to be a proactive and progressive force in society will be insignificant. There are now countless examples of computer professionals helping to create new institutions, bridge the "digital divide," educate the public, and build new technologies specifically for marginalized communities. The evidence for this involvement is overwhelming and largely unprecedented. Witness the outpouring of papers for the "Shaping the Network Society" Symposium, May 2000 (Day et al, 2000) and the resulting "Seattle Statement" (2000) calling for a "new public sphere."

Computer professionals as founts of knowledge, skill and innovation, could be key agents in the redirection of communication technology towards democratic ends. Democracy, however, is not manifested solely though computer -- or other -- technology. Only through involvement at several levels at once can computer professionals realize their historical possibilities. Working with community activists, researchers, independent media producers, policy makers, and librarians are all good places to start. Other intriguing possibilities include working with activists in the Free Software Movement to develop CSCW technology that could be used by people in low income communities who can't afford the advanced CSCW technology employed in today's businesses. The operative expression in all of the cases above is "working with." The design process itself should be democratic and participatory (Schuler and Namioka, 1993).

At the same time computer professionals must be aware of the threats to democracy that exist. For one thing there is a curious lack of critical analysis of the immense economic forces that are nearly everywhere at work. These forces tend to crowd out efforts that don't fit within the dominant ideological framework. In other words, working to develop communications technology that fosters deep democracy is not likely to be easy, popular, or lucrative.

It’s difficult (for me at least) to foresee the consequences of a continued decline in democracy. We would expect -- at the very least -- that its use as a tool for collective problem-solving would diminish if interest and engagement wanes. As the world -- and its problems -- continue to become globalized, ignoring the rich potential of democracy may be our biggest mistake.

References (some references did not appear in CACM article due to their limit of 10 citations)

Basalla, G. (1988). Evolution of Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Castells, M. (1997). The Power of Identity. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

City of Seattle, (2000). Information Technology Indicators for a Healthy Community. Seattle: Department of Information Technology.

Dahl, R. (1988). Democracy and its Critics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Day, P., Holbrooks, Z., Namioka, A. and Schuler, D. (2000). Proceedings of DIAC-00, "Shaping the Network Society." Palo Alto. Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. (2000)

Grudin, J. (1988). Why CSCW Applications Fail: Problems in the Design and Evaluation of Organizational Interfaces. Proceedings of CSCW '88. New York: ACM.

Hague, B. and Loader, B. (1999). Digital Democracy: An Introduction. In Digital Democracy: Discourse and Decision Making in the Information Age. London: Routledge.

Joy, B. (2000, April). Why the Future Doesn't Need Us. Wired.

Mattelart, A. (2000). Networking the World: 1794 - 2000. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McChesney, R. (1995). Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy : The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935. New York: Oxford University Press

Said, E. (1996). Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Vintage.

Schuler, D. and Namioka, A. (Eds.) (1993). Participatory Design: Principles and Practices. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schuler, D. (1996). New Community Networks: Wired for Change. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Schuler, D. (1998). Computer Support for Community Work: Designing and Building Systems for the "Real World." Tutorial. CSCW '98 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Community Work. ACM. Seattle.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer (2000, October 2). Political Almanac.

Seattle Statement. (2000)

Silver, D. (2000). The Roots of Cyberspace: Frameworks and Foundations for a Healthy Online Public Sphere. In Day et al, 2000.

This work was supported in part by the National Science Foundation, 0002547.