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Printed Words, Computers, and Democratic Societies

[clock] 27-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 1983

A broad range of literature has been published recently about the worth of the new information technology to business and industry. Indeed, this technology has grown sufficiently large to merit its own slogans, the most recent being “the videotext revolution,” and a computer was selected “Machine of the Year” in 1982 by Time. Yet the implications of this new technology for democratic societies have largely been overlooked, I therefore intend to address the question of the political impact of the computer technology, not from the vantage point of contending commercial proprietary interests, or to make technical distinctions between delivery systems, but rather primarily from the stand-point of political sociology. More exactly, what its effects are on societies and citizens as a result of developments that come under a variety of labels—from electronic data to information technology, broadcast teletext to interactive videotext—but which add up to the same thing: the dissemination of information from senders to receivers in formats without benefit of (or supplemental to) hard copy, that is, the printed word.

Responses to the computer technology seem to fall into two camps. The first is grounded in what might be called the Orwellian or counter-Utopian model. The new technology is feared as inevitably dominated or controlled by a small political clique or power elite, capable of maneuvering and manipulating mass sentiments. In this respect, there have been dire predictions that this technology is some awful majesty, a veritable handmaiden of totalitarianism. An entire tradition has, like Orwell himself, come to view with deep concern any control or domination of the masses by electronic media as such. Critiques of the totalitarian potential of mass, nonprinted communication range from an established position taken in English scholarly circles by Aldous Huxley and C. P. Snow to the social and cultural fears expressed by Dwight MacDonald and Marshall McLuhan. The key issue was not, and is not, about the quality of the hardware or the data being transmitted but rather about ownership and control. The new technology in this context becomes only a larger and more ominous evolution of the centralization of authority.

At the other end of the political spectrum are those who have been critical of the new technology as a “wholly other” culmination of the imperial capitalist state in which there is the monopolization of the means of scientific communication. Marxists see computerized communications systems as a definite threat to the potential for public ownership or popular expression, usually only in Western societies. There is a fear of the new, a fear that ideas will be managed and manipulated not so much by a political elite as by an economic ruling class. If one looks closely at the two main lines of criticism, their arguments and conclusions present striking parallels.

The question for both Orwellians and Marxians is essentially the same: who will dominate the political order? Their bitter differences reside more over which elites are identified as the main enemy of freedom rather than over attitudes toward the significance of new technology as such. In this regard, both those who fear the totalitarian implications and those who fear class domination of a computer-oriented world are very much part of a longstanding difficulty in understanding an advanced society in transition. There is a serious doubt that a society in which traditional modes of expression have become obsolete can at the same time preserve traditional forms of political rights. Although the extremes represented by these antipodal positions fuse, the analytic problem remains the same. Those who abhor totalitarianism and those who loathe class domination share an assumption that no positive political good will evolve from the new information technology.

The concerns that have been expressed in the printing industry, which will be most directly affected by a shift of preference from paper print to videotext formats, are specific extensions of the general premonitions and predispositions shared by political leaders of developed nations. While such concerns are often couched in the rhetoric of business prospects and profits, they are no more and no less the kinds of worries that have occupied literary and scientific people working in the areas of mass communications throughtout the 20th century. Still, there is little if anything to suggest that the flow of print has contracted under the impact of the new technology. In fact, the opposite is clearly the case. As one report states: “In 1950, when the impact of television first began to be felt, 11,022 books were published in the United States. In 1970, when the impact of the computer began to reach major proportions, the number of books had risen to 36,071. In 1979, after almost thirty years of television and ten years of major computer use, 45,182 books were published in the United States. Book publishing revenues in the United States in 1950 were less than $500 million; in 1970 they were more than $2.9 billion; in 1980, more then $7.0 billion.” Even with a leveling off, the multitiering of information is a fact, not a conjecture.

Such figures not only indicate that the printed word can survive in the brave new world of computers but that the potential for democratic political systems is promising as well. Although such potential cannot be automatically realized, there are these five factors in its favor: [1] the increased amount of information made available by the new technology; [2] the necessarily active role of the participant in much of this technology; [3] the corresponding capacity for confirmation and verification of information to an extent previously unavailable; [4] the public rather than privileged nature of computerized information; [5] a redefinition of the very structure of information and cultural climates within our society.

