Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values

Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.

Queensborough Community College,  CUNY

Chapter 12 Political Change

Presentation of  Issues

With computer technologies and the internet in particular there is a marked increase in the human potential for a range of actions and for communications in particular. 

There is no more popular voice than John Perry Barlow expressing the celebration of of the computer technologies and the internet for fostering the democratic Value of Freedom and Communications fostering forms of association that are consonant with and necessary for a Democratic form of government and political society.

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace  by John Perry Barlow

A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace    by John Perry Barlow

Coming into the Country  by John Perry Barlow

Is There a There in Cyberspace? by John Perry Barlow

There has been a definite impact of the internet and computers on political ideas and institutions and forms of association. Many people have access to many people across the planet as was not possible nor practical previously.  With the power to communicate there is access to information as never before and with that a form of potential power.  Access to this form of power is now made possible to people who have not had such access to power before as easily as it has now become.  Does this assist the democratic processes?  Some think that it does.  On the other hand the same technologies that empower people also present governments and other institutions with access to information about people that might threaten forms of association and communication as there is created the possibility of the PANOPTICON.  The technologies can serve to support what is needed for totalitarian governments to remain in power.  There are many that think that the technologies are more supportive of the democratic forms of political association and government than its oppositions.

There is also the issue of inequality of access and the DIGITIAL DIVIDE issues.  As democracy fosters the notion of equality of access there are factors that have made current access to the technologies unequal and of concern to those who value EQUALITY of ACCESS.  Such equality or widespread access fosters education and both directly and indirectly access to employment and most certainly to forms of association.  Thus there is the concern for access to the technologies as empowering tools.  READ: DIGITAL DIVIDE

Inequity in access due to sex, race, disabilities or economic status raise issues of social justice in the distribution of the social good of computer technologies.

VIEW: The Public Sphere and The Internet w/ host Karl Marx at

The Moral Issues: Applying Ethical Principles and the Dialectical Process

In approaching the questions, issues, problems and dilemmas posed by the situations presented by developments in computer technologies there is a need to analyze the situation and identify the key elements and values that may be involved and the ethical principles that can be brought to bear.  An argument needs to be developed in support of the position that is to be advanced as the preferred position on the moral question.  That position is then examined by others who hold different values or hold the same values in a different order and who would apply ethical principles in a different manner, rejecting one or another for reasons which should be given.  The process continues until there are enough people who think that one position is the best of the alternatives.  Given the nature of the original problem or question and the size of the populace who hold the one position of the majority there may be social policies or even legislation that would result.


With regard to the impact of computer technologies on political forms of association and forms of government there are a number of  values that are in play in discussions including: FREEDOM, and EQUALITY of OPPORTUNITY.

Ethical Principles

In attempting to develop an argument as to what would be the morally correct actions with regard to some development of computer technology various principles and values may be cited as part of the dialectical process of argumentation in support of a position. The principle of Utility would address the need for concern for the political impact of what is done and how the interests of individuals would be satisfied.   The Categorical Imperative may be used in supporting claims as to how the action being considered might be universalized and thought about as being an action that would be desired of and by all rational humans.  Rawls' Principle of Justice (Maxi-Min) can also be utilized in describing how situations ought to be handled so as to maximize liberty while decreasing the inequalities amongst those involved or impacted by the technologies. Over the last few decades now people have been doing just this in a variety of forums through journal articles and books and through presentations at meetings of these specialists, engineers and professionals.


