Goverati and media literacy: from empowerment to governance

The School of Information and Communication of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona is organizing the I Congress Communication and Education: Media Literacy Strategies, taking place in Barcelona the 11-13 May 2011.

I am taking part in a round table on “Active Citizenship” the 11 May 2011 at 17:45 with Susan Moeller (University of Maryland), Manuel Pinto (Universidade do Minho), Vladimir Gai (UNESCO) and chaired by Laura Cervi.

My presentation will heavily rely on my recently published work The disempowering Goverati: e-Aristocrats or the Delusion of e-Democracy and will showcase the revolutions in Tunisia and, especially, Egypt, were (in my opinion) a small elite of goverati successfully managed to (1) leverage the power of social networking sites to coordinate and mobilize their peers and (2) used social media to reach mainstream international mass media to speak out with images and video what was happening on the streets, thus also reaching international decision-takers, like the US Secretary of State.


The disempowering Goverati: e-Aristocrats or the Delusion of e-Democracy

The eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government (JEDEM) has just published its Vol 3, No 1 (2011) featuring an article of mine, The disempowering Goverati: e-Aristocrats or the Delusion of e-Democracy.

This paper is the latest, improved and merged version of two previous lines of work. On the one hand, a reflection on e-Readiness, digital literacy and its role in participation, which I presented at the 4th International Conference on eDemocracy 2010 (EDem10) in Krems last year. On the other hand, the reflections on how the distance between governance and empowerment has been increasing due to Information and Communication Technologies (Empowerment and Governance in the Information Society (I): the hourglass of information power, Empowerment and Governance in the Information Society (II): digerati, goverati and the role of ICT4D) and which later became my position paper for the Democracy and the power of the individual conference at the Ditchley Foundation.


When disaffection on political parties and politicians is pervasive, most argue whether it could be possible, thanks to the Internet – and Information and Communication Technologies in general – forget the mainstream political system and let the citizenry express their own opinion, debate in virtual agorae and vote their representatives and policy choices directly. In other words, the claim is whether the actual intermediaries can be replaced by citizen networks or, in the limit, just be overridden.

Our aim in the following lines is to (1) explain that some dire (socioeconomic) changes are actually taking place,(2) why these socioeconomic changes are taking place and (3) infer, from this, what conditions shall take place in the future for (4) another wave of changes to happen that could eventually a much acclaimed new (e-)democracy. In a last section, we will discuss that despite lack of data, the trend seems to be just in the direction of the impoverishment of democracy, partly due to the weakening of political institutions.

Citation and Download

logo of PDF file
Peña-López, I. (2011). “The disempowering Goverati:
e-Aristocrats or the Delusion of e-Democracy
In eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government, 3 (1), 1-21.
Krems: Danube-University Krems.


Empowerment and Governance in the Information Society (II): digerati, goverati and the role of ICT4D

This is a two-part article on the power relationships and distribution in the Information Society. It first presents, in Empowerment and Governance in the Information Society (I): the hourglass of information power, some concepts as power, empowerment and governance, and how they have been distributed amongst citizens and institutions along ages. The second one, Empowerment and Governance in the Information Society (II): digerati, goverati and the role of ICT4D, reflects on how the quality of democracy is decreasing precisely because of an increase of citizen empowerment.

In Empowerment and Governance in the Information Society (I): the hourglass of information power we described a way to look at power, empowerment and governance, and ended up facing an odd distribution of power in the Information Society. A close up to that distribution may look like the following image:

This image aims at visualizing how power is distributed along all the strata of nowadays structure of society.

The lower part is a hat tip to cyberutopianism, at least on what concerns individual empowerment: I believe there is enough evidence to strongly state that Information and Communication Technologies (the Internet and mobile phones and all the applications and appliances were unimaginable without them) have radically changed the degree up to which a human being can (potentially) manage their own life. Getting their own information (much more information, and on a very wide array of quality sources) and communicating with others at lowest costs and with no barriers of time and space have changed the way we can socialize and become more empowered citizens; and being able to access very low cost production tools and being able to create from scratch is an empowerment leap compared to an industrial society where capital (as a production factor) was out of reach for most people.

The upper part, though, is a frontal opposition to the “now people rule the world” thesis. While people are absolutely more free/empowered to act within the system, the strings that manage and can actually change that system are way beyond the control of the e-empowered crowds. Indeed — and as recent economic and political events have proven — the ability to manage and change the system of the world is even beyond the control of the representatives of those crowds, that is, national governments and parliaments.

I believe that there is a deep democratic gap between the increasingly empowered citizens and the increasingly independent, non-transparent and non-accountable forces that rule the economic and political systems from the top. Traditional institutions — parties, governments, elected representatives — fail both in upwards transmitting the citizens’ claims to shape a system according to their needs and wills, and both in top-down transmitting the need for some transformations that this system requires after the world has been made totally global, spaceless, timeless.

The good goverati, the bad digerati and the ugly outcome

Taking the place of those weakened democratic institutions, two new agents arise.

