Digital Civil Society Lab

Digital Technology and Democratic Theory


The goal of this three-part workshop is to examine the meaning and implications of the growing role of digital technology in democratic institutions. These technologies are changing standard practices across many public agencies and nudging us toward new approaches in many aspects of participatory decision making, from voting procedures to policy ideation, from blockchain experiments to algorithmic accountability.

We see examples of crowdsourcing citizen expertise, technologically-enabled participatory budgeting schemes, citizen science, new models of representation such as liquid democracy, and digital approaches to improving government services. Our view is that the scholars who are leading the development of digital technologies for civic purposes have rarely been in conversation with democratic theorists; worse, democratic theorists  are for the most part unaware of the exciting new work aimed at improving democratic governance via technology. Each group cares deeply about the quality of democratic governance and each subscribes to the hope that democratic institutions are not merely fair processes but also produce better outcomes than nondemocratic alternatives.

Our hope is that the workshop, through our cross-disciplinary dialogue and a resulting edited volume, may help create (more) common vocabulary, improvements in theory and practice, and raise if not answer some interesting philosophical and empirical questions. We also hope to spur renewed creativity in the policy arena and stimulate more academic work on the intersection between technology and democracy in first rate scholarly journals.

Research Questions

Among the questions this workshop series and publication will address are:

  • Are the new digital technologies inherently democratic and their effects inherently democratizing?
  • How might democracy theory guide citizens as we consider digital technologies’ potential for inclusion and voice in light of the new forms of exclusion or discrimination that they can also create?
  • How should we understand the less appealing aspects of the use of smart phones and social media and the opportunity for mass surveillance that these technologies also make possible (privacy/surveillance debate)?
  • What kind of democracy do digital technologies render possible or more feasible? Do they make it possible to reinvent direct democracy on a mass scale (ancient Athens for the 21st century?) Do they simply allow us to make representative government more efficient and responsive? Or do they entail a completely new form of democracy, still to be theorized (delegative/liquid/open/”post-representative”)?
  • Can technology solve the problem of deliberation on a mass scale?
  • How do digital technologies complicate the definition of the “demos” in a globalized age of interconnected and virtual publics?
  • Have digital technologies empowered and connected citizens to each other; have they allowed for greater education, cross- cutting exposure, understanding of pluralism? Or on the contrary have they alienated and divided people and possibly locked them up in polarized echo chambers?
  • Who controls or should govern the algorithms regulating the formation of the public sphere in social networks like Facebook and Twitter?
  • Do digital technologies empower all or some more than others? What are, in particular, the differential impact of new technologies with regard to gender and race?


A group of 10-15 scholars will participate in three separate workshops, one in spring 2017, and the others in 2018. The workshops will be directed toward the production of an edited volume on the topic of Digital Technologies and Democratic Theory. All participants will contribute a chapter. These chapters will be intensively workshopped during the workshop meetings, and the introduction will be the product of multiple group conversations and reviews of text drafted by the co-editors, Hélène Landemore, Rob Reich, and Lucy Bernholz.

A major goal of this three-stage workshop is to bring together scholars across disciplines, including from computer science, engineering, law, political science, sociology, public policy philosophy, and history. Our goal is to allow for genuine syntheses across methods and approaches, so we have organized a work-plan focusing on intensive conversation rather than formal presentation.



Digital Technology and Democratic Theory

June 27 - 30th, 2018 - Please note this workshop is invitation-only and not open for...


Digital Technology and Democratic Theory

May 4 - 6th, 2017 - Digital Technology and Democratic Theory is a three-part workshop series and...


Digital Technology and Democratic Theory

December 13 - 15th, 2018 - Please note this workshop is invitation-only and not open for...