Reflections on Political Change by Lindsey Pehrson CUNY SPS 2009




            In The Journal of Cybernetic Revolution, Sustainable Socialism and Radical Democracy, Richard Sclove wisely said, “In a democracy, it normally goes without saying that policy decisions affecting all citizens should be made democratically. Science and technology policies loom as grand exceptions to this rule. They certainly affect all citizens profoundly: the world is continuously remade with advances in telecommunications, computers, materials science, weaponry, biotechnology, home appliances, energy production, air and ground transportation, and environmental and medical understanding. Yet policies are customarily framed by representatives of just three groups: business, the military, and universities. These are the groups invited to testify at congressional hearings, serve on government advisory panels, and prepare influential policy studies.” Plainly, Information Technology has impacted all aspects of human existence. Where we once relied on landlines and immobile office equipment, we now have cell phones and PDAs capable of sending and receiving information anywhere, anytime. This ability to constantly be connected to what is happening around the world has both brought us closer together, establishing a sense of global community, while also ripping apart our core values concerning the need for human companionship. Where we once talked, we now text, we rely heavily on our televisions, Internet connections and emails to keep us entertained and in the information loop. One area that has been particularly affected by all these technological innovations has been the running of democratic government. Information technology has both contributed to democracy, as well as posing a potential threat to its core ideals.

            In order to fully understand the impact of information technology on democracy, we must first ask what exactly constitutes a democracy. According to ethics writer Deborah Johnson, a democracy has certain characteristics. First, it is a government that is controlled by its citizens. In other words, power rests with the people to make decisions. Second, there is a sense of freedom for citizens that allow them to act, think and hold their own opinions, whether they are contrary to those of the government and other citizens, or similar to them. Third, a democracy allows for the unmediated communication of the masses. This open network of discussion is what facilitates the formation of like-minded groups, giving citizens power in numbers. Fourth, in a democracy information is power. Tools like the Internet and other forms of media give average citizens access to international data, allowing them to converse with others and come to their own conclusions.

            Jurgen Habermas also has a few requirements for an authentic democracy. First, there must be open access to information and to the government. Second, there must be voluntary participation on the part of citizens. Third, there must be participation outside of traditional institutional roles. Fourth, public opinion should be generated by assemblies of citizens that engage in rational argument with each other, coming to a conclusion based on active analysis and scrutiny of the true issues. Fifth, there must be freedom for all members of the culture to express their opinions, no matter how singular or controversial. Sixth, there must also be freedom to discuss any and all matters openly. This includes issues pertaining to the state. There must also be the liberty to criticize how power of the state is organized and disseminated. (Habermas states this may be the most important form that democratic discussion can take). Terrell Ward Bynum solidifies this concept when he declared that the, “most important freedom of speech is the freedom to speak about freedom.”

            Given these factors, how has information technology like the Internet changed democracy? First, the Internet has been called an inherently democratic tool, while others say it promotes democracy. The reasoning for this is that the Internet facilitates unmediated communication between the members of the global community, at least it is intended to.  There are some non-democratic countries, such as Cuba and North Korea, where the government filters Internet content. This restricts free access and prevents members of society from speaking their minds openly and honestly, creating barriers that prevent real connections from being formed. Second, the Internet gives unprecedented access to information to anyone that has an Internet connection. With the increase in WiFi locations and pay-per-minute Internet access at public locations (such as free libraries and cafes), the ability for a wider array of individuals to attain relevant and up to date information has increased. This information results in a more equal distribution of power, at least most of the time. The spread of information also gives the government power to access private citizen data. This promotes the idea that we are living inside of a panopticon, with the government looking in from all angles while we, the citizens, are unaware of when and how we are being watched. This concept establishes a sense of fear that also stops us from speaking our minds, thereby keeping us once again from forming true associations.

            Third, the Internet has made government programs and benefits readily accessible to citizens. As the Internet has become more popular, government has sought (particularly under the Bush administration) to create a greater online presence in hopes of connecting with citizens on a more personalized level. This means that the average member of society now has the ability to look up and file for government programs, such as unemployment, from the anonymity of their own homes. They no longer need to go down to the unemployment office and stand in line for hours. The Internet has also made it possible to file taxes and obtain tax forms without having to seek them out at a local library or post office. The convenience creates efficiency in the system. And, government officials can now be accessed through email, ensuring faster turnaround times for responses, and a greater chance for real citizens to make their voices heard.