It has been argued that the sheer abundance of data can produce a system contaminated with “information pollution.” There is supposed to be a corresponding acceleration of “narcotizing dysfunctions” by the mass media. While this “drugging” of society has been a major concern of researchers, a vital point has too often been missed, namely, that the massification of information is by no means an intrinsic evil. So much of the post-World War II sociological literature on information and communication was laden with moral imputations about the risks and dangers of a “bureaucratic” or “mass” society that the explosion of expectations opened up by radio, television, and satellite communication became strangely converted into threats and predicaments for intellectuals. Even those who made a more levelheaded and realistic appraisal tended to focus on information technology as it related to questions of leisure and mass culture. One has to search the literature of social science far and wide to come up with a serious analysis of media and politics or information transmission and democracy.


The discussions now beginning to take place about the relationship between the new information technology and democracy are not unlike the earlier literature I have been describing. There is the same tendency to perceive recent developments in science as favoring elites, dooming masses, narcotizing recipients, manipulating the poor, and massaging the wealthy. But if we keep in mind that earlier literature and recognize quite frankly that its most dire predictions have not occurred or at least have been counterbalanced by positive developments in communications, we can then consider the new technology as a promoter and protector of democracy and free expression rather than as a harbinger of totalitarianism.

A modular, gridlike pattern of information storage and retrievability such as that permitted by videotext also allows for a wider level of choice and decision than previous forms of telecommunications. If one takes into account that standard television viewing provides a maximum of 99 channels to be used as separate outlets on two main frequency outlets, and if we multiply that by 99 additional outlets within each of the original channel separations, the outcome is no less than 9,801 possibilities at any given instant of video-viewing. That is to say there are roughly 10,000 active possibilities available through broadcast teletext at any given time. These may range from shopping market lists and updated information on such subjects as industrial patents and air schedules to musical concerts and experimental dance. New forms of interactive communication such as videotext permit even higher levels of retrieval, storage, and utilization of data to larger numbers of people who in the past had been largely passive recipients of such information.

Despite the fear that interactive videotext may mean the end of the printed word, we are instead moving toward a multitiered system: one based on both hard copy and video-text (or videodisc) information bases. They serve very different but mutually important purposes. The parallel may be radio and television: television did not replace radio, but it did influence the content disseminated by the older medium. With videotext, we are now at a point where each family, individual, or business unit may have at its disposal 10,000 different “titles” or forms of upgraded information—far more than any average home or office can presently maintain, much less store—and in addition hard copy for more abstracted and more portable forms of information. But the act of broadening the amount of information accessible through technological devices opens up channels of choice and decision-making for individuals that hitherto had been available only to powerful elites within a society.

We are already living in an environment which has a multilayered media system. The audience which continues to buy a mystery novel or a philosophic treatise in hard copy will also insist upon having a personal computer with which to obtain access to financial data banks and update their portfolios. The individualization of information and not the collectivization of ideology is now both possible and probable. Policies to implement a competitive information environment thus become a democratic imperative. The key is competition and not monopolization of the sources of ideas. The nature and history of scholarly publishing uniquely equip this dissemination center to act upon such concerns.

Communications technology encourages active rather than passive public involvement. Whatever the virtues possessed by traditional printed material—from ease of use and retrieval to shifting back and forth within a journal or book—the act of reading a given book or periodical remains relatively passive and singular. How information is structured, and moreover what is not revealed, is decided by others. Unless one is dogged and determined, it is difficult to verify data or check possible sources of confusion, misunderstanding, or even downright error outside of library compounds. Alternative information sources still go largely unchecked.

The new technology permits a higher level of interactional involvement. One can confirm or disconfirm exact information, test propositions, and develop comparabilities not envisioned by the author or the original source in the comfort of one’s home. In discussing confirmation we generally are considering factual rather than interpretative information. Even at the level of speculation, there may be possible uses for the new technology hardly thought about in the past (e. g., tracking sources of ideas through space, time, and culture). The paired acts of verification and confirmation may become part of the everyday life of ordinary individuals rather than an exceptional event requiring extraordinary efforts and skills by specialized elites. Optimally, in the act of further data specialization, new forms of generalization become possible.

