The advent of the information age - and with it the potential of information and communication technology (ICT) to profoundly alter political, social and economic relations - has been trumpeted since the early 1970s. Yet to most people the pace and impact of change has been nowhere near as dramatic as the early champions of the computer age suggested.
However, we suggest that because of a combination of factors - level of investment and infrastructure, speed and scale of innovation and relative low cost of new technology - the pace of change is about to accelerate rapidly.
For at least a decade a number of local authorities in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have operated electronic public information systems based on videotext. These systems do the job reliably but are hardly inspiring in their range of functions and use of available technology. But the rapidly expanding power of computers and the advent of multimedia is set to change many of these systems. Nottinghamshire County Council is an example of a local authority in the forefront of this change. With funding, many others would follow suit.
Nevertheless, even the most advanced of these systems simply sustain traditional forms of government. There are other systems which challenge this. Many local authorities in the United States, which have more autonomy and control over a range of services, operate systems to deliver electronic public services. Issuing driving licences, bail bonds, tax returns and checking those on probation for levels of alcohol are just some of the functions of the new generation of electronic kiosk - or "smart town hall".
In the UK the Lambda project in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Project Vereda in Spain and Bologna in Italy aim to deliver electronic public services. An increasing number of the larger local governments - for example Manchester - have plans for, or are experimenting with such systems.
Of even greater significance is the rapidly expanding development of Free-nets. These are community-based computer mediated communications systems which allow users free or low-cost access to multiple sources of information, including Internet access. Initially a US phenomenon, derivatives of the Free-net concept are emerging in countries as far apart as New Zealand and Finland. By the end of last year there were more than 200 Free-nets either operating or planned.
The digital cities derivative of Free-nets, being developed in Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Groningen and other cities in the Netherlands, is probably the best example of the way in which new technology is providing the basis for virtual communities. Virtual Manchester was launched just a few weeks ago. These examples threaten to restructure, redefine and reshape relationships between citizens, governments, politicians and public and private sector organisations.
Of potentially greater significance are the opportunities and threats new technology poses for democracy. On the one hand ICTs promise an information-rich society in which citizens have access to a wide range of information and where every issue is extensively debated among citizens and policymakers through interactive media with greatly increased participation in the political process.
On the other hand, ICTs also threaten to undermine democracy by compounding existing biases in the distribution of knowledge and information, by fragmenting discourse between increasingly differentiated policy areas, and by reducing participation to distanced and marginalised votes that occur as knee-jerk reactions to a limited number of "soundbite" options. New ICTs have ambiguous but profound consequences for democracy.
Further issues have yet to be debated in the UK. First, much of the material on electronic democracy, theoretical and empirical, is drawn from American sources and relies heavily upon ideas of democracy and politics that are central in the US. This is not to suggest that all literature which discusses the subject is American. But material of British origin tends to only partial discussion of electronic democracy, based around the author's selected areas of interest and concern. Most important, there has been no attempt to consider the extent to which the American experiments are relevant in a UK context.
Electronic town meetings under way in the US depend heavily upon the concept of strong, pluralist democracy and a desire to sustain and enhance communitarian democratic structures. But the political, social and geographical differences of the UK make such models less appropriate, and suggest that attempts to implement the "smart town hall" here will have very different consequences and outcomes.
Second, a technological determinist view often dominates the subject of electronic democracy. This can be detected at all levels of discussion, descriptive and predictive, and particularly in literature which deals with the design and operation of technology. But like any technology, ICTs are political artifacts. Rather than seeing them as autonomous developments, it is important to recognise that the design, application and environment they create are policy choices and thus political choices. The alternative view that technical things do not matter - "political determinism" - is also misplaced.
While technology itself does not cause any particular political changes, it certainly enables them. It not only fuels changes that would otherwise not have been possible (for example, plebiscites in geographically spread areas in real time), but also enhances or exaggerates other effects. Furthermore, ICTs almost always have unplanned consequences. It follows that ICTs have to be taken seriously when discussing democratic and political developments. The synthesis of information and communication technologies into combined packages of interactive technology such as multimedia PCs will exert tremendous pressures on existing economic, political and social relations. The question is, therefore, not should ICT be allowed to impact on democracy, but how.
A group of UK political scientists is attempting to counter the dominance of American literature and academic study in this field and develop a UK-based perspective. Researchers at Nottingham Trent University, Leicester's De Montfort University and Glasgow Caledonian University have a joint programme of work to assess the impact of new technology on UK public services and government.
Much of this is empirical research focusing on projects within central and local government and public services in various parts of the country. The distinction between this and other work on ICTs and government is that the focus is not the technology but the organisational, social and political implications of the technology and the new information flows and biases that they engender.
An active research group meets several times a year to present and discuss diverse research papers. The scheduled open meeting next month will discuss the role of ICTs for re-inventing government.
Most recently a specialist panel at the Political Studies Association's annual conference at the University of York introduced to mainstream UK political science the subject of democracy and new technology. Three papers explored general themes and issues, the use political parties in the UK are making of ICTs, and the potential for "telecottages" to increase participation in the political process and promote local democracy.
Participants raised a number of issues, for example, the information rich versus the information poor, and the atomisation of civil society. Of particular concern was the tension between possibilities of either an Orwellian or an Athenian form of democracy emerging. New technologies provide opportunities for control and freedom - witness the rapid growth in town-centre surveillance and data coupling on the one hand, with teleworking and organisational decentralisation on the other. The discussion confirmed that in this multimedia era, electronic democracy is not only an issue of the future but an issue of the present.
Ivan Horrocks is a research fellow in the department of economics and public administration, Notting-ham Trent University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Lawrence Pratchett is a research fellow in the department of public policy and managerial studies, De Montfort University, Leicester. Email: email@example.com