I intentionally titled this blog post “can technology be used to create a new political system” because I will not discuss here about the ongoing debate over the issue if technology and internet is helping the democratization of certain countries or not, or the power of the internet in repressive regime. I want to discuss here if someone can intentionally decide to use technology and the Internet with the explicit purpose of creating a new political system, taking here as example Direct Democracy.
Some time ago I read a Direct Democracy manifesto written by Akiva Orr, called Politics without Politicians, (you can find it here) which according to me is an amazing piece on the power of technologies when it comes to democracy and people’s power.
When Aki wrote that piece it was in 2003, when some of the most important social networks and free open source software for crowdsourcing where still not there. Actually, the crowdsourcing concept was not there, being mentioned by Howe for the first time in 2006.
What I found particularly interesting is how what Orr talks about in his Manifesto looks a lot like the application of the concept of crowdsourcing to the political structure of actual democratic representative governments, and that results is the concept of Direct Democracy.
According to Orr:
“What people call “Democracy” today is a system where representatives of citizens – not all citizens themselves – decide all policies. This is Rule by Representatives (RR) not democracy. Calling such a system “Democracy” is false and misleading. In a Democracy all citizens decide all policies, and no one decides for others.
Politics means deciding what an entire society should do. Today only a few politicians do it. A few Representatives – not the citizens themselves – decide all policies. People accept policy-making by representatives because they do not see how all citizens can decide policy themselves. This seems impossible. Finding out what millions of citizens want seems complicated. Today it can be done by electronic means, mobile phones, magnetic cards. In Direct Democracy every citizen can propose, discuss and vote on every policy.”
Here is interesting to notice that Aki doesn’t know anything about social media: at the time I visited him in 2006 in his house in Netanya, Facebook was just coming out and Twitter was a very remote US based tool, that very few in the Middle East or Europe knew about. Aki here talked about magnetic card cause those were the new big thing at the moment and for the first timer people were talking about using them to vote.
Orr base the entire idea of creating a direct democracy on the possibility to use new technology to sustain the new system:
“All citizens vote directly on all policies. There are no elections, no Parliament and no Government. Each domain of the society, such as health, education, finance, agriculture, transport etc is allocated a TV channel open 24 hours every day all the year round. Panels drawn by lottery from pools of people with expertise in each particular domain debate the pros and cons of various proposals phoned in by citizens. A proposal becomes subject to panel discussion if 1% of all citizens support it. Proposals are listed on TV and citizens can phone in to establish the 1% support required for further discussion. Each proposal is discussed for a fixed length of time, after which all citizens vote on it. Proposals are numbered and citizens can vote on each by mobile phone, touch-screen, magnetic cards, or the Internet. A proposal gaining a majority is submitted to a second round of discussion and voting, and – if required – to a third one.”
The same system can be applied according to Aki to the executive power:
“When a policy has been decided a panel will be set up to carry it out. Panel members will be drawn by lottery from a pool of all those with experience and knowledge of the specific task. They will be changed at regular intervals. Complaints about panel members’ inefficiency or corruption will be investigated immediately – and punished if it was the case..”
Aki is well aware of the problems that this system will face and list them as two: Technical problems and Inherent problems. I will focus on the first one:
“Technical problems of DD stem from all citizens’ right to propose, debate and decide every law and policy. Electronic communications provide the means to do this but procedures must be devised to protect the public from abuse of this right. Committees to decide such matters can do it, but they must be drawn by lottery and serve one term only. This will prevent the formation of elites controlling everything. This applies also to the Executive Committees that decide how to carry out policies. Carrying out a policy often requires expertise which most citizens lack, but Committee members must be changed regularly to prevent the formation of ‘expert elites’ influencing all decisions in that field.”
“Today electronic communications enable people to make political decisions privately, separate from any crowd. Today (for the first time in history) anyone can address millions (on TV) from their own home without joining any crowd.
Mobile phones and interactive television enable people to see and hear privately anyone who wants to address them, and to vote on policies from their home in the same way as people already choose films in cable TV networks, by pressing a key on a remote control.”
Now, let’s throw in the middle of this Facebook, Twitter, crowdsourcing platforms like Ushahidi and similar. Let think about how laws are already discussed on Twitter and Facebook, how people decide to self tax themselves for a good cause, or the fact that in certain US state people already vote from home via computer. Why if I can vote my representative via computer I should not vote directly the law? Why would we need someone to represent us if we could represent ourselves?
The real question here is: what are we afraid of? If an SMS can save a life, if social media can be used to do demonstrations and mobilize entire populations, if we have means to collectively decide to assist populations on the other side of the planet and if we can now work together with hundreds of other people without have ever meet them, why we cannot use the same means to take decisions about ourselves?
I think that soon or later we will find ourselves in front of those dilemmas: Can technology be used to create a new political system? Can we crowdsource the legislative and executive power?