Police and Democracy
This version appeared in M. Amir and S. Einstein (eds.) Policing, Security and Democracy: Theory and Practice, vol. 2

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By Gary T. Marx

A Latvian-language version of this article, translated by Arija Liepkalnietis.

This article considers some varieties and supports for a democratic police and briefly contrasts policing in the United States, United Kingdom and France. Democratic policing should be viewed as a process and not an outcome. Societies experience a continual tension between the desire for order and liberty. There is a paradox in the fact that a democratic society needs protection both by police and from police. Given the power of new surveillance technologies, democratic societies must continually ask "how efficient do we want police to be and under what conditions is the use of these technologies appropriate?

Democracy, whether viewed as a process or an end condition, is defined by broad values involving participation and formal rules about procedures such as elections. But for most persons most of the time these are removed from daily life. That is not true for the police, the agency of government that citizens are most likely to see and have contact with.

All industrial societies use police to control crime and to contribute to public order (e.g., mediating and arbitrating disputes, regulating traffic and helping in emergencies). But the organizational condtions conditions under which police operate, the means they use and the ends they seek vary greatly between democratic and non-democratic societies, even as there are overlapping areas involving the control function of policing.

One element in defining a democratic society is a police force that:

  1. is subject to the rule of law embodying values respectful of human dignity, rather than the wishes of a powerful leader or party
  2. can intervene in the life of citizens only under limited and carefully controlled circumstances and
  3. is publicly accountable.
These conditions are inherent to police in a democracy. As inherent are ongoing myths. For example,
It is a myth that all that stands between total chaos and social order is the police. Social order has multiple sources. These include socialization to norms, a desire to have others think well of us, reciprocity, self-defense and the design of the physical environment. Yet police are an important factor. Their importance increases with the heterogeneity and size of a society as well as with the more recent globalization of the world..

A defining characteristic of police is their mandate to legally use force and to deprive citizens of their liberty. This power is bound to generate opposition from those who are subject to it. It also offers great temptations for police abuse and abuse on behalf of the authorities controlling them. Law enforcement requires a delicate balancing act. The conflicts between liberty and order receive their purest expression in considerations of democratic policing., which is not necessarily equivalent to 'policing in a democracy'. For example until recently South Africa had many of the trappings of a democratic society for white citizens, but its policing was highly undemocratic. One can also imagine a monarchy rather than a republic, in which the police are none-the-less broadly accountable to law and the public and police power is llimited and consistent with values such as those in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The general political framework of a country involving the means of choosing leaders and establishing rules may show a degree of independence from the organization and activities of police even though there is some link between them..

It is ironic that police are both a major support and a major threat to a democratic society. When police operate under the rule of law they may protect democracy by their example of respect for the law and by suppressing crime. Police are moral, as well as legal, actors.

But apart from the rule of law and public accountability, the police power to use force, engage in summary punishment, use covert surveillance, and to stop, search and arrest citizens, can be usedbe used to support dictatorial regimes, powerful vested interest groups and practices. When non-democratic regimes are toppled a prominent demand is always for the elimination of the secret police. The term "police state" as represented by Germany under National Socialism and the former Soviet Union under communism suggests the opposite of a democratic state. Police are subservient to a single party, not a legislature or judiciary. The policing of crime and politics merge and political dissent becomes a crime. Here the police function may not be clearly differentiated from and may overlap that of the security services (e.g., as with the military or national intelligence agencies). This may also involve cooperation with citizen vigilante groupsgroups or they themselves becoming vigilante groups. groups or the police becoming vigilantes themselves.

The meaning of the term "police" has changed over the last 5 centuries. The word police comes from polity", meaning the form of government of a political body. In Europe in the 15th century it referred broadly to matters involving life, health and property. There was no distinct police force. Policing was done intermittently by the military and society was largely "un-policed". With the formation of modern states with clear national borders beginning in the 18th century, policing became concerned with internal security With and with the expansion of the law over the next several centuries, police also came to be increasingly concerned with the prevention of public dangers such as crime and disorder … and the prevention or redress of breaches of law. They also themselves came to be more controlled by the law. (Fogelson (1977), Lane (1967), Critchley 1972.)