            Of course, though there is greater organization in administering government programs, this delivery method still leaves out those groups that may need the assistance the most. Members of the poorest communities usually do not have computers and Internet access in their homes. This creates isolation and an unfair advantage for those that do. This separation between the haves and have-nots has been identified as the digital divide. It is an inequality of information due to race, sex, disability and association. The digital divide affects all aspects of life. Those individuals that do have computer access and technical comprehension have a greater chance of being employed (especially since computers are so prevalent in modern society), thereby directly effecting their earning potential. They also tend to receive a higher degree of education and more career opportunities throughout their lifetimes.

            Fourth, the Internet has established a global awareness and sense of community that does not require government involvement. With the creation of YouTube and other sites which allow for user-generated content to be uploaded internationally, users get a better sense of who their international neighbors are, and what values they hold, apart from political conflicts between their government and media-influenced images. However, because of censorship and unfair access, some countries are not free to speak out and truly be themselves, and not every member of society can afford to have Internet access. This may give those individuals in other countries an unfair and skewed perception based on a relatively small sampling of opinions.

            In the article, “The Information Revolution and Human Values,” Terrell Ward Bynum identifies those elements that are crucial in preserving the true state of democracy. First, in order for a nation to be democratic, it must be able to hold fair elections. In the United States, we rely on all citizens to vote for and elect their governing officials who will, in turn, vote on the decisions that will direct influence the lives of their constituents. Though voting used to be done manually, the advent of information technology soon resulted in the creation of automated election machines. These electronic boxes replaced the need for paper ballots achieving efficiency and accuracy not previously known in the voting process. However, as voters in Florida found out during the 2006 election, these machines can do more to inhibit democracy than promote it. Thanks to a glitch in their programs, the machines swallowed more than 18,000 votes, more than enough to throw off the final tally and effect the outcome of the race. Sadly, the losing delegate, Ms. Jennings, was unable to rectify the situation or confirm the actual intentions of her voters since no one could confirm who the missing votes actually supported. Since this election, voting machines are still part of the “democratic” process, even though they have shown to be less than reliable.

            A second feature of democratic technologies is that they should sustain a representative democracy. Voters elect representatives so that they do not need to personally vote every issue. This elected body serves to streamline the process. However, thanks to the advent of information technology, it is now possible to solicit votes directly from citizens via cell phones and computers. This would change the democratic process from a representative to a pure form. Going directly to citizens on every count erases the original ideals of democracy in the United States. We elect a body to represent us. Removing them would alter the foundation of our government. Furthermore, when elected officials are directly influenced by the majority view of their constituents, they may make choices that do more harm in the long run than good. Politicians are supposed to have a 360-degree view of the situation, and weigh the options based on what is best for the general population. If they do not analyze the choices and instead rely on the emotion-based voting of their constituents who only see one side of the issue, they will be prevented from making the wisest choice. This dissolution of conscientious decisions could be very damaging to this nation.

            According to Jurgen Habermas, information technology aids in establishing a connection between free, informal personal communication and the democratic process. First, when there are more political entities and media outlets than people to question them, information technology can be used to influence the opinions of society at large. In fact, this ongoing conflict between public opinion based on fact versus opinion based on publicity is one of the biggest threats to true democracy. Thanks to the advent of television, the Internet and radio, commercialism has been able to create a more dominant place in national conversation. Television, in particular, has had a profound effect on the way that families communicate with each other, and the way they view their governing bodies.