In interactive videotext systems, we may be moving beyond a narcotizing and dysfunctional environment in which the individual passively receives images and signals, as in broadcast teletext. The multiplication of images may lead to higher levels of narcotizing behavior, but more likely it will stimulate a computer involvement which will permit not only verification and correction of information but also the capacity to relay information from the individual back to various stations or data banks with which that person is connected. Voting behavior, for example, may change dramatically as it becomes possible to cast ballots through a hookup between a decoder-equipped television receiver and a main system computer. Opinions and votes may be cast on matters of local and parochial interest just as on those of national interest. One can receive and view the activities of local boards of directors of corporations, local courtrooms, federal hearings, or government political offices. Optimally, this will be plugged into a cable access system permitting the individual to see, hear, and register his personal points of view and persuasions almost instantaneously. Heightened technical complexity will result in a decline in human passivity and thus broaden the scope of the democratic process. This is a process linking not simply individuals but communities and continents as well.

The importance of publishing books and journals will not necessarily diminish. With such a massive set of availabilities made possible by electronics, the need to select, screen, and simply search for what is relevant becomes a special province of the publisher. The act of making public a policy, product, or pronouncement has always been closely identified with the process of marketing. One must surmise that in a computerized society marketing activities will both increase and become more focused. This is especially the case in the short run. High start-up costs in computer information devices mean that they will be more profitable and competitive in a “narrow” rather than “wide” information band. For example, the capacity to retrieve information electronically expands rather than retracts the amount of hard copy requirements. For however active recipients of information may become, the need for intermediary layers of sifting data and ideas will not disappear but in all probability will expand.

The tendency to exaggerate technological innovation so that its apocalyptical features are stressed while its positive aspects are negated has taken on dangerous proportions. The prophets of the new technology in their emphasis on a transition from a paper-based to a paperless society are invoking a mysterious trend. The idea has taken root that advocates of a continuing role for books and journals are somehow obstacles to progress, even though some resistance in the academic community to publications in electronic form seems justifiable considering such problems as: the inadequacy of copyright to deal with a fluid situation in which text can be transferred from creator to user, the loss of revenue from book royalties and advertising, and the danger of turning out graduates who can work computers but are at a loss for words. But these fears often rest on the notion that a single-tiered, paperless world is an inevitable outcome of the new technology. Some researchers see an impending paperless society just over the horizon and are already turning their attention to the social consequences of a world without books.

But before sounding such alarms, we should observe the obvious anomaly that such forebodings about the demise of the printed word invariably appear in conventional books and journals. The larger problem in the single-tiered approach is a failure to reckon with the great variety in the structure of thought. Organized rationalized conceptions are of three sorts: information, ideas, and interpretations. While one can readily appreciate how legal documents, government economic statistics, and specialized abstracting services can be designed to displace conventional journals and reference volumes, the need for ideas and, even more important, for the play of ideas that permits a range of interpretations are not readily subject to a paperless environment. A government’s frightening potential to control communications and crush opposition in an abstract sense is in actuality restricted by the greater availability of multiple forms of information dissemination, idea construction, and interpretative analysis.


The history of science and technology indicates that the latest and newest modes of communication and transportation do not liquidate the need for earlier forms but become a value-added phenomenon. While supersonic jet travel may make sense at the level of great global distances, conventional jets at subsonic speeds may work more economically at shorter national levels. Indeed, for distances under five hundred miles, railroad and boat travel may suffice, and be best. Beyond that, surface transportation like automobiles, buses, and trucks are clearly best for local travel. One of the most disastrous events in American transportation history occurred with efforts to replace the railroad with the airplane. This only created a crisis point at which the costs and convenience of transportation became exorbitant. Railroad travel has had to be restored and stations vastly improved and even new ones built. There is much in this slice of transportation history that should inform the communications industry. Once again, we are faced with a moderate view of the new technology’s power confronting an apocalyptic vision of such a technology doing away with the need to transmit ideas and interpretations (and even information) in paper form. Those for whom democracy is a central issue would do well to recognize that the value of a multitiered approach is a question of ideology no less than empirics. Before publishers worry about big brother controlling the big tube, it might be wiser to resist exaggerated premises about scientific manipulation and to seek instead to utilize the new media for the further promulgation of technical and scholarly materials.

