Thursday, 1 March 2007

A World Without America & Other Questions of Democracy

Peter writes ...

Has e-Democracy finally arrived? Will it ever? This useful BBC article is typically well-informed. It focuses upon the recent use of the web by major politicians and the recent campaign video, 'A World Without America.'

My personal view is that the recent developments are significant. Established political groups are taking the web more seriously and, whether or not you like their output, they are making more skilled use of its potential. Alongside this it is obviously easier to make oneself into a political voice or to create a political group. Again, the 'World Without America' video bears testimony to this, as do the comments and alternative videos that trail it on YouTube. This lowering of the barriers to entry might yet be very significant in our lives.

That all said, one must not mistake the debate for the execution. Ultimately, politics is about control, and until the web shifts the levers of control, I don't think we can announce the arrival of e-democracy. This is a subtle point. One needs an expansive view of what democracy is. e-Democracy will not necessarily be the replacement of the representatives in the council chamber by the electronic clicks of a thousand residents. It might be more concerned with the individual's ability to access and control what he or she thinks is important. For example, the spirit of democracy is unleashed in the simple acquisition of knowledge about stuff that's important, from medicine to benefits and taxation, and then outwards to work and entertainment. The spirit of democracy is then enshrined when as much control over as is possible is passed to the lowest possible level. So you get the maximum possible level of control over medicine, benefits, taxation, work, entertainment or whatever. And in this broader light, the web is already advancing the democratic cause.

But is it profound enough to merit the label e-democracy? And do you ever get total control? Well, no, because that is cybernetically impossible. Politics is about contested spaces, and in those spaces politicians shall always sit. They have to. Somebody has to decide about that contested planning application, that tax law, that allocation of school places. You can have all the e-petitions you like but someone, somewhere has got to read and take in all the opinions. That too, is probably cybernetically impossible.

And one final thought is that in the age of the machine, it might be immensely reassuring to know that ultimately, human hands are on the tiller. The law of surprising consequences might yet dictate that representative democracy is yet to have its finest hour.

See also, 'Designing Freedom and Handy on federalism and subsidiarity.

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