            Television has revolutionized the way in which human beings understand and relate to their world, and each other. When it first entered the mainstream market, television created a “hearth” for families to gather around, spawning a wave of TV dinners and other convenience items. Families watched the first man walk on the moon, and witnessed in horror as President Kennedy was shot. This direct connection between the outside world and the inner family sanctum has influenced the way we view the world around us. When we see something with our own eyes, we develop a connection to it. As time has progressed, television has been able to develop a myriad of new resources that allow it to enhance its presentation of reality. While many of us recognize that special effects and surreal techniques are used, not everyone has a strong media education that has informed them of these tricks and given the tools to see through them. This group watch television, but are oblivious to the power it wields to shape their view of the world. For example, many citizens watch the “town hall” meetings that the Presidents hosts without reflecting on the fact that every detail of the exchange, right down to the camera angles, has been previously mapped out. Nothing is left to chance. At the same time everything is made to appear natural and uninfluenced. In fact, when it comes to television, the more real it appears, the more fake it usually is. There is danger in allowing this formed reality to take on the same meaning of true and unaltered reality. And, if citizens do not know the truth, they cannot express real opinions about it, or band together to do something to turn the tide of influence away from them. As Robert Putnam has said, this lack of real interaction creates a deterioration of communities and lack of democratic discourse. We replace our time together that would otherwise be spent discussing issues with mentally comatose media-filled moments meant to entertain and foster illusions.

            One of the biggest things that television and information technology have been accused of by Habermas, and fellow media critic Howard Rheingold, is to create a fake discourse to deter individuals from discussing the real problems of government and society. In order to distract us, an otherwise meaningless event is often hyped up by the press and paid a great deal of attention, while the real issues at hand are pushed aside as sound bytes made to appear far less important than they are. For example, during the outbreak of swine flu across the nation in 2009, many failed to realize that Congress had chosen this moment of distraction to push through their multi-trillion dollar budget. Though the financial futures of citizens should be a priority, it took a secondary seat to the widespread speculations by often-uninformed journalists on the spread of the virus. 

This staged conjecture is just another manipulation of the public at the hands of information technology. As Howard Rheingold has claimed, too often media intends on creating publicized debate about political issues that, in fact, are not debates at all. Rather they are fake dialogues intended to make it appear that there has been real discussion given on the topics that affect citizens in a democracy. These discussions are merely staged conversations intended to do the thinking for citizens, attempting to plant the final outcome in their brains in place of letting them decide the best solution for themselves. This concept of “press as a product” ties in closely with Habermas view that information technology seeks to shape public opinion instead of informing the public in an unbiased manner and allowing them to come to their own conclusion.

            Neil Postman, author of “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” is another well known media critic that has declared similar ideas to Rheingold. He believes we live in a consumer, and not a democratic society, and insists that mass media, particularly television, has changed the mode of discourse by substituting simulated reality as actual reality. Postman thinks that media has come to rely on its proverbial bag of tricks, elements like special effects, fast cuts and sound bytes, to aid in manufacturing their “real” discussions so that no one actually has to have a genuine talk about the difficulties we are facing. Media does the thinking for us, it is controlled by a small group of powerful individuals (including government officials) who are grateful that so few people realize that they are doing the thinking for us all. These media-manipulated plebiscites wield the same heavy influence that Joseph Goebel’s radio show enjoyed during the Third Reich. They present themselves and their beliefs as the unbiased majority view, when really they are anything but, and then solicit public opinion. This makes the audience believe they have an important part in the show, when if fact they are only responding to stimulus carefully crafted to keep them subdued and thinking inside of the box.




            In order to truly understand how information technology has influenced political power and democracy, we must first identify what values citizens in a democracy hold. First, they value their freedom to make choices and think for themselves. This is reflected in the establishment of freedom of speech and religion in the United States Constitution.  Second, equality of all citizens is a requirement. This is mirrored in the countless programs, such as affirmative action, meant to limit bias and promote all races and religions equally. Third, the United States is founded on the ideal of opportunity for all. We can see the reflection of this sentiment in the fact that we have countless immigrants that come to this country, both legally and illegally, because they believe they will have the option to advance themselves for the sake of their families. They are in search of the chance for equality and opportunity. Fourth, we value our security and privacy. This is seen in the right to bear arms and the protection from unwarranted search and seizure, two staple elements in the Bill of Rights. We also see this need reflected in the establishment of our numerous law enforcement agencies. Fifth, we have the need for accountability. We want justice and have created a complex system of courts to carry out this desire and root out the truth. Sixth, we value honesty in our communications with our government and each other. If we didn’t, we would not go so crazy when our officials are caught in a lie. We form special committees just for the purpose of seeking out reality and dispelling untruths.  Seventh, we value having input in the process of democracy and having our opinions be heard and matter. This is shown in the fact that we elect our governing officials and choose someone else for the next term if they disappoint us or do not accurately represent the wishes of their constituents.

