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Democracy’s susceptibility to software

I want to propose an hypothesis.

Suppose our new president gets serious about using the Internet as a tool of governance. So, he takes his email list and uses it to kickstart a new e-gov social network. In fact, his opponent provides his email list, too. So, let’s say we have 5M on this network. Let’s say it prominently features blogs and forums. Let’s say after two years there are 30M registered users, and some good percentage of those are at least occasionally active. Of course, I’m making all of this up.

Now, the problem the Internet has faced almost from the beginning is how to scale conversations. We’ve solved it time after time, whether it’s threading and forking Usenet discussions or Amazon’s reviews of reviews. So, let’s imagine that this new social network solves the problem through a combination of forking (or recursive conversations … see orgware [Disclosure: I'm an adviser]) and reputation, more or less along the DailyKos lines.

So, 30M people are engaged in vital conversations. Some people gain prominence in discussions on particular issues. The administration notices this. The relevant government policy makers want to engage in these conversations, because otherwise the 30M citizens feel like they’re being ignored. The emergent discussion leaders become the online points of contact between the administration and the conversations, because that’s how those conversations scale.

For example, PolarKing111 gains an enormous reputation because he writes about polar warming so knowledgeably and passionately, because he engages with all sides in the discussion with respect, and because he’s so good at representing all the various opinions. Administration officials engage with him on the site, often in a spirited back-and-forth. He ably represents the concerns emerging from the many discussions on the site. It’s a public dialogue with just enough structure, one unlike any our democracy has seen.

Inevitably, one day in early 2011, the media will discover that PolarKing111 is a 15 year old girl, but that’s not my point. My point is that the emergent online discussion leaders play a role unprecedented in our democracy. They are not elected yet they represent us. They are not members of the government yet they directly affect government. They have some power but the power comes from an emergent process. We don’t even have a word for this role.

Of course, I’m making all of this up. It’s just an hypothesis. Yet, it’s easy to imagine something like this happening, while it simultaneously being impossible to predict exactly what will happen. Nevertheless, there’s a strong possibility that some form of e-gov social network will emerge, either from the government or from the people. This social network could create new roles or processes of democracy that could well turn out to be quite important. But, just as Facebook can alter the nature of privacy by deciding whether or not to set a checkbox on or off by default, the roles and processes of this new layer of democracy will depend to a large degree on small decisions about how the software happens to work.

Democracy is susceptible to software.

Personally, I think that’s likely to be a good thing. But, who knows?

No one, that’s who.

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4 Responses to “Democracy’s susceptibility to software”

  1. David – I do not know enough about the internet to comment on the technological concerns expressed in your post but, I have some thoughts on the internet and democracy.

    The wonder of the internet to me seems to be the ability of citizens to interact with each other and for that reason it carries great promise as a democratic tool. The internet allows forums of like-minded citizens to evolve, and creates debate and clarification of views by allowing citizens to read and respond to the opposing claims of other citizens. It disseminates a more comprehensive spectrum of these views than even the editorial views of 100 cable news channels. A site like RealClearPolitics Collects and disseminates these views from local publications into a globally accessible format.

    More important than bringing views together is the ability of the internet to bring people together as evidenced in the success of the Obama campaign in their use of the internet to create a community of supporters and contributors. I am always suspicious of top-down hierarchical structures and would suspect and fear that government could use the internet as the tool to consolidate power and opinion and further its partisan non-democratic agendas. The internet seems the antithesis of government itself and I see the promise of the internet as that tool which can protect the citizens from the abuses of their government.

    I think that it is interesting that the internet is part of an evolutionary globalizing movement at a time when there is a simultaneous evolutionary localizing movement. I use the example of agriculture. For so many years we extolled the ability to purchase and eat fish from Chile, apples from New Zealand, and and to drink coffee from Columbia. The new agricultural movement is toward CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) with its mantra of “Buy Local”. Support local farmers, save transportation costs and therefore energy, and eliminate the profits of retailers and distributors that drive up the price of food. Choose organically grown food and non-genetically modified meat, support small family farms, and undermine the devastating economic and environmental effects of corporate farming and their utter disregard for animal rights and welfare.

    Perhaps systems of communication can be designed that allow extensive global listening to be combined with extensive local speaking. Just as the globally available sunlight, water, and atmosphere are shared resources that need to be combined with locally rich soils to produce successful crops, perhaps globally available truths, opinions, and ideas can be combined within fields of citizens whose roots are in regional communities. The internet allows citizens to broadcast as well as receive. We may not have to broadcast to everyone at all times as the television media we grew up with has done. But we can find each other and certify that our intuitions, which seem so opposite to the prevailing trance induced upon us, are indeed authentic and credible.

    In David Korten’s 2006 book, The Great Turning, he reminds us that “our word democracy comes from the greek word ‘demokratia: literally people power.”
    The internet is a tool that can increase the power of the people through self organization, and can help turn government into a system for the benefit of its citizens. The internet is a product of human evolution that is as yet incomplete but moving toward self-organization and away from hierarchy. Korten writes “The contemporary phenomenon of global civil society may be an early manifestation of the human capacity to actualize on a global scale Aristotle’s ideal of a society able to achieve coherence primarily through nonhierarchical self-organization (Korten 152). I would add that this global civil society is being created by the people with the aid of the internet and not by governments or corporations.

  2. David, you are doing a funny thing in your model in that you are pairing the most centralized aspect of the government directly in relationship to the most decentralized forms of participation–and then assuming that the scaling issue has to do with the 30M participants, and not the few people in the centralized role.

    The issue may not be in the scalability of system that allows the 30M to participate, but in the scalability of the system that allows a few roles to hold so much control over so many things–or need to make decisions about so many things “at once.”

  3. I am currently working towards such a citizen social networking system in NZ.
    I see a great amount of disconnection between citizens and government as government gets more and more complex. This leaves them unable to contribute meaningfully to the process and this feeling of powerlessness is what i see as a hefty obstacle to people thinking about issues in a community way.
    Basing this kind of e gov network solely online is a start but what about a system that allows everyone to understand how they contribute to society in the simple acts of participating in giving information to government.
    That i think is the beauty of web 2.0. It’s taking the everyday and showing how it valuable it can be if we add it all up in a smart way.
    I think a system whereby every level of participation (from current tax information and census data etc to advanced collaborative system development) is rewarded in ways that are meaningful at a community level, tangible or not is the ideal.
    The scaling system then does not have to exist to influence high level government activities essentially (as you do point to above) but yes lets people participate in concerns that are more directly experienced by them or that they have the most expertise in. We need people ‘on the ground’ giving the best data they can to a system that uses this data to pass up a transparent multi-level chain. People can find where on this chain they want to contribute and using self-organising devices like rating comments we can let the best people offer expertise where they like or fit best and yet know that this can make better government and better communities in total. (as you say PolarKing111)
    So its not just about blogging or the internet i think but about web 2.0 principles applied and accessible to all citizens to show them that their part in this process makes sense and is meaningful to their community and their government whatever mode they choose to communicate: passive or active, analogue, digital, interpretive dance, helping an old lady across the street or participating in detailed policy processes.

  4. [...] è influenzata dal software Filed under: Politica, Web 2.0 — admin @ 7:02 pm Articolo di David Weinberger del 20.09.08. Trad. a questa data di Stefano Bellanda e Andrea [...]

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