Data, power and democracy


Henrik Rydenfelt


What kinds of challenges and opportunities does the digital media environment present for Western societies? What could the future of democracy be in the era of data?

This memo addresses these questions through the concept of power. Power is understood as the ability to make others act in a manner that serves the purposes of those who exercise it. This ability is often based on data, information, knowledge, ownership and economic capital or political status.

By distinguishing forms of power that are based on knowledge, information and data, the memo offers a new perspective on the change generated by digital and social media. The role of traditional information gatekeepers has weakened, and knowledge and information power are diverging: the ability to control information is not centralised in institutions that produce and transmit knowledge. The rise of data power is reflected in the influence wielded by social media platforms and services. Societal debate, individuals and groups must adapt to the structures provided by these services.

The new information environment and the diversity of media challenge the democratic ideals of rational and informed debate and consensuses as the basis of societal decision-making. The memo outlines a partly alternative vision offered by the philosophical tradition of pragmatism. Pragmatism provides a vision of societal decision-making through a self-revising process resembling scientific inquiry in which both the shared goals and the means to achieve those goals are tested in social practices.

Modern digital technology could provide this kind of experimental democracy with unprecedented opportunities. Under what conditions could societal decision-making based on the collection and use of data be implemented?

Western societies are characterised by the idea of liberalism, according to which the justification for the use of power stems from the free consent of individuals. This notion underlies both the freedom of the markets and the justification of societal power. This memo presents and critically assesses the concept of a social data contract, in which individuals provide data generated through their actions to public administrations, which in turn would enable public governance to better identify problems and devise solutions.

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Data, valta ja demokratia (Data, power and democracy)


Henrik Rydenfelt

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