Can technology be used to create a new political system? (or simply: what are we afraid of?)

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?

5 thoughts on “Can technology be used to create a new political system? (or simply: what are we afraid of?)

  1. I’m interested in that subject for several years too. In fact, I decided I won’t vote for any representative anymore until I can say : “Okay, I’m available, no need to represent me, I’ll vote”.

    Still, there is a major problem with the solution you mentioned : there are laws that have to be voted and that nobody cares of. For example : what is the maximum weight for a truck that pass through a city? This is a purely administrative question that must be answered by a law. I’m not sure it will have the 1% support required. People may think it is important, not have to rebuild town road every year, but it will be secondary among hundred of more noticeable propositions and will never get voted.

    My take on this is that we still need represents to vote and propose useful laws that nobody cares. People can still reject the law if it bad in their opinion, they can still propose and vote, but if nobody cares, there are people to do it.

    In the same kind, when I observe french parliament, I see that there are a lot of “commissions”. That means, small groups of represents that take weeks to analyse a problem and make their suggestion. That can be useful too, to have dedicated full time teams that truly get deep in a problem. The main problem is when we can’t say : “no, we’re not ok with that”.

    That also means that representatives *must* vote, in any case. This is their job, and nobody says “oh, today I won’t do my job, I have better to do”. But if people care about a vote, representatives will be massively outnumbered, so they’re not a problem.

    • Dear Oelmekki,
      thank you very much for taking the time to comment!
      As a clarification, I am not proposing a solution, I generally don’t believe in solutions, I think there are only steps to improve, not real solutions: for each problem that you solve others will come out.

      I agree that there are problems that “seems” insignificant to the overall population, but I do think that they are not purely administrative. Let’ stake the example you are making: if I have an expensive car and I live in the city center, I will be affected by this problem every day, on one side by having to take care that my car don’t get broken every time I go in the street because of the holes created by heavy tracks, on the other side by the noise of the tracks passing by my windows, on a third level by the tax that I have to pay every year to rebuild the street.

      Now I don’t think that the problem is atht people don’t care, but the real problem is education: living in a society where you can teach to people that their actions have a consequence and that they have a responsibility as citizens towards what are not only their problems but that affect them. This is much longer process than the one I described here of course.

      What you describe as commissions are more or less what Aki refers as Panels, where experts discussed a topic and give you the instrument to take a decision about it. They could even suggest what they think is the right thing to do I agree, but they should be randomly chosen form a pool and continuously changed.

      My best,

  2. Am very much interested on politics without politicians but the big deal is that most countries like Nigeria have citizens who are not literate in computer and even simple electronics device. The truth remains that the personal interest of most politicians over rides the public interest. A president of nation or governor of a state, if having done well in the first tenure in office should not think himself to go for second tenure as a compensation for doing well. the question is that, was he not suppose to do well in office?
    I strongly regret that my country is certainly not very ripe for electronic voting that would had given grounds for DD. I encourage most developed countries to adopt this system of governance on the grounds that since individuals vote their representatives from their homes; they could as well vote laws from their homes. Technology can be used to create a new political system.

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