Information Technology as a Liberating Factor

by Bertel Haarder (MEP)
Former minister of Education and Research


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Bertel Haarder was born in 1944 in Southern Jutland. After finishing high-school he studied law in the US for some years. In 1970 he graduated in political Science at the University of Århus. His political career - within the youth branch of the Danish Liberal Party - began when he was still a teenager. He has been a member of the Danish Parliament continuously since 1975. From 1982 to 1993 he served as a minister of Education. From 1987 to 1993 was also minister of research. in 1994 he was elected as member of the European Parliament. In 1997 he became a vice president of the European Parliament. Mr. Haarder is the author of ten book on Danish political issues. In his spare time he write verses (songs). His website is to be found at www.bertel.dk (only Danish content though). His E-mail address is vbeha@folketinget.dk

The following speech was originally delivered at the 2nd International Congress on Electronic Media & Citizenship in Information Society, 6 January 1999 in Helsinki, Finland. Mr. Haarder has personally accepted that his contribution be published on this very website. We owe him thank for this offer.  

© Danish Society for Direct Democracy - all rights reserved

Information Technology as a Liberating Factor


Why is it that Information Technology (IT) 50 years ago was the most important tool in the hands of dictators - while today it seems to be the most important tool for oppressed groups and peoples?


George Orwell was obsessed with the devastating consequences of IT for Western democracy. In 1948 he imagined a future world in the year 1984 with absolute dictatorship and total control of all individuals, including mental control.

He saw this partly as a result of technological innovation. He had seen Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels use IT to dominate the mental climate and pave the way for horrible policies of war and genocide. He had seen the communists use exactly the same methods resulting in even more systematic terror and killing of own citizens. The cold war was building up with growing communist infiltration and communist takeovers in several formerly democratic countries. To counter this, the Western powers built up an anticommunist intelligence-service establishing friendly relations with several fascist or semi-fascist dictatorships which were tolerated as long as they were anti-communist.

In a way George Orwell was right: He predicted half a century of totalitarian regimes

George Orwell drew the conclusion that the future inevitably was going to be dominated by totalitarian dictatorships. Simply because totalitarian governments had certain advantages compared to democratic governments. Even democratic countries would have to make certain abuses. - He drew the consequence of this in his own life by offering lists of suspected intellectuals to the British intelligence service.

In a way George Orwell was right: He predicted half a century of totalitarian regimes - "the terrible century of mass murder" as the Pope called it in his New Years message. The truth about what was going on behind the iron curtain was even worse than he was able to imagine.

But he was wrong when it comes to technology. His imagination was not able to grasp the full consequences of the development of IT. He thought that governments would be able to maintain control of it. He underestimated the liberating power of market-born IT.

When president Kennedy ordered a man on the moon, he spurred innovation in the private sector. 20 years later Ronald Reagan's SDI project had the same effect. The projects themselves were more or less failures. But the spin-off-effects were fantastic. And while most governments were poor (or burdened by well-fare states) the consumers and companies were rich, so, the enormous investments were primarily spent to develop products for ordinary people and companies.


That is why these technologies were made to serve ordinary people instead of controlling them. They could very well - they still could - be used to control people, if our governments had the money, the intention and the right to do so. But it so happened that the IT breakthroughs were triggered in market-driven democratic economies with companies making lots of money serving consumers instead of tyrants.

Free citizens and democratic
societies can only exist
in market economies

That is why this century finally in the end worked itself out of the darkness of totalitarianism. That is why George Orwell were proved wrong. He had seen the first part of the century belong to governments. He couldn't imagine that the last part of the century would belong to the markets, to the consumers, to the citizens. In the end consumers and not armies destroyed the evil empire and created a future for democracy against so many odds.

This development also confirms a lesson of History: that free citizens and democratic societies can only exist in market economies. However, the market is no God and should not be regarded as a guarantee that there will be no problems in the future.

For me as a former Minister for Education and Research through 10 years, there is an obvious example of how markets do not provide everything. Computers are everywhere in our societies but only to a modest degree in our schools. Far too many teachers are still not familiar with them. And those children who need them most do not have computers at their disposal. The same is the case for many groups of handicapped. That is a disgrace. A social disgrace. A democratic disgrace.

