B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N

of the American Society for Information Science and Technology   Vol. 32, No. 1  October/November 2005

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International Column

The Athens of the North: Changing Conceptions of Democracy

by Julian Warner

Julian Warner, Queen’s University of Belfast, is the international liaison to the ASIS&T Board of Directors. He was on study leave at Edinburgh University , February-July 2005. Email: j.warner at qub.ac.uk

Study leave in Edinburgh prompts a half-remembered line of poetry, only ever orally communicated and quite antithetical to the Edinburgh Festival in August:  “But have ye seen it in the winter?” Analogously, Robert Louis Stevenson opened his Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes:

The ancient and famous metropolis of the north sits overlooking a windy estuary from the slope and summit of three hills. No situation could be more commanding for the head city of a kingdom; none better chosen for noble prospects. … But Edinburgh pays cruelly for her high seat in one of the vilest climates under heaven.

Edinburgh has been described as the Athens of the North and the deliberate classicism of the architecture of the New Town contrasts with the less planned accumulation of the Old Town . The New Town came into being after the final decline of clan organization in the Scottish highlands and as part of the Scottish Enlightenment, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Athens is regarded as archetype, although not the only representative, of the Greek city-state or polis, equally counterposed to less civilized life outside the polis.

Myths of the foundation of cities testify to a transition from isolated being and animal savagery to civilization. Romulus and Remus are suckled by wolves, Romulus founds the city and the wilder brother, Remus, is not admitted to civic life. Theseus, whose name can be read as “settled tenure,” had to defeat asocial and brutish men to found Athens. A historical reading of myth renders more persuasive interpreting Aristotle’s dictum that man is a political animal as “man is an animal who only becomes human in the polis.” In becoming human, man acquires duties of hospitality and experiences productive activity as labor.

Political and Discourse Communities

On one account of the transition to full humanity, oral and written languages coevolve through mutual association. The political and discourse community, a group of people gathered together to ensure their common survival in a settled territory and communicating with one another, are then born together as a unity. Law, as a written code, also develops with the sedentary revolution, the movement from nomadic to territorially settled existence. The modern notion of the territoriality of law can be regarded as a descendant from this initial movement. More fully understood historically, democracy was originally understood as direct and fully participatory, rather than mediated, democracy, with the extent of the community limited by the reach of oral discussion, testifying to the congruence of the political and discourse community.

These apparently remote historical considerations are acutely relevant to understanding electronic communication. Schematically, but valuably, the political and discourse communities are originally instantiated and congruent with each other, diverge with the development of written communication, with discourse communities multiplying, and both further diverge and reconverge with electronic communication. Separation between the political and discourse communities brings the possibility of dissonance. Time and place of utterance, which relate to the possibility of control over discourse by political authority, need to be differentially established for oral, written and electronic communication. For information, as distinct from political science, our primary concern must begin with forms of discourse, attending to their effects on communal welfare, rather than starting from considerations of communal welfare.

Under direct oral communication, public utterances would be made to known groups of people. The most important aspect of the democratic ideal of liberty was the freedom to speak out for the common good in the public assemblies. Appropriate speech for the public good and the freedom to speak coincide. For direct oral communication, time and place of utterance can be identified with the speaker’s position in the public forum. Ventriloquism, a voice without an immediate human presence in a definite space, has been regarded as diabolic.

With the supplementing of oral by written communication the potential size of the political community is extended. Written law can cover a more extensive territory than oral law but may not be as deeply embedded in the consciousness of citizens. Other discourse communities can grow, may involve communication with participants in other jurisdictions and are then no longer congruent with the political community. Time and place of utterance has tended to be identified with the date and place of formal publication, although publication may be more complex than the imprint.

The recombination of inheritances from oral and written modes in electronic communication can accentuate conflicts between political and discourse communities, particularly where the mobility and reach of electronic communication impinges on the continuing fixity and territoriality of political communities or jurisdictions. For instance, hate speech could be transmitted via the Internet from one jurisdiction, where it was acceptable, to another, where it would be reprehensible, with dialogic interaction by the receivers. The classic model of reciprocity between nations, established for copyright by bilateral agreements and later international conventions in the mid- and late-19th century, breaks down with modern electronic communication. Under that model, citizens’ rights were extended to nationals of reciprocating nations and the foreign products treated as if they were produced by citizens. If utterances in electronic form can be directly exported from one jurisdiction to another without being subject to border controls, or if they can be exported, modified in the receiving territory, and returned, then reciprocal standards of acceptable speech may be transgressed. Time and place of utterance for electronic communication has often been identified with deliberate and direct human intervention in the production or reception of utterances, rather than with the autonomous functioning of information and communications technology, for instance in the process of signal transmission (the European Chapter of ASIS&T considered calling their newsletter, EC ASIS, to pun upon, Ici Londres).

Electronic communication also has an opposing movement where the discourse community constitutes a political community with implications of varying strength for the welfare of the participants. For instance, market transactions, with the global market traceable to the late 19th century, are semiotic events with material implications; a group of people communicating through an email list can constitute a political community, in a less strong sense, with banishment from subsequent conversations as the punishment for inappropriate speech, analogous to, although less severe than, the historical practice of exile from the polis.


The following would be a proposal for adapting ideas of democracy and freedom of expression to the possibilities of electronic communication, which must remain tentative until it has been subject to real world testing and dialogue: to formalize the practical identification of time and place of utterance with deliberate human intervention in production or reception, not with the autonomous functioning of technology in signal transmission or data processing; to accept restrictions on the production and reception of utterances by time and place, with institutions entitled to make restrictions which would not be acceptable in domestic environments, including restrictions for the protection of minors; but not otherwise to restrict the production of utterances. Producers would have to accept responsibility for the effects of their utterances, effectively returning to the intentions of the proponents of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, who understood freedom of the press primarily as unlicensed printing or the absence of control over publication and saw no contradiction in regarding seditious libel, utterances tending to disturb communal welfare, as a crime. Our own conduct as producers of utterance should be guided by notions of speech appropriate to the receivers, resurrecting an oral notion of rhetoric as persuasive speech, although complicated by the potential diversity of receivers. Participatory democracy may remerge as a possibility, but with less dynamism towards communal consensus than with direct oral communication.

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