A Question of Governance
The question of governance has rattled around in human heads since the first human heads had a decision moment put upon them. The authoritarian perspective recognizes that some members of a group are better suited to making the right choice in a given situation. The democratic perspective recognizes that every member of a group should have some influence over any decision that affects them. A lot of people have died because of conflicts between these perspectives. Critics of authoritarianism argue that any individual given power will use that power to benefit themselves and marginalize their opponents. Critics of the democratic perspective argue that the masses of people don’t have the information or perspective necessary to choose the wisest course of action.
Direct democracy, or pure democracy, is a system that extreme proponents of the democratic perspective would consider ideal. It’s a democratic system in which no decision is made without consensus. The system, whether it’s reasonable or not, has been practically impossible to institute fairly since populations grew into the triple-digits thousands of years ago. That has now changed with the development of communications technologies that have accelerated the speed of information-transfer and do so continuously. The most advanced communications technologies 2000 years ago were smoke signals for simple messages and carrier pigeons for more complex messages. Then semaphore and telegraph systems became popular in the 19th Century. Telephone and radio were popularized at the end of the 19th Century and served the world along with telegraph throughout the 20th Century. In the 20th Century the military gave us the internet, which has only sped up information-transfer since. The speed at which information can be sent today would have been unfathomable to a newspaper editor in the 20th Century, and the speed that an editor in the 20th Century could send a message would have been unfathomable to a General from the 19th Century, and so on. There are tales of European peasants from the Middle Ages not learning about a King’s coronation for years after the fact.
A lot of the technical obstacles separating people from participating in direct democracy have been destroyed by the internet’s ravaging of society. Geography, access to information, and significant time-restraints are all addressed by the introduction of the internet and the widespread use (in affluent markets) of smartphones, tablets, and laptops. With those obstacles addressed one could imagine that the road is clear for the study of whether direct democracy in the digital age a good idea. It isn’t an insignificant question and many people take a positive response as fact. Winston Churchill, the vile yet idolized WWII British Prime Minister, is quoted as referring to Democracy as, “the worst form of government, except for all the others”. A lot of research has been done to date into the effectiveness of direct democracy and arguments for a digital direct democracy have been made in several countries. Several governments including the US, Switzerland, and Spain contain aspects of direct democracy such as referendums, initiatives, and recalls. A study from Spain released this year looked into the Spanish system, which determines whether a region will use the practices of direct or representative democracy based on population. The study found that direct democracy practices reduces the size of the bureaucracy, along with public spending and revenue. It recommended further research into the effects of the practices on corruption and other elements of government.
The current examples of direct democracy being implemented in various countries are bolstered by organizational efforts to bring elements of digital democracy, or e-democracy, to many more countries. The Metagovernment Project is an umbrella group able to be joined by anybody through a listserv that supports the development and implementation of direct democracy technologies.The first e-democracy party recognized in an electoral system was the UK’s People’s Administration who have published a manifesto for transforming the Parliamentary system to direct democracy through an election, they’re calling for an early election in 2017. Sweden’s Direct Democrats Party (Direktdemokraterna) is currently working on an iOS app that would connect Swedes with their political process through a secure database allowing for citizens to vote on legislation, egov.se. The app will be released for Sweden’s 2018 election, assuming a member of the party is elected. Turkey’s Electronic Democracy Party, Spain’s Internet Party, Australia’s Senator On-Line, Hungary’s Party of Internet Democracy, Argentina’s Partido de la Red, and Canada’s Party for Accountability, Competency and Transparency are all on the growing list of parties pushing for the opening of their democracies to public voices with digital tools.
America’s Founding Fathers pushed for Representative Democracy to counter what they called the tyranny of the majority. To protect a nation’s minority or disenfranchised groups from the interests of the majority American employed a constitutional republic system with a Bill of Rights. This allowed that the system would represent all of its citizens and protect their ‘inalienable’ rights from the capricious wishes of the majority or those with the power to potentially legislate away a citizen’s rights. These issues would still require attention in an electronically implemented direct democracy. In this form of government, people would provide, debate, vote on, alter, review, and implement legislation. A meticulously created, modernized constitution would need to be drafted to ensure that the problems of the tyranny of the majority and the minority were overseen and mitigated. A thorough and impartial constitutional review process would need to be enforced on all legislation to make sure that the rights, dignity, and security of all citizens were respected. Authoritative opinions on all issues of the State would need to be verified as ‘authoritative’, and given sufficient power to ensure that the open government process was producing realistic outcomes, and the citizens’ stances in regards to international relations, cooperation, and security would need to be brought to consensus.
The routes to achieve these forms of government are manifold but the digitization of government, along with the rest of society’s practices, seems inevitable. Violent revolution, electoral reform, a movement of peaceful dissidence, a post-apocalyptic bounce-back, a hackers’ revolution, willful reform from an enlightened government, or the authoritarian enforcement of a technocratic surveillance-state could all lead to a government that brings people closer to the decision making process, (in the former case it’s a stretch but imagine that the direct democratic practices were for information gathering purposes). These are decisions that will be made and will change the world. The opposite outcome is entirely likely, an international society where all ‘peons’ are entirely alienated from their governance. The organizations working toward winning are a good sign for the masses, but the questions of creating a just society remain in the air along with the question of the efficacy of democracy.