Professor Eli Noam has a very short, very challenging article in the October issue of Communications of the ACM. Titled Why the Internet Is Bad for Democracy Prof Noam argues that those who are positive about the Internet's role on democracy are making errors of 'composition' and 'inference'.
By 'error of composition' he means that to observe micro behaviour (the Internet helps a small group of activists) and then propose a macro conclusion (the Internet is helpful for society) is erroneous. I think it's a powerful argument and certainly an important one to hear in what is, at the moment, a primarily technologically deterministic culture. The media seems to portray technology shaping humanity and enabling new things to happen – rarely do we get mainstream portrayals of a social constructivist approach of our societal needs and biases creating the technologies – no, they're happening to us is the implicit message of modern reportage.
The second error, the 'error of inference' is a weaker argument in my view. Noam argues that it is false to argue that if the Internet is good for democracy in North Korea or Iran it doesn't follow that it is also good for developed countries such as Canada, UK or US. In social sciences we need these kinds of comparisons but of course they are fraught with difficulties and no doubt the Internet's impact on an established democracy will be different to it's impact on an oppressive regime.
I won't rehash the rest of the article, it's very much worth the read. I'd say the key theme behind Noam's thinking is that more isn't better – more participation just makes it harder to be heard, more information makes misinformation harder to spot.. and so on.
But it's not all doom and gloom for the e-democracy supporter – if all the Internet can do is reignite interest in Democratic values then, Noam writes, there is hope. I flipping hope so!