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Technology, Democracy and the Digital Society

Technology and Democracy is part of the Cambridge Centre for Digital Knowledge at CRASSH

This project will look at the digital society and the notion of change – linking intellectually and methodologically with the notion of epistemological change in the strand on Digital Epistemology. It is often claimed that the invention of the Internet and the consequent ubiquity of the digital constitutes a step-change in human culture. Similar claims have been made in response to technological change before: with the invention of printing; the invention of steam power; with the telephone. Such claims may have a real purchase or may be the result of a certain technological phobia or anxiety. There is a real question about whether we can and should see the internet – or the digital – as representing a genuine, absorbing and systematic change in cultural and social possibilities. This inevitably involves at least three interlocking arenas of debate: technological, economic and political (including governance). The first task of this strand will be to write an informed, evidenced and sophisticated account of how we might (or might not) comprehend whether there is a step-change brought about by the digital, and if so, what its implications and consequences are.

The second strand of the project, led by John Naughton and David Runciman, will consider the related and essential question of how the new technologies can be understood – that is, while we may know what steam does in the broad sense of increasing the power of machinery and thus the speed of trains, the rate of production and so forth, it is quite unclear whatdigital technology does to the world. Are there built-in monopolistic vectors within the technological realm of the digital? With close overlaps to the Leverhulme project on Conspiracy and Democracy, this strand explores the implications of digital technology for society, attempting to advance a precise and useful analysis of digital systems and their social purchase.

The third strand, led by John Thompson, is concerned to develop the Digital Society initiative by laying the foundations for a much more extensive and sustained collaboration between the social sciences and computer science in Cambridge. The key idea underlying this initiative is that the big intellectual challenges in this area require a deep understanding of bothtechnology and society.  We cannot deal with these challenges adequately without understanding the technology, but at the same time the issues raised are not only technological: they are also fundamentally social and political in character.  A central purpose of the Digital Society initiative is to develop a major new collaborative research agenda on the social and political dimensions of the digital revolution by bringing together Cambridge’s world-class resources in computer science, sociology, political science, history and law.

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