            Information technology in its many forms has caused trouble for the values held in a democracy. First, the freedom to make choices and think for ourselves in threatened by the potential truth that we are living in a society of the spectacle. Though we think we are making decisions and electing officials, there is a very real possibility that we are in fact only responding to the commercialized reality set forth for us by media, disseminated through televisions, radios and Internet connections. Second, our equality is threatened. Yes, the Internet does give a voice to the citizens and allow them to connect and express their own opinions in a forum like YouTube. However, not everyone is able to afford or have access to computers. Furthermore, there is an entire sect of persons with disabilities that do not have the physical ability to work a keyboard or mouse. The tools that are available to assist them are often very costly, and not attainable since health insurance does not usually consider them absolutely necessary. This means a very real part of the population is being left out of the ongoing discourse on politics and other important matters. This digital divide does more to create inequality than it does to nullify it.

            Third, opportunity for all is threatened in the age of information technology. True, some individuals do have solid education that includes courses on implementing information technology in order to create efficiency. This group will finish school and be able to achieve greater salaries and advancement in their careers because of their knowledge of computers, faxes, copy machines and digital video equipment. Unfortunately, children who attend public schools or other facilities, that do not have the same amount of funding or access to computers and other technology, will graduate without this marketable skill. They will be passed over for employment prospects in favor of those candidates that do have the technical abilities and do not require additional training in order to be entry-level ready.

            Fourth, information technology has had a profound impact on security and privacy. With an increasing amount of personal data being stored online, there is a greater opportunity for those with the computer skills to access confidential information that does not belong to them. Among this group of potential hackers are members of the government. Since 9/11, there has been a great deal of debate over how much access government should be granted under the guise of keeping citizens protected. While they troll the Internet and emails looking for key words that could mean terrorism, they also encounter a wealth of private communications between citizens. This eavesdropping is not well documented, making protection against it hard to establish. In a democracy, where citizens need to honestly express themselves in order to form true and meaningful relationships, this potential fear of being listened in on could shape communications and prevent the formation of groups needed to stand up and fight when the government oversteps.

            Fifth, accountability is extremely hard to enforce in an age of cyber communication. With the advent of the Internet comes the means for hijacking the private lives and data of its users for the purpose of making money or causing mischief. To this end, cyber crime has become a rampant activity in modern society. Unfortunately, since user identification is cloaked in a web of IP addresses, catching the perpetrators is much easier said than done. This means that the critical element of democracy that calls for criminals to be punished is lost in this new Third Wave revolution. Furthermore, when a potential criminal is caught, it can be hard for him to get a fair trial if the media has already made up its mind to his guilt. Television channels are dedicated to “uncovering” the truth behind a crime. This does not, however, mean any real truth is found, only that often unqualified reporters have gone on a hunt to create the most marketable television show possible, often at the expense of the party they are investigating.

            Finally, in the age of information technology the democratic desire of citizens to have their input in the decision process and make their voices be heard is often lost in the din of what the reporters feel the story is, or should be. We often give our opinions on news sites like, prompted to unearth our “true” feelings but are forced to limit them to one of four specific pre-determined choices. We mistake these types of polls for expression of what we really believe, when in fact we are only responding to the options given to us. As a society, we are not saying what the choices should be; we are saying what we think based on the options we are handed. This electronic democracy masks itself as an accurate expression of our culture, when really it is merely the manufactured dialogues the creators of this content have designed for us. All too often, we do not see this truth and become part of the show instead of breaking through the façade to the heart of the matter.

