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Conversations with Non-Human Actors in E-Democracy

Software systems that structure conversation (and vice versa), formalise the roles of interactors, process their interactions, and provide other forms of ‘support’ are the object and subject of design and evaluation in CSCW, and its related fields of research and practice. E-democracy is a relatively recent addition to them, and can be characterised as the use of network technologies to promote collaboration between actors for policy-making purposes, whether acting as citizens, their elected representatives, or on behalf of administrations, parliaments or opposition groups. This paper explores the applicability to edemocracy evaluation of sociological approaches to conversation that have been widely used in CSCW studies to demonstrate how relations between human and non-human actors are constructed in online and offline settings. Two brief examples are given from the evaluation of software in the projects EDEN and AVANTI, under the European Commission’s programme of research and development of Information Society Technologies. In both projects ethnographic analysis has had a role in evaluating the risks and benefits of software that mediates conversation between citizens and administrations. These examples are used to argue for the value of ‘pragmatist/culturalist’ approaches in e-democracy evaluations, which may otherwise lack the richness of CSCW studies of technology usage. Such approaches demonstrate how edemocracy development entails ‘politics’ in the re-allocation of representational roles from human actors to software ones. Attending to the detail of conversation between actors, human or otherwise, can help to make design and deployment choices more transparent than they would otherwise be.