Friday, March 21, 2003

Here's my Emergent Democracy question. I've just been talking to a friend who's very depressed by the war. We've had the largest anti-war protest movement in history. Tens of millions of people across the world are against the war. Millions have actively protested on the streets.

And yet ...

As my friend points out. It hasn't delayed the war by a day, it hasn't lessened the ferocity of the attack, it hasn't helped achieve the slightest extra agreement or international co-operation.

I pointed out that maybe there's a longer term affect. People politicised by the protests may become involved in other things. It may eventually lead to more engaged voting. But my friend thinks people are already disillusioned with the representative process. He worries they'll get disillusioned with protest / activism too.

That's a worry for everyone. Many of the disillusioned will forsake politics entirely. A few, perhaps those who care the most, may become terrorists themselves, blindly attacking the innocent in their frustration at being unable to reach the guilty.

It's easy to see why this popular mood has no effect. The way representative democracy works is that it asks us to put our trust in unknown representatives, who then decide on particular issues for us. Would I have voted for Blair if I'd known he'd follow the pro-war path?

And it's easy to see why the crowds have no real effect. If I join a protest I am reduced to nothing more than an extra body to count. The most I can communicate of my subtle and complex views is what I can distill into 5 words on a placard. I'm combining with fellow protestors in the least smart, least information sharing, least discursive, least productive way imaginable.

So what can Emergent Democracy do to help? Can it offer us an alternative to both representative democracy and mob-rule?

Can it find a way to allow us to collaborate better, and achieve something proportional to our strength?

Several thoughts :

  • At the one extreme we have the legend of Smart-mobs in the Phillipines as told by Howard Rheingold. A large group of protestors, self-organized using mobile phones and text messages, and brought down the government. The same organiztion occured in Seatle. And I'm sure with the current anti-war movement.

    But using smart tech to form an ultimately dumb mob isn't the way to go. Governments and corporations are learning to ignore things. In stable democracies they know that these manifestations don't translate into votes. And a thick cordon of police will prevent any real trouble.

  • Alternatively, if we all sit at home blogging, we get the discussion, the nuances, the creative interplay of ideas. Sometimes our discussions even bubble up to the political level and get widely talked about. In the media!

    But, as of yet, not much more. Anti-war blogging certainly did nothing against the war. I'm not sure that even the pro-war blogs actually affected a policy which seems to have been designed in the early 90s.

    So far blogging's political power is parasitic on that of the regular media and dependent on the message perculating across to the press and TV.

  • Online petitions, virtual marches, Fax your MP etc. have a mixed success. It's easy to filter out or ignore them.

  • Black hat hacktivism against government or corporate computer systems suffers the same problem as all terrorism. It fails to achieve anything but a violent reaction.

  • Massive, peaceful civil disobedience allegedly works. And it may work in the case of P2P filesharing forcing a change in copyright.

On consideration, none of these seem to solve the problem of the disenfranchised protestors. There's something missing : a way for the voices of large numbers of people to affect policy that isn't via the media or representatives or a glorified Freemasonry of who knows who through blogging.

It does require social communication technology. It does involve groups of grassroot activists finding each other and starting projects for themselves. But it has to connect with the institutions of state which aren't part of this agoric network : government, the military, the courts and police.

I think we're still short of some crucial ideas.

The best I can think of at present is applying reputation management to elected representatives. Allow people to vote on how trustworthy they believe candidates are on various issues. Allow people to view the ratings during elections. (If this doesn't already exist, Lazy Web should create it) If you categorize, people can make decisions based on their particular policy (do I want a hawk on war but a liberal on drug use?)

But it reveals the other problem of representation : you get policies as a package. What if I want a dove who's liberal on drug use but I only have a choice of libertarian hawk or puritan dove? Could the existence of a system which rates candidates on a number of categories, force those candidates to fragment their beliefs so that they respond to the majority opinion on each one.

Perhaps this is misunderstanding the whole point of ED. Perhaps it isn't about the government institutions. Perhaps networks of activists should boycott other products by the conglomerates that make the weapons. But when defence spending is so high, defence contractors often don't need any customer except the government.

So, smart thinkers in the ED conversation. Help me out here. What institution / culture / technology could have given the anti-war movement any kind of influence proportional to it's strength?

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