The Return of the Omni-Competent Citizen?

In his book, Public Opinion, written in 1922, Walter Lippmann takes as his thesis that the ordinary citizen is incapable of making the decisions necessary in democracy due to his limited ability to perceive and understand the world outside of his immediate environment. He suggests that we need intelligence workers, experts whose interests transcend local affairs and who are able to make rational decisions based on the facts rather than a biased emotional response to information that they have not experienced first hand. In some sense, this function is served by the news press and by career politicians whose job it is to sort through the facts and make sense of them. In information science parlance, the press organizes and analyzes information and the politicians judge and decide.

The assumption of the omni-competent citizen is one at the core of democratic theory going back thousands of years. It may have been more valid in Ancient Athens where the amount of information needed to made informed decisions about that city was comparatively small compared to today. But how does democracy scale? If individuals are incapable of experiencing across all space and time, a valid way of extending our experience and our sphere of perception is by using information technologies to experience (albeit mediated through a communications system) other spaces and times. Is Lippmann wrong? Can IT surmount the cognitive and physical capabilities of the ordinary person, giving them the ability to make better sense of a broader range of experience? Can citizen journalism and the rise of digital sensors breath new life into the core democratic assumption of the omni-competent citizen?

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