It has long been contended that the television screen made individual life in America more isolated, that its widespread use led to a decline in public participation and a willingness to make images on a screen replacements for the realities of life. The extent of such consequences remains debatable. But we may reverse any such results given the magnitude of the new technology. The signals that individuals are able to transmit by cable or telephone should make them eager to have their say about local and national affairs. The scope of interactive videotext participation is such as to add to rather than to subtract from the concept of an informed and involved citizenry. This will become increasingly clear as more home computers become more widely available. It may not be practical for everyone constantly to be involved in every phase of decision-making, nor would most citizens wish to do so. But that is certainly possible in the “New World a’Coming.”

The expansion of democracy does not entail any diminution in specialization. In its offer of abundance, the new technology implies a check on, no less than a reliance upon, the specialist. Just as academic life itself has become increasingly specialized, so, too, these new developments in information technology will, on a consumer level, move toward the servicing of a highly refined and limited clientele with particular interests and tasks. It will do so in a variety of ways, using a plethora of techniques. Hard copy text will surely remain a primary source of information and ideas.

Actually, the new technology represents not a diminution of but an addition to the potential for the printed word. It provides a definite value-added attribute to the reading of books. The fears that self-publishing, in effect, vanity publishing, will conspire to destroy the foundations of scholarship fail to reckon with the accepted gatekeeper functions assigned to publishers in modern societies. Just as commercial publishing has flourished in an era of widespread photocopiers, thus, it can be expected to survive in an age of electronic dissemination of information.

The presence of the television screen in home and office has permitted new linkages between instruction and enjoyment in mass culture; everything from cable television to video games, i. e., the wide-band. While at the other end, there is a promulgation and promotion of scholarship and research in electronic media forms, i. e., the narrow-band. At the moment, it is the quantity of new forms rather than their quality that is most obvious.

It is hard to predict just how people will apportion their time in this new world. There is also the problem of how many will be excluded. The new technology provides so many options that a new paradigm will evolve in terms of how an individual makes decisions about apportioning his time and energy, rather than how interests are narrowed down. It might be the case that democracy will dissolve under the weight of excess choice and decision. In this scenario, there will be a Balkanization rather than pluralization effect. A less dramatic view of this new pluralism is the emergence and evolution of a knowledge industry that solves the problem of access and delivery of information and ideas it has created, only with a much higher delivery rate and level of abstraction than hitherto possible.

The political problem during the final years of the 20th century lies not in the amount of scientific information and material available but in how to recognize and gain access to the value and significance of so much data. Such a plethora of technical options has been made available that society is threatening to fall behind in the orderly processing of information as such. Democracy works best within a set of commonly accepted guidelines and acted-upon procedures. It is not reducible to pure choice within the confines of a normless external environment. If the potential for a nearinsoluble problem does exist within the new technology, it is less with its totalitarian capabilities than its anarchic consequences. The multiplication of options may well increase chances for anomie and normlessness rather than a purely narcotizing dysfunction based upon an information overload.

There is no common computer protocol or language able to synthesize the roughly two or three hundred data bases currently available. The Department of Defense’s promulgation of ADA as its routine language is an attempt to impose order within the information resources of the armed services. But thus far, this has added but one more systems capability for users. There are other problems of anarchy; for instance, the definition as to what constitutes bona fide research results when systems such as COMTEX are available in which one can publish work in progress. Problems without precedent are beginning to emerge in evaluating quality; and refereeing techniques and gatekeeping groups that once decided on the quality of performance or of information are becoming outmoded. Academic gatekeepers may not be adequate to the task of screening such a superabundance of data. These are only some of the enormous problems that we are going to be confronting in the very near future. These are not simply or even primarily limited to blockage and prevention of access, but rather to the dilemma of what happens when access becomes more important to a society than ownership, and recompense for producing information becomes more and more the author’s responsibility. If proprietary considerations yield to considerations of availability and access to information, issues of a new sort emerge for Western societies as a whole.