On the one hand we have bad digerati (bad not necessarily meaning evil, though their actions — consciously or unconsciously — do harm democracy as it is now designed), digitally literate elites that leverage their knowledge and the power provided by ICTs to reshape the state of things in their own benefit. These bad digerati understand the changes in society due to ICTs, the huge lag in Law to catch up with the pace of change, the digital illiteracy of governments, politicians and citizens, and succeed in circumventing democratic institutions. Incumbent telecom operators, digital media corporations, news conglomerates, a-legal or plainly i(l)-legal businesses operating in the very verge of written law (some P2P network facilitators, some piracy-related firms, etc.), banks and financial services, etc. Many of them are but the local/national branch of supra-national institutions and organizations that fully scape the reach of governments jurisdictions and, thus, act totally out of control.

Good goverati aim just precisely at the opposite of bad digerati: correct and fix the democratic misadjustments that the Information Society brought with it. Knowledgeable and savvy both in digital and political matters, they leverage the power ICTs granted the citizenry to promote a more direct and committed involvement in public affairs: e-democracy and direct democracy, open government and open data, e-government and government 2.0, e-participation and hacktivism, etc. are some of the many initiatives that non-governmental organizations, government institutions, citizen collectives and individuals are fostering. In my opinion, though, they are quite often too helping to circumvent democratic institutions and contributing in their weakening. But the upper levels of power may actually be far too high.

Thus, the ugly outcome is a complete wreckage of the democratic transmission chain, a democratic gap that both (bad) digerati and (good) goverati are but widening. Hence, the distance between the freely empowered citizen is also increasing, resulting in a democratic paradox: empowerment is not accompanied with better governance, but just the opposite. And in absence of a legitimate transmission chain, representative, plurally elected, we find different individuals and organizations (sometimes anonymous) that no one chose and that many times no one deeply knows their interests or their backing powers.

The role Goverati and the role of Information and Communication Technologies for (democratic) Development (ICT4D)

When talking about the intersection of Information and Communication Technologies and Development (see, for instance ICTs, Development, disciplines and acronyms) it is very common to focus on empowerment or the empowering factor of ICTs.

Indeed, after years of cultural imperialism through development cooperation policies, development agents (especially development policies’ beneficiaries or “developees”) have developed certain allergies against anything that might sound as imposing a certain political system.

But if our approach proves to be right, empowerment is nowadays becoming but the XXIst century version of bread and circus: let the hamster spin the wheel at will, but don’t it dare to open the cage.

ICTs focused only in empowerment are beginning to look like development policies focused only in humanitarian aid and relief, but with no sight on the far horizon: effective in the short term, a vicious spiral towards black hole in the long run.

In my opinion, ICT4D have also and always include a governance factor in their design, as development policies have to focus on sustainable development.

At their turn, goverati should refrain from weakening or even attacking their democratic institutions. We have seen some of these, and this does not mean that institutions and their people should not be totally transformed, but I think the only way to leverage empowerment for governance is, precisely, through democratic institutions, because I think they are, most times, the only legitimate bridge towards real change, towards real power.


Empowerment and Governance in the Information Society (I): the hourglass of information power

This is a two-part article on the power relationships and distribution in the Information Society. It first presents, in Empowerment and Governance in the Information Society (I): the hourglass of information power, some concepts as power, empowerment and governance, and how they have been distributed amongst citizens and institutions along ages. The second one, Empowerment and Governance in the Information Society (II): digerati, goverati and the role of ICT4D, reflects on how the quality of democracy is decreasing precisely because of an increase of citizen empowerment.

Recently — in the most recent years, but especially in recent months — the debate whether Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) empower or disempower, democratize a society or increase control over the citizen has been fuelled, both in the literature after appropriate research, and on newspapers, due to several events that have been read as turning points or milestones in the road towards the Information Society.

As it is usual in almost any debate around the impact of ICTs on the society, equidistant opinions are rare and extremes are much more abundant. In this case, it is my personal opinion that both extremes apply, that is, that there seem to be two divergent but simultaneous trends towards empowerment and towards a decrease in the quality of democracy or, as I will be putting it, a decrease in the quality of democracy (understood as a loss of control over governance by the citizen).

In the (sometimes difficult to avoid) trade-off between rigour and pedagogy, I have consciously chosen the latter in what follows. Many definitions are not very orthodox and most labels (and charts) are absolutely made up. I ask the reader for benevolence, forgiveness and, why not, the references that back (or refute) my arguments and that I was too lazy to look for.

Let us (re)define power as: Power = Empowerment + Governance


  • Empowerment: the capability to freely act and develop oneself within the system (very much in the line of Amartya Sen, 1980).
  • Governance: the capability to rule and especially change the system itself (the institutional dimension of human development that, when in hands of the citizen, leads to effective democracy as described by Welzel, Inglehart & Klingemann; 2003).

According to these definitions, we can describe, even in a very rough manner, how power distribution has been like during history. The image below pictures an approximation of this power distribution.

We can consider than in very primitive societies, the individual held all the power. As social organizations became more complex, the need for a minimal coordination comes evident: tribes got their chieftains to guide the collective. An organized procedure to choose the chieftain is what ended up in Greek Democracy. So far, the idea is that both empowerment and governance remain in the individuals’ hands.