There is no simple or widely agreed upon definition of a democratic police. Indeed it is easier to define a non-democratic police and non-democratic police behavior than their opposites. But viewed abstractly all democratic police systems share the ideal that police powers are to be used according to the rule of law and not according to the whims of the ruler or the police agent. The police, as the arm of T the state’s power, must be used in a restrained fashion and proportional to the problem. In the original British model there was to be policing by consent and hence an unarmed police. Ideally citizens would accept police authority out of respect, rather than out of intimidation. (Melville-Lee 1901; Colquon 1969)

A democratic police is defined by both its means and its ends. Some means are simply too aborhant and are prohibited under any circumstances: torture and summary execution, kidnapping, and harming family members of a suspect. However there may be a transfer (or what sociologists call a "functional equivalent") of dirty policing away from police to other agencies such as those concerned with national security or to private police. Other means involving the use of force, the denial of liberty and interrogation must only occur with due process of law. Due process does not refer to questions of guilt or innocence, but with the way in which guilt is determined.

In most Western democratic countries stringent actions such as wiretapping or holding a suspect in custody for more than a short period of time must be sanctioned by independent judicial or executive authorities. Should force be required it should be the minimal amount necessary for self-defense or to insure an arrest. Punishment (if called for) should only occur after a judicial process. The laws that police enforce, their resources and the way they use their power in enforcing laws is determined by a democratic process involving varying degrees of openess, oversight and accountability to the public., [briefly define/delineate] however indirectly.

The idea of a democratic police includes content as well as procedure. Thus for police to enforce laws that support racial discrimination even if passed by a legislature, is hardly democratic according to contemporary standards.

It is easier to specify democratic procedures than democratic content. But at the most general level such content involves respect for the dignity of the person and the ideas associated with universal citizenship, limits on the power of the state to intrude into private lives and public accountability.

In a democratic society police must not be a law unto themselves. In spite of strong pressures and temptations to the contrary, they are not to act in an explicitly political fashion, such as by spying on or disrupting groups they disagree with or failing to enforce the law against groups they support or to enforce laws they personally disagree with. Nnor are they to serve the partisan interests of the party in power, or the party they would like to see in power. Their purpose must not be to enforce political conformity. Holding unpopular beliefs or behaving in unconventional, yet legal, ways are not adequate grounds for interfering with citizen’s liberty. When opponents of democracy operate within the law police have an obligation to protect their rights, as well as the rights of others. In an important sense a democratic police is a politically neutral police. For example in a racial or labor disturbance police are not to take sides, nor should they spy on, or disrupt the legal actions of an opposition political party.

Democratic societies strive for equal law enforcement. Citizens are to be treated in equivalent ways. Police are trained to behave in a universalistic fashion. Should their personal attitude depart from the demands of the role they are playing, this must not effect their behavior. Police show neutrality if they simply enforce the rules in equivalent contexts regardless of the characteristics of the persons or group involved (e.g., their race, gender, age, ability-disability status or social class).

But apart from this ideal, there is a second sense in which police are not neutral –they are agents of a particular state and enforce the laws of that state. To those who disagree with those laws, police behavior will not appear neutral since it is on behalf of the regime in power. This is one reason why even in a democratic society police are likely to be much more controversial than other agencies of government.

Varieties of and Supports for a Democratic Police
There are social, scientific and moral debates over what practices are most conducive to a democratic police (e.g., centralization vs. decentralization, specialists vs. generalists, internal vs. external controls, closeness or distance from those policed, maximum or minimum discretion, single vs. lateral entry). But it is clear that a democratic police can take many forms.

Democratic societies show wide variation in their police systems. For example in the United States there is a quasi-military, rather decentralized, non-standardized, fragmented system, although one which mixes local and national police agencies. There is a single entry system. Those who supervise come from the rank and file. There is a Bill of Rights and other laws, which significantly circumscribe the behavior of public police. Private police and citizen initiatives are permitted. In many western countries, particularly with globalization and the weakening of national borders there has been an increase in private policing and some blurring of the borders between the public and private police. Police have relatively little to do with the judicial system until they actually make an arrest. The adversarial system gives the accused opportunities to challenge the government’s case. Police have powers denied to the citizen. There are clear procedures for citizens to file complaints against police and police are subject to a greater degree of direct political control such as by a mayor or city council, appointment of the police chief and control of the budget and specfication of priorities than in many countries in Europe. There is also reliance on technology and preventive and anticipatory policing. The export of this (e.g., sophisticated stings and surveillance technology) to Europe has caused some to see an "Americanization of policing" (e.g., Nadelmann, Van Outrive and Cappelle, 1995).

