Landing : Athabascau University

Lorna Stefanick

Last updated March 31, 2013 - 1:27pm by Mark A. McCutcheon

Lorna Stefanick, Associate Professor of Political Science, Athabasca U

“Democracy and Identity in the Digital Age”

Abstract: In less than a decade, information management has emerged as a critical challenge of the new millennium. New technologies that collect, store and transmit information at the click of a mouse are allowing public and private sector bodies to amass a stunning array of information. At issue is the ability of individuals to control information about themselves in light of competing demands for it by others; this speaks to the ability of individuals to pursue their self-interest free from external control. Of equal importance, however, is the ability to access information that is crucial for both the organizational functionality and accountability that are necessary for efficiency and good governance in both the private and public sectors (Stefanick 2011).

This chapter will explore the balance between privacy protection and access to information through contextualizing it in the age-old debate over the optimum balance between the rights of the individual (defined as personal autonomy) and the rights of the larger community (broadly defined as the collective good). As Amitai Etzioni has argued: “Good societies carefully balance individual rights and social responsibilities, autonomy and the common good, privacy concerns for public safety and public health, rather than allow one value or principle to dominate. Once we accept the concept of balance, the question arises as to how we are to determine whether our polity is off balance and in what direction it needs to move, and to what extent, to restore balance. ” (1999)

The balance that Etzioni envisioned, however, may be increasingly difficult to achieve in the digital age, since an individual’s agency is constrained by both ignorance and apathy of the insidious power of digital technologies. These technologies can erase space and place, allowing new communities of interest to emerge, populated by digitized individuals (Stefanick and LeSage 2005). In turn, the data derived by corporations from these digitized individuals provide important fuel for corporate marketing machines. This chapter argues that democratic citizenship in a balanced polity will increasingly depend on the ability and willingness of both individuals and communities to exercise control over digital identities, while at the same time demanding organizational transparency through free flowing information.