I recently started a PhD in the History of Technology and Democracy at Maastricht University‘s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) in the Netherlands.
My PhD research will explore teledemocracy projects (i.e. experiments or pilot programmes making use of telecommunications or computers to facilitate deliberative or participatory democratic processes) in the US and Europe during the 1970s, and how designers and engineers of these projects used concepts (such as “feedback”, and particularly “citizen feedback”) drawn from cybernetics and information theory.
In the 1970s, enthusiasm for the democratic possibilities of new technologies – particularly interactive cable television and personal computing – led to public funding for a range of pilot projects, with money coming from organisations including the National Science Foundation in the US and Post Office Telecommunications in the UK.
At the same time, more radical, citizen-led experiments in what would later be known as “teledemocracy” were also taking place, such as the “Community Memory” public computer network in San Francisco in 1973 using a donated XDS 940 mainframe computer.
Over the next four years of the PhD, I hope to explore how the designers of teledemocracy projects in the 1970s conceptualised cybernetic citizen feedback in different ways and, in particular, my project will focus on how the pro-teledemocracy community used these projects to compete for additional resources in arenas of decision-making and policymaking, and how some models and conceptions of citizen feedback were either fully- or partially-negotiated into policy and practice while others failed and were marginalised.
It’s still very early days, so I may revise or refocus the project goals as I continue my research, but this is at least my starting point.
The purpose of this blog is to help me put my thoughts in order and practice communicating them clearly. Along the way, I also hope any readers will send me feedback about my writing and how well (or poorly!) I am comprehending and communicating the history of technology and democracy. If I get things wrong or miss details (or if you enjoy my writing and find it useful), then let me know in the comments section below or via my website feedback form.
In other words: this blog is a way for me to communicate my research. Communication, according to computer scientists J.C.R. Licklider and Robert W. Taylor, writing in the 1960s, is a process designed to cooperatively align two or more information models of a phenomenon into one shared model:
“Any communication between people about the same thing is a common revelatory experience about informational models of that thing. Each model is a conceptual structure of abstractions formulated initially in the mind of one of the persons who would communicate, and if the concepts in the mind of one would-be communicator are very different from those in the mind of another, there is no common model and no communication.”J.C.R. Licklider & Robert W. Taylor, The Computer as a Communication Device
Dear reader, I’d like to try and cooperatively build an informational model of the history of technology and democracy with you. That’s a rather awkward way of saying I hope this blog will be a conversation (and, in fact, British cybernetician Gordon Pask developed a theory of communication and learning known as “Conversation Theory” that accords nicely with Licklider and Taylor’s definition of communication above).
A good conversation should be two-way, so I hope to see you in the comments!