In Britain policing is explicitly non-military and local, although more standardized than in the U.S. Responsibility for controlling it is shared among the Home Office of the national government, a local police authority and the head of the local force. There is no formal Bill of Rights, yet in principal police have no power beyond that of the ordinary citizen and police are unarmed. In a society where the populace has limited access to weapons it is easier to imagine an unarmed police. However even in Great Britain there are some armed units, there are procedures for regular police to gain access to firearms and some police may carry private weapons. Citizens are seen to have a responsibility for contributing to the policing of their own communities. Internal organizational and self-control are emphasized. The symbolic meaning of police as representative of the nation is stressed and police are trained to see themselves as exemplars of moral behavior. The development of the British police has involved a continual public debate about how to protect democratic liberties while maintaining effectiveness against crime and disorder..

In France policing is highly centralized and less service and community oriented. There is a single national legal system. There are rival national police systems (one, the Gendarme, is a part of the military and the other, the National Police, is a part of the Ministry of Interior.) They serve the national, not local government and are subject to civilian control at the higher levels. Private policing and citizen involvement play a much smaller role and are not valued to the extent that they are in the Anglo-American tradition. Through a system of lateral entry, police leaders are recruited directly into supervisory ranks. The prosecution plays an important role in criminal investigations. The judicial system is non-adversarial and it is relatively difficult for citizens to file complaints against police. Given its turbulent political history, the French believe that if democracy is to be protected, the rights of society must take precedence over those of the individual. Police are given greater leeway in the collection of political intelligence.

The democratic police ideal is generally supported by a variety of organizational means including

  1. a division of labor between these who investigate, arrest, try and punish;
  2. a military-like bureaucratic structure which limits discretion and tries to create audit trails;
  3. the separation of police from the military and the creation of competing police agencies rather than a monolith;
  4. external agencies (or compartmentalized parts of the organization) that monitor its behavior and that must give permission for certain highly intrusive actions; police who can be readily identified as such (e.g., in uniforms with names or identification numbers and clearly marked cars) or in the case of undercover police whose identity is hidden,
  5. a courtroom trial in which police actions are deception is publicly revealed and judged; and rotation of assignments.
  6. Adequate compensation and working conditions at least at the average level of the society
These efforts involve the belief that liberty is more likely to be protected if power is diffused, if competing agencies watch each other and if police identities and actions are visible.

Police Control and Accountability
Given the potential for abuse, police face numerous external and internal controls. In the United States police are in principle bound by federal and state constitutions, statutes, and common law. Courts through the exclusionary rule attempt to control police behavior by excluding illegally gathered evidence. Underlying this is a belief that it is less evil for some criminals to escape than for the government to play an ignoble part. Courts may also issue injunctions against particular police actions and may offer citizens compensation for violations. Prosecutors may play a role in police supervision (this has become more important in the USA but is still generally less important than in Europe). Prosecutors may refuse to accept cases which policethe police present and may prosecute police for criminal violations. Legislative bodies through the passage of laws, control over appropriations, the ratification of appointments, and holding oversight hearings may also exercise some control. Executive branch authorities, such as governors, mayors and city managers, agency heads, police commissions, citizen review boards, auditors (and in several European countries "ombudsmen") also excercizeexercise some control. Internally control of police is sought through selection, training, defined procedures, policy guidelines, and supervision.

In defining a given system it is necessary to look beyond formal documents and expressed ideals to actual behavior. For example in the former USSR citizens, in principle, were granted many of the same political rights as in the United States, but in practice these were denied by the KGB, particularly when it was concerned with political conformity. On the other hand even systems that are democratic will have examples of undemocratic police behavior. Police organizations in the United States and Western Europe are not without occasional 'lapses', particularly when this involves issues of ethnicity and class (e.g. unlawful stops and searches and political surveillance, inappropriate use of force, the use of police power for personal gain and discrimination in law enforcement, and corruption), --but these are hidden and contrary to the official policy.

