Complexity, Information Overload and Online Deliberation

“Complexity, Information Overload and Online Deliberation”

A Journal of Law and Policy for the Information Society, 2009

OREN PEREZ, Bar-Ilan University – Faculty of Law

This article explores the influence of information overload on online democratic processes. The study of this problematic is motivated by the increasing importance of the doctrine of transparency, by the central role of the paradigm of informed citizenship in contemporary political thought, and by the empirical observation that the modern citizen is exposed to increasing amounts of political data. To explore this question, the article develops a rigorous understanding of the concept of information overload in the democratic context. The article argues, drawing on empirical studies which highlight the adverse psychological impacts of cognitive overload, that this problematic can undermine the capacity of the Internet to reinvigorate democratic praxis. It considers two different responses to this threat. The first questions the seriousness of this threat by re-conceptualizing democracy as a ‘low-information’ practice. This ‘shallow’ understanding of democracy emphasizes the role of heuristics and political intermediaries in modern democratic life. While acknowledging the important role of heuristics and political intermediaries, the article questions the capacity of this narrative to provide a coherent account of legitimate democratic governance. The article proceeds to consider an alternative, technological-oriented response to the problem of information overload. This approach highlights the capacity of new technological innovations to resolve the information overload problematic by reducing the cognitive burden associated with web-based political action. The article uses a concrete case study – the advanced online participatory framework offered by TransLink, the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority – to highlight how the information overload problem is manifested in an actual political context. The article concludes by exploring the blind-spots of these different technological innovations. It considers in this context the role of a new class of political players-techno-political intermediaries – and discusses their potential influence on the democratic process. This discussion points to certain deficiencies in the current doctrine of transparency (and the paradigm of the ‘informed citizen’ underlying it), which is insensitive both to the cognitive limitations of the average citizen and to the increasingly important (but hidden) role of techno-political intermediaries in the political process as it draws increasingly on online tools.

Source:  LSN Law & Positive Political Theory Vol. 4 No. 27,  12/11/2008

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