If researchers have had a difficult time providing a conceptual map of the relationship between the new technology and political democracy, it is not for lack of data. Rather it is because too much attention has been focused upon the shortrun consequences for publishers of hard copy and also because there remains a deep suspicion that technology in and of itself creates unanticipated negative outcomes. Theories of a new information technology have made evident a generational gap: an older generation for which hard copy is a symbol of status, achievement, and arrival and a young generation for whom the video cassette, videotext, and video games have become paramount means of conveying information. The heroes of the young are less the authors of novels than figures who dominate television, whether they be in newscasting or commercial entertainment fields.

Many of the presumed weaknesses of the new technology concern assumptions about the appropriateness of certain formats to deliver data and ideas to precise audiences. But, in fact, the multitiered approach can adjust for such shortcomings. For example, the video keyboard may be a dominant force in matters of cultural transition and transformation. Yet, when people go to an airport, they may prefer to buy a paperback book rather than carry a videopack in their knapsack. Even with miniaturization, electronic, nonprint media may not be a preferred mode for delivering information, certainly not in any foreseeable future. Data systems of the future will be multitiered, and the costs involved will have to be relative to the benefits expected. In the 1980’s, it is still cheaper and far easier to put paperback volumes into an airport newsstand than to put videopacks into the same space. But, even at such an obvious level, the researchers should be cautious. Western societies are moving toward a high degree of miniaturization as a result of microscopic-sized computer chips, which are so high-powered that it may soon be possible to consider private screens of a small, portable, compact size capable of rendering the kind of information currently carried chiefly by hard copy text. The portable television set already provides a model for such new delivery processes.

The relationship between political democracy and the new technology is by no means either uniform or mechanistic. In rapidly developing areas, nationalism may conflict with a wide use of a technology that has foreign or colonial origins. Antidemocratic constraints come masked in hostility to foreign ideas, influences, artifacts, and scientific systems. The intense desire for national autonomy not infrequently spills over into tightly knit controls over the new information technology. As one observer has shrewdly noted about Brazil—a prototypical country in this contradiction between national interests and democratic aims—there are definite limits to such restraints. “On the one hand, there is tremendous demand from all sectors of the economy for computer hardware and software; on the other, there is the principle of diminishing the scientific, technological, and economic dependence on the country. Controls on information flow can be justified on the basis of national security, privacy, economics, or nationalism. The restrictions, however, are often a two-edged sword: they may protect the country in one way and injure it in another.” In other words, the need for socioeconomic development involves maximum participation in the international exchange of information and ideas, even as the need to protect national interests may seek elites to limit such maximal use.

Resources restraining the further distribution and disbursement of information are often viewed as negative, i. e., nationalist regimes, military cliques, political elites. But probably the greatest impediments to the massification process are the scientific and professional societies representing groups for which intellectual property belongs to creators and authors. Without again examining the merits and demerits of the great debate on the right of public access versus the obligation to recognize proprietary claims, it should be appreciated that the notion of confidentiality, when carried to its ultimate logic, is also a powerful restraint on the democratization of culture. Everything from the statutory protection of privileged data to the development of limited partnership arrangements between universities and industries has a dampening impact on the broad use of information and ideas. Dorothy Nelkin has described the current contradictory tendencies within professional life with great accuracy. She points out that the response of scientists “rests on a notion that scientists have a “right” to control their research, that autonomy is necessary in order to maintain integrity, to avert the misinterpretation of premature data, and to protect their “stock in trade. ” Those who request data claim the “right to know” as an essential condition of democracy. Government agencies claim the right to information as part of their obligation to ensure responsible use of federal funds, to meet policy goals, or to maintain national security or law enforcement in the public interest. Contradictions persist, reflecting the deep ambivalence within science about its cognitive and practical dimensions. Is science the pursuit of truth or the pursuit of useful knowledge, a carefully disciplined process or a professional instrumental activity? The ambivalence so apparent in the disputes over the control of research suggests that there have been significant changes in the social role of science and in the importance of research.” These disputes are part of a larger struggle to renegotiate relations between science and the public that had been established at a time when science was a different social enterprise. This suggests that the new technology enlarges both the possibilities of greater access and hence the wider practice of democracy and no greater limitations to new data and information and hence the narrower opportunities for the practice of democracy. The new electronic technology heightens the awareness of democracy as a dilemma but does not in or of itself lead to either egalitarian or dictatorial outcomes.

