As part of the Being Digital Scoping Review, the ESRC asked how digital technology impacts on our autonomy, agency and privacy, as illustrated by the paradox of emancipation and control.

An initial survey of experts from academia, the public and private sector, comprising experts who had agreed to both steer and contribute to the ESRC Ways of Being Digital scoping review, revealed that issues in this domain have enduring qualities. As each new round of technology enters everyday usage, any advantages are accompanied by a range of concerns. Although our experts recognise that these concerns have been raised in earlier digital developments, in this domain they nonetheless feel that questions about how digital technology shapes our senses of autonomy, agency and privacy continue to be central to our understanding of how notions of citizenship and politics evolve in the digital age. Some of the feedback from this initial survey challenged the very concept of citizenship and the way that politics is done in the digital age.

Context and the way in which the subject area is contextualised will dash hopes of a ‘one size fits all’ because it is impossible to capture the complexity of the circumstances that citizens might find themselves in. There are the commonplace differences in geography and socio-economic backgrounds, but at the extreme there are situations where people have been displaced due to natural disasters, conflict or economic need. In dangerous or changing situations, expressing citizenship via digital technologies may be the only means available to an individual.

Experts advised that while digital technologies can mediate a participatory space where communication between citizens and elected representatives can take place, it may be naïve or even impractical to expect this to quickly lead to more meaningful decision-making and better governance. The potential for improved decision-making mediated by digital technologies is evident but may take time as experts felt there was a gap in what we know of citizens’ current behaviours (“Are people really becoming more civically engaged through the use of digital devices?” “How do we measure the efficacy of this process?”). Experts suggested that digitally mediated decision-making may be severely tested by the various contradictions and tensions that surround notions of emancipation and control.

The digital age is much wider than just its technology and it was emphasised that conceptual aspects of the digital age, such as interactive and targeted marketing, are steadily becoming pervasive and that any research investigation must go beyond being simply technologically deterministic. So, for example, the use of social media as a communication media for formal and informal political and civic participation needs to be understood in terms of the social relations. The ubiquitous character of digital means addressing some of the specificity of the technology but also the way the digital aspect features in the structuring of action.

Enormous expectation is now placed upon the users of government services to become ‘digitally savvy’ and to navigate knowingly through the content and services on offer. This must extend beyond having access to computers (and being digitally literate) towards consideration of how digital technology and services can get people to meaningfully engage with government; how service co-creation can be facilitated; and, importantly, ensuring that citizens do not have to worry about personal safety and data protection throughout the process. In fact, some experts thought that concerns about privacy may prove to be the game-changer in how this agenda evolves (it was even thought that individual privacy should become a topic in its own right).

The ESRC wants to know whether our collective understanding of citizenship is evolving in the digital age, whether technology is helping or hindering participation at individual and community levels, and whether evidence is out there to support arguments one way or another. Yet, precise perceptions of citizenship and politics in the digital age are problematic and we would welcome your views and pointers to research evidence that helps us to explore these questions.