According to professor Joan Sidney Howland, University of Minnesota (article in "The Electronic Library") recent projections show that "a child who has a computer at home is 7 times more likely to go to college than a child who does not have this same advantage."

As computers become cheaper and cheaper there is absolutely no excuse for not having plenty of them in schools and institutions. With access to the Internet, off course. If we want to break the social stratification - if we want to limit the division between the "haves" and the "have nots", we should exploit all possibilities in this modern cheap technology. The market is not going to do it by itself because this problem concerns parts of society where markets are suspended.

Social exclusion is not only
a social problem
but also a democratic problem

I hope that the new EU frame work program will focus on this with a budget of one billion Euro pr. year for Information Society Technologies, IST, of which 17 % is allocated to Systems and Services for Citizens.

Social exclusion is not only a social problem but also a democratic problem. The IT development can make it worse if it only leads to increased opportunities for the "haves". But it could alternatively lead to more equality if the "have nots" are given opportunity and motivation to use it. I know some old people who suddenly have realized how they can have fun and enrich their lives and find contacts by means of their new computer connected to the Internet. - Imagine a boy or a girl from weak families who suddenly find themselves on equal terms with everybody else in the computerworld.

Since I am an experienced politician, I feel I must also address the question of IT in politics, i.e. IT as a democratic tool in the decision making process. I must admit I have seen the Ross Perot-experience in the USA as a rather disgusting prospect for the future.

The good question to us politicians and others is the following: Is it possible by means of IT to give the democratic decision making process a new dimension involving a larger part of the population? And if it is possible, do we want such a development with all its risks of populism?

I see no reason why
elected politicians could not ask citizens for advice

My answer is "no, but". I am against giving up representative democracy. We should demand of politicians that they follow their conscience and do what they think right for the country no matter what the majority thinks. The majority is not infallible. The majority tyrant makes just as many mistakes and abuses as a single tyrant. So, I am against using electronic voting to transfer power in general from elected politicians to computerized citizens.

But: I see no reason why elected politicians could not ask citizens for advice. They often need more information about what people actually want.

In local matters I see no reason why many decisions could not be taken by those citizens directly involved. Matters concerning housing, shops, streets, parks, local schools and kindergartens etc. could and should be decided by those involved.

In many of our countries parents representatives already have a say in schools and kindergartens even if they are financed by taxpayers. Why not extend this influence to all parents? And why not let citizens choose between different solutions in other matters of strictly local concern?

Why not let citizens choose between different solutions in ...matters of strictly local concern?

In national matters there will always be a problem of information. Ordinary citizens will not be sufficiently informed about all consequences, or they do not want to be informed. The decisive information will be given through the mass media who will in reality decide the outcome. Just like in the UK where the Rupert Murdoch-dominated press will decide whether the UK should join the EMU or not (just as he decided that John Major should win the 1992-election against all odds).

In local matters circumstances will be different. The information will automatically be easier to get and to assess. You can look with your own eyes and draw your own conclusion. The consequences will be felt directly by those who made the decision.

So, my answer to my own question is "No but": "No" to direct electronic democracy in national matters except for very special occasions with easy access to information and a strong need for democratic legitimization from the people at large. But "yes" in local politics concerning matters that can easily be grasped by everyone - especially if the costs and other consequences can be directly felt by local citizens.

"Yes" [to direct electronic democracy] in local politics concerning matters that can easily be grasped by everyone

But let us not forget that the electronic boost to democracy does not come from electronic voting in national or local matters. It comes from the very fact that suppression of truth has become almost impossible in the long run. The light of truth reaches all corners. Even in China, in North Korea and in Burma. In Burma the opposition used a link in Finland to communicate internally - outside the reach of the brutal dictators of the Slorc-regime.

This is the liberating force of IT: It casts the light of truth in all corners of the world. It makes true what Abraham Lincoln said 150 years ago: You can fool some people some of the time, but not all people all the time.

IT should be used deliberately by the free world to make the truth available to citizens in oppressed populations. Not in the form of western propaganda, but simply by giving local opposition groups the opportunity to address their own people.

[As] Abraham Lincoln said 150 years ago: You can fool some of the people some of the time,
But not all people all the time!