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  Participant: Dr. Ben Bagdikian (US)

The Digital World and Democracy

Today we are being enveloped by the digital revolution that is rapidly changing the nature of communications in the worlds of commerce, government, science, scholarship, education, and personal communication.

The speed and depth with which the new telecommunications are influencing the world make it urgent that we examine how this will serve, rather than endanger, democracy within individual countries and among nations of the globe. The need is urgent. We know that earlier media inventions have already altered our world. And like earlier inventions of communications, this new one holds both great promise for the betterment of the human condition, but like those earlier inventions, it also bears the possibility of missed opportunities and unexpected social and political damage.

To a remarkable degree, we already live in two worlds. One of these is the traditional face-to-face human contact world - of parents, siblings, classmates, playmates, friends, enemies, co-religionists, and the personal human interactions of men and women every day. These have existed for millennia and we have had millennia of attempts to understand the way face-to-face human contact has changed our social values, models of behavior, and, indeed, history itself. Finally - by endless trial- and-error, too often with terrible failures - this human contact world has evolved until today the philosophy and reality of the democratic ethos has become the almost universal assumption that creates the path by which the human race will survive. The other world in which we increasingly live, is the world of the mass media, the world of newspapers, radio, television, printed books, the cinema, and the computer. We know that this world, also, influences social behavior, socializes generations by portraying models of behavior, and can change the course of history itself. This is a less complex world and is overwhelmingly driven by the natural marketplace desire to make a money profit, not the desire to enhance democracy. We have not had millennia to experience and study it. But in developed countries, new generations spend at least as much time in this media world as they do in the traditional face-to-face human contact world.

As the digital revolution encompasses both worlds and involves capturing masses of information about citizens' private lives, from medical records to personal mail, it behooves us to examine what we must do to protect and expand democracy in this powerful new cyber world.

What are the basic needs of a democracy? First, there must be preservation of personal privacy. If there is no personal privacy, there is no democracy. Second, people must have the unrestricted right to vote for their leaders and the policies under which they will be governed. Third, to do this, citizens need to have reasonable and unrestricted access to the information they need to vote in their own interest, and to have this access readily enjoyed by all. If people are denied this information, the right to vote means nothing.

These are the goals the digital revolution must meet if it is to become an instrument for democracy and not the private privilege of the few. Because of the speed with which the new digital revolution is changing the world, there is an urgent need for nations of the world to plan an international meeting of national representatives and individuals and of groups recognized throughout the world as authorities in both the history of technology and the historic evolution of democratic principles.

Out of this meeting must come a gathering under the umbrella not of any one nation but of a consortium like the United Nations. The aim should be an international convention to enhance maximum use of the digital revolution in the cause of democracy, just as the nations of the world already have created international conventions governing use of the oceans, the electromagnetic spectrum, and human rights.

The speed with which the digital revolution has encompassed the globe is one of the marvels of contemporary science and technology. But like all human inventions, ultimately, these are merely clever machines and we must not expect machines to have morals or a sense of history. It is human use of these machines that involves humanistic values. Consequently, that same speed and ingenuity of the new technology make clear the urgent need to apply to the new digital world the lessons of history in the search of democracy.

Interview with Ben Bagdikian wgbh/pages/frontline/smoke/interviews/bagdikian1.html

Review of Bagdikian's Book "The Media Monoply"

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