Community Policing
A community-policing model has become more prominent in recent decades. In some ways this represents a break with the professional-bureaucratic, technical, law enforcement model of policing which sought to keep police from the community in the presumed interest of neutrality and efficiency. This model focused on arrest after a crime occurred. In contrast community policing seeks to emerse police into a local community (e.g., by a walking assignment to a particular neighborhood rather than by a patrol assignment by car to a large area). Police are encouraged to view themselves as community advocates and to be problem-solving partners with a local community. They should anticipate community needs and problems and intervene to solve them (e.g., helping potential criminals find jobs or lobbying for lights in a city park). Police should be generalists rather than specialists in a decentralized organization. Community policing is an explicit effort to create a more democratic force. It is based on the assumption that policing will be more effective if it has the support of, and input from the community and if it recognizes the social service and order maintenance aspects of the police role. Of course this can involve sticky issues such as:

  1. what constitutes a community (is it based on geography or shared values and life style which may transcend location at a fixed physical setting?), there is always the danger of powerful groups pursuing their own agendas and labeling this for the "community" ignoring the legitimate needs and interests of minorities.
  2. how to resolve tensions between professionalism/expertise and democratic participation and the danger of police being captured by a given segment of a diverse community.
A related development here is the spread of private police. (Shearing and Stenning 1987); Johnson 1992). In the United States there are far more private than public police and their number has significantly increased in recent years. This raises important questions for democracy. On the one hand such police can serve as a check on public police and can enhance democracy through their independence. They (as with an independent press) can monitor and investigate police behavior and they can conduct parallel investigations. By offering competition they may spur police to improve. They may also contribute to a more orderly society. Yet they may also undermine democracy. When a basic need such as security is treated as a commodity, the poor are clearly at a disadvantage. The effort to restrict the right to use coercion to agents of the state under law, can be a means of increased societal equity. The first goal of private police is to serve their employer rather than justice, or the public at large. Much of the activity of private police involves informal action and is not subject to judicial review. The law has simply overlooked it.[Is this an inherent reality or is it unchecked?] Private forces are generally subject to far less stringent controls than publicthe public police. They may also enter into questionable alliances, carrying out illegal or unethical actions for public police. With their greater resources, there is also a danger of their being co-opted by public police.

New Threats to a Democratic Police
In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville, a French visitor to the United States who was a great student of American democracy, felt that the state was acquiring more and more direct control over its citizens. He did not specifically have police in mind. But 20th century developments in policing support his observation.

To do their job effectively many police believe that they cannot know too much about the community, and they dare not know too little. With their special powers, police (along with the military) are a much greater potential threat to democratic regimes and practices than is the case for other government agencies such as those concerned with education or welfare. The special powers topowers to detain, arrest, interrogate, search and use force come with special responsibilities and the need for continuous vigilance on the part of supervisors, the executive branch of government, courts, the public, police organizations and of course, the officers themselves, both relative to their own behavior and that of their co-workers as well as the schools and programs mandated to train 'rookies' as well as veteran police.. The potential for abuse is ever present. Democratic policing should be viewed as a process and not an outcome.

An important task of a democratic society is to guard against the misuse of physical , psychological and moral coercion by police as well as to uphold human, civil and social rights and dignity in an equitable manner.. A related task is to guard against the 'softer' forms of unwarranted secret and manipulative control made possible by new technologies. Because these are often subtle, indirect and invisible, this is clearly the more difficult task..

In his novel 1984 (1998) George Orwell described a society with both violent and nonviolent forms of social control ( a(a boot stomping on a face and Big Brother watching on the video). In linking these two Orwell offered a model based on his experiences during the Spanish Civil War and his observations of the former USSR, Germany, and Italy. Yet in contemporary democratic societies these two forms are increasingly uncoupled, and the latter is in ascendance. Aldous Huxley (1990) in his novel Brave New World emphasized 'softer' forms of control. He may be a better guide to the future than George Orwell (1998).

To judge current democratic societies only by traditional standards focusing on overt and direct police behavior can result in a vision which is too narrow and an optimism which may be unwarranted. Given powerful new technologies that can silently and invisibly pierce boundaries of distance, darkness, time, and economic and physical barriers that traditionally protected liberty (if also violations), police may become less democratic in their behavior. New information extractive technologies [examples given below] are making it possible to have a society in which significant inroads are made on liberty, privacy and autonomy, even in a relatively nonviolent environment with democratic structures in place.