Arguments over the present-day feasibility of the electronic or nonprint journal often center on whether “garbage” will be displayed on the video terminals, this being articles which are not refereed, properly edited, or scientifically worthwhile. In point of fact, most scholars do not share print publishers’ concerns. Only 20 percent, by one estimate, view this as an issue. Moreover, the arguments tend to be prima facie spurious: first, refereeing a journal in electronic format is neither more nor less difficult than for a standard journal. Indeed, the refereed report can much more easily become part of the article being viewed than the article being read. Second, the quality of editing varies so much in printed journals that one can scarcely expect a worse situation to occur in the videotext formats. Finally, the quality of scientific research is not so much the issue as the early establishment of primacy in the discovery process. In this sense, the new technology can only speed up the transmission of ideas.

What is likely to take place in the short run at least is the use of the microprocessor-based technology as a prelude to hard copy publication, with the screen version wiped out once placed in hard copy format. There are still some clumsy aspects of electronic publishing; unavailability of terminals and unreliability of computers. But again, these are shortterm considerations. In the larger sense, or at least in the political sense, the new developments clearly change the nature of the scholarly procedures, but just as clearly they do not alter the demands for quality control of research. To be sure, the sophistication of the new technology provides unheard-of checks upon fraudulent reportings and preliminary findings published in multiple sources that simply have not been available in the past. Through the active involvement of the author in copyright reassignments, the new media provide more in the way of service to the scholarly community than in threats to that community.

The burden of this position is neither to frighten those involved in traditional publication nor necessarily to celebrate the new technology. The plethora of new developments in information dissemination provides a potential for democratic expression hitherto unavailable. I have indicated that problems created by a new technology are not purely pedestrian but rather the struggle between economic and educational classes, i. e., between those who do and those who do not have the ability to manage, manipulate, and massage this technology for their own goals. We may well reach a point where a sophisticated portion of the population is capable of managing a new information system and thus the elite of a democratic society, while an entire other stratum of people exists for whom such technology remains an eternal mystery, and so they become the plebeians of a computerized culture. Whether this will be played out into as yet another class struggle or becomes a new way in which society is benignly stratified remains to be seen. But it should be evident that the uneven distribution of hardware and software components makes for a special problem in democracy and, it should be added, a more costly one than the uneven distribution of books.

The issue of computer literacy is nothing other than the issue of literacy and its uses writ large for a future that is now. Whatever its stage of evolution, technology neither automatically opens nor closes possibilities. It does provide for new options and hence new dangers and opportunities. The new technology contains the potential for including ever larger numbers of people in the mainstream of democratic participation. These remain political no less than technical challenges. Hopes for future developments in the area of the new technology require a sense of user needs even more than manufacturer capabilities. We are simply once more recreating a postindustrial environment in which life and death issues are replicated on a canvas, this time called information rather than environment.

The central challenge posed by the new technology is simply this: to reduce the number of people for whom the computer remains a mystery—and a menace. The problem of illiteracy now extends beyond words into electronics. The task of democracy is not simply to widen the horizons and opportunities offered by the new technology but, more significantly, greatly to increase the number of people involved. Democracy is not simply a question of options and choices for elites but a social responsibility to bring the largest total of eligible voters into the decision-making framework. At this level the problem of the new technology has not begun to receive proper attention; yet it is at this level of mass participation and technical literacy that the issue of democracy in the next century will receive its heaviest challenges.


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