The growth of communities and the need to strengthen coordination — especially against the “threat” of other communities — imply (amongst other factors) the militarization of a society and, sooner or later, the seizure of power by the military chaste. Warlords and absolute kings (and also Pharaohs, etc.) do not only rule but also reduce the degree of freedom of their subjects: governance shifts upwards while empowerment is drastically reduced. It is the ideas behind the Enlightenment and of modern democracy that pretend to give some power back to the citizen while keeping governance (increasingly important) in the hands of nation-wide institutions.

It is within this framework that capital becomes more important as industrialization deploys over all aspects of life. Gradually, economic elites gain more power with two parallel effects: on the one hand, what Marx called the alienation of the working class, now reduced to a mere production factor; on the other hand, the possibility to directly or indirectly affect all matters related to politics and the public sphere so to shape it for their own purposes. Again, the pendulum swung back and the Welfare State came to correct both the loss of freedom (and protection) of the citizen and to take some control of the public arena by keeping for itself the management of the Economy (Communist states pretend to be doing that too). New at this stage, supranational governmental organizations are created to coordinate what goes beyond the national powers: a new layer of power is born.

The strengthening of trend towards internationalization — ending up in sheer globalization — of the Economy has brought us in the past decades to a re-edition of industrialization, with the predominance of Neoliberalism setting the path of the Economy. Like industrialization, power shifts towards economic elites, but now split in two stages: the local and the global levels.

Many claim that the Information Society is empowering back individuals, and it well may definitely be true: never before as now can people or people have the potential to freely act, create, speak, reach out… within the given system. But it may also true that, never before as now is governance — as the power to change the system — so far from the citizens’ reach… even of their direct representatives, which are controlled by higher powers, most of them out of anyone’s jurisdiction. Like in an hourglass, the distribution of power is shifted to the (upper and lower) edges, the question being: who is playing the role of the transmission chain between these two edges?

Continues in: Empowerment and Governance in the Information Society (II): digerati, goverati and the role of ICT4D.


EDem interview: 5 Words to eDemocracy

Judith Schoßböck and Johann Höchtl interviewed me — thank you very much! — during the eDem10 Conference on the following questions:

  • 5 Words to eDemocracy?
  • The future of eDemocracy in a nutshell?
  • Your favourite eDemocracy project?
  • Prospects and risks of eDemocracy?
  • What will be the content of the EDem Conference 2020?

Find below the video and, after, short answers to the previous questions:

If you cannot see the video please visit

5 Words to eDemocracy?

eDemocracy is not about making democracy “electronic” (i.e. to use digital devices to perform our usual democratic participation), but how Information and Communication Technologies have transformed democratic institutions — mainly parties and governments — and what will be the role of such institutions and the role of the citizens because of the introduction of these ICTs, digital content, and the Information Society as a whole.

The future of eDemocracy in a nutshell?

The future of eDemocracy is about how to mainstream Democracy in people’s lives. It is usually said that (a) people are not interested in politics and/or that (b) people have other problems more important than democratic participation.

I think that we should be able to “embed” democratic participation in people’s daily lives so that participating (being informed, deliberation, voting, etc.) could be part of your daily “routines”, mainstreamed in your daily activity.

A simplistic though illustrative example of this mainstreaming — helped by ICTs and out of the democratic arena — is what Amazon does with your online behaviour and recommendations: you do not need to take any especial activity besides buying to build your profile upon which Amazon recommends books for you. Is that possible in political preferences?

Your favourite eDemocracy project?

One eDemocracy project that I know of and that I really like is Parlament 2.0, the Parliament 2.0 initiative by the Catalan Parliament led by its president Ernest Benach himself, a project that opens up the whole activity of the Parliament and really enables and fosters citizen participation.

President Ernest Benach wrote a book about this project and other “politics 2.0” reflections: #Política 2.0.

Prospects and risks of eDemocracy?

The main risks are, of course, the digital divide in all its senses (physical access, digital competences, etc.).

Besides the digital divide, we have to rethink political institutions… without necessarily destroying or ignoring or circumventing them.

What will be the content of the EDem Conference 2020?

  • Did we succeed in transforming political institutions and how?
  • Did we manage in how to mainstream democratic participation in everyone’s daily life?


PEP-NET interview on the Goverati

Bengt Feil — thank you very much! — interviewed me for the Pan European eParticipation Network (PEP-NET) to sum up in three minutes my speech Goverati: e-Aristocrats or the delusion of e-Democracy that I gave at the eDem10 Conference.

If you cannot see the video please visit

The main points I make on the interview are:

  • During the 250 years of our industrial society, capital owners (capitalists) have been the ones that have ruled the world, the ones that are in power.
  • Our democratic system is shaped according to this industrial society and its power relationships.
  • In the upcoming knowledge society, the ones that will be able to manage cleverly knowledge by means of digital tools (digerati) are likely to have a higher share or power in all the aspects of life, especially the government (goverati).
  • We need to work to make access to knowledge as widespread as possible — access to infrastructures, digital competences, effective usage — so to avoid replacing the existing plutocracy with a new e-aristocracy.