In recent decades subtle, seemingly less coercive forms of control have emerged such as video surveillance, computer dossiers, and various forms of biological and electronic monitoring and behavioral and environmental manipulations. Marx 1988, Lyon 1994

Technology may make police more efficient. Powerful computer data bases that analyze crime patterns may help solve crimes and locate perpetrators, new forms of identification involving DNA or computerized fingerprinting may help convict the guilty and protect the innocent. New technologies may help control police. For example police accountability might be enhanced by the video-taping of all police encounters with citizens. This could serve as a deterrent to misbehavior and offer a new form of evidence in disputed accounts (although it might also mean a more passive police hesitant to innovate or take risks).

However there is no necessary guarantee that the enhancements of police power offered by new technologies will be used to protect, rather than to undermine democracy, particularly when this can happen so silently and effortlessly. A democratic society must ask the question, "how efficient do we want police to be?" Democratic societies have traditionally been willing to sacrifice a degree of order for increased liberty. Similarly, citizens must seriously ask themselves:

'What am I willing to give up, or 'suffer' in order to become and remain reasonably protected?

Democratic societies experience a continual tension between the desire for order and the desire for liberty. Both are essential. While as the case of the police state suggests, one can have the former without the latter, it is not possible to have a society with liberty which does not also have a minimum degree of order. The balance between these will vary depending on the context and time period. Democratic policing seeks to avoid the extremes of either anarchy or repression.

In an open democratic society which respects the dignity of the individual and values voluntary and consensual behavior and the non-violent resolution of conflicts, police, with their secrecy and use of violence, are an anomaly. They are charged with using undemocratic means to obtain democratic ends. Police offer an ethical and moral paradox that will forever make democratic citizens uncomfortable.

A Caveat
Restrictions on police are not a sufficient guarantee of freedom. Taken too far, they may even guarantee its opposite, as private interests reign unchecked and/or citizens take the law into their own hands. Yet a police whose power is too great is also a danger. President Abraham Lincoln posed the dilemma well when asked, "must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its’ own people, or too weak to maintain its’ existance?" There is a paradox in the fact that a democratic society needs protection both by police andpolice and from police. On a broader scale, this is one of the major challenges of democratic government. President James Madison argued that "you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself."

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Revision of paper originally appearing in The Encyclopedia of Democracy 1995.

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Democratic policeA publicly accountable police force subject to the rule of law embodying respect for human dignity which can intervene in citizen’s lives only under limited and carefully controlled conditions in an equitable fashion. What about equity?

Police neutrality Equal enforcement of the law focusing on the behavior of the suspect, regardless of irrelevant characteristics such as ethnicity, gender, class and life style, or the personal attitudes of the enforcer. However since the laws themselves (even if universallyisticly enforced) do not equally reflect the interests of all social groups, to those not favored by, or disagreeing with the laws, police behavior will not appear neutral.

The new surveillance New technological means of social control such as computer dossiers, video surveillance, electronic location monitoring, drug testing, and DNA analysis which vastly expand the human senses in their ability to covertly cross barriers of space, distance, darkness, and time that have traditionally protected liberty as well as rule violation.

Unresolved Critical Issue Associated with Policing and Democracy
Note: Authors were asked to comment on a critical unresolved issue

Given the variety and depth of the issues I would bewould be hesitant to identify the single most unresolved issue associated with democratic policing. There are however many issues of singular importance, some of which are inherent in the very idea of maintaining social control whether through coercion, manipulation or engineering under ethical and open conditions in a complex heterogeneous society. How to draw the balance between liberty and order and the individual and the community are central. Another important and related issue that has appeared with the development of powerful new surveillance tools is the proper role of technology in policing and the implications of technology for new kinds of crime. Given the electronic component of this, it also raises questions for the easy crossing of traditional national borders with related questions about jurisdictions and new violations and new crime fighting groups. I have long been concerned with these issues, for example Marx 1971, 1974, 1981, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992 a&b, 1995, 1997, 1998a&b.