            It is true that the affects of information technology have not been all bad. In fact, there have been some exceptionally beneficial changes. Having a personal connection to government and each other has enabled more citizens to get involved with the democratic process. When a rally against war or a petition to keep birth control legal is created, it has the potential to reach an international audience in a matter of moments. Whole webpages and social networking profiles are dedicated to the advancement of human causes. Also, without the Internet or television, we would be far more isolated from each other, and we would constantly be put in the position to receive the facts instead of participating in dialogues about them with people all over the world. For instance, when the terror attacks in Mumbai were happening, it was the videos shot by citizens that gave the international community a realistic view of what was happening.

            From an ethical standpoint, the egoist would argue that the development and implementation of information technology for democratic purposes, be it through computers or televisions, is right no matter how much privacy is jeopardized or inequality is advanced. As long as the egoist wills it so, it is the moral choice. This of course is the only ethical viewpoint that can completely endorse information technology in democracy regardless of its pitfalls. In the Utilitarian point of view, whatever satisfies the majority is the most moral choice. To this end it, in a democracy it could be argued that having access to information and government dealings is the desire of the population. Therefore, using the Internet and television to disseminate information is morally appropriate. However, for the Utilitarian majority that believes there should be truth in communication, security of information, and equality between members of society, they would find the digital divide created goes against the interests of the public and is more morally questionable than acceptable.

            In Kant’s theory of Categorical Imperative, the option which advances society and prevents people from being treated as a means to an end is the moral good. In this view, it could be said that all rational human beings want to be heard and have their opinion count. They would also want the ability to directly connect with their elected decision makers, have the opportunity to advance their position in life, desire that their information remain protected and be promised a secure domain. The Internet and the computer threaten security and privacy of information. They also create an unfair employment advantage for those that have access versus those that do not. Given these facts, it is clear that information technology in this form does not fully advance the democratic ideals of society. In fact, it actually prevents some members of society from attaining these ideals. Therefore, Kant’s theory does not support the idea that information technology advances democracy. At the same time, however, not pursuing the advancement of these technologies would bring society to a standstill, ensuring that no one has the opportunity to move forward and better themselves. This is also a violation of Kant’s ideals.

            Rawl’s theory of Justice is founded on the maxi-min principle that seeks to maximize liberty while minimizing inequalities. The Internet, computers and television create inequality in information and opportunity, allowing democracy and free communication between some citizens and not others. Yes, the Internet does give average citizens the chance to make their voices heard and their opinions count, allowing for the formation of groups that can act to advance society’s needs. In this sense information technology is creating equality and supporting freedom of expression and dissemination of truth (all crucial components of democracy). Alternatively, these technologies have caused a chasm to form between those that have access and those that do not. This means that while some of the population is becoming more equal, others are seeing the inequality between their situation and that of the “plugged-in” widen. If given the option to either be connected, or be left out and passed over for jobs, if someone did not know which group they would be in, they would seek to advance their own position and help the group that is worst off. This means preventing the inequality that comes from a digital divide. Either we make it equal and available to all, or accessible to none.

            Clearly, the ethical principles, save egoism, do not condone the use of information technology when it threatens democratic ideals. However, at this point we have become so dependent on technology, there may be no way to reverse our actions. Though town hall meetings and media-generated commentaries only fuel the erosion of democracy, without these technologies we would have no direct access to our elected officials, or unmediated communication with each other. The only option we have that is truly feasible to implement is to educate the masses about the impact of technology and the manufacturing of culture by those that control media. This means advancing sites such as YouTube that rely on user-generated content in order to establish truth. It also means we must find ways to have real discourse between citizens on the issues instead of leaving it up to media outlets to generate simulated interactions in an effort to think for us. Our culture and way of life are at stake. If we allow the society of the spectacle to move forward unchecked and unregulated, by the time we do come around to realizing what has happened there will be no method for true democracy left to unite us.


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Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.                @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino                       

Last updated 8-2006                                                              Return to Table of Contents