My research focuses on technologies such as video cameras, electronic location monitoring, DNA and drug analysis, computer profiling and matching, night vision technology and satellite surveillance. In their power to pierce boundaries such as distance, darkness, space, time and logistical inefficiency they vastly expand our ability to know and are altering the understanding of rule breaking and enforcement in the community, as well as at work and at home. This is at the very core of issues of liberty and order. For me this raises questions to be researched and debated such as the following:

Electronic trails create unprecedented possibilities for knowing where a person is, whom they are communicating with, what is being expressed, and what information they are using. Will this vastly expand the power of social control? Will equivalent information about social controllers be available to citizens? Will there be vast new markets created for selling personal information without the knowledge, consent or profit of the subject and will this lead to new forms of inclusion and exclusion (work, consumption, insurance) beyond the control of the individual?

Can systems be technically, legally and socially designed such that their advantages do not come at a cost of the destruction of personal privacy? Can the social functions of anonymous communication be balanced with the dysfunctions? How wire-tap friendly should the technology be? How can the authenticity of a sender and a document be insured? Do we want the government to be the only locksmith in town holding the keys to data encryption? How should the protection of individual privacy be balanced against the broader needs of the society for protection?

What happens to national borders when the state can no longer control the information flowing into and out of it? Will the citizens of cyberspace form the equivalent of a new nation? Will a relatively homogeneous, commercial, Western-oriented culture overwhelm local, previously isolated cultures lacking in the resources to communicate back?

Will electronic communication and related new surveillance technologies be given freedom of speech and assembly protections? Can new surveillance technologies be used without chilling traditional freedom of expression?

What new forms of crime, violation and victimization, as well as of social control, might appear?

Will market forces provide for the efficient and equitable distribution of the benefits of the technology

What human needs or goals is the technology intended to serve?

What other means are (or might be) available for obtaining the same goals?

What logical, empirical and normative assumptions are madeare made about the technology?

Who needs or wants the technology?

Where does the pressure to develop and apply it come from?

What groups are most involved in making decisions about the form of the technology and how it will be used?

Who will the technology be available to and who will control it?

What groups are likely to profit most from, or be hurt most by, the technology and in what ways?

What are the likely social impacts of the technology on things such as the economy, the environment, work, education, mental and physical health, the arts, leisure and interpersonal and group relations?

How valid, reliable and effective is the technology?

Under appropriate conditions, would the social control agent using agree to have it applied to his or her family and friends?

What can go wrong as well as right? What are the major short and long run risks associated with the technology and the likelihood of their occurring?

What unintended positive and negative consequences might occur? How sure can we be that the technology will only be used for its intended purposes? How great is the danger that the machine will control us rather than the reverse? Is their adequate provisionadequate provision for the human vigilance and discretion?

What forms of recourse are available if the technology is misused and individuals and groups are wrongly harmed by it? How easily can this be discovered?

What precedents will use of the technology create and where might this lead?

What symbolic meanings does the technology communicate?

What legislative, judicial and administrative/bureaucratic policies are needed? Is there a role for industry-wide and international standards and policies? Are new manners needed? What new technologies may be needed to deal with the problems of the one in question?

What lessons can we learn from previous technologies?

What are the best and worst scenarios involving the technology that can be imagined for the next 5-10 years? the next 50 years? What factors are operating to push us toward or away from these outcomes?

Should the providers of a service be entitled to censor messages and restrict participation?

Implications for Social and Psychological Well-Being
Will the new "virtual" communities and interactions that occur in cyberspace mean greater equity in communication (e.g., race, gender, age and physical condition are not readily apparent on a computer screen), increased chances for social participation, and reduced social isolation?

Will such interactions be as satisfying as those in the world of face-to-face interaction? Or will social skills decline and interaction become more mechanical and emotionless as a result of being electronically mediated?

What are the reciprocal effects of machine and face-to-face interactions likely to be? Will the first lead to new forms of the second? Will traditional relationships be enhanced? Will face-to-face interactions become more social, expressive and playful because there will be less need to functionally exchange information that can now be obtained through the computer? Will there be a "freeing up" of time for pure sociability? Will computer communications become less functional and more socially expressive, as human needs play a greater role in shaping the technology (e.g., the appearance of the "smileys" [:-)]?

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