Direct Democracy: A valid future?

Introduction

In their book “The Social Life of Information” John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid argue that ‘New Economy’ futurists have lured us into taking on “6-D” vision. This 6-D vision isn’t necessarily better than 3-D as the 6-Ds represent an unwavering faith that the following new economy mots du jour will transform the globe:

  • Demassification
  • Decentralisation
  • Denationalisation
  • Despacialisation
  • Disintermediation
  • Disaggregation

These 6-Ds are undoubtedly popular tokens of the wider belief of how the Information Revolution is going to change everything in our lives. Yet as Brown and Duguid convincingly argue, these beliefs are wrongly based on the assumptions that all outcomes and processes can be viewed in terms of information. But most of what we do has social, emotional and spiritual aspects which are so subtle that in discussions they aren’t even explicitly referred to. The result is that all too often designers forget these key aspects leaving us in an ‘idealised’ but unattainable world that assumes everything is information or information processing.

I am concerned to see this kind of view becoming increasingly evident when discussing Internet Voting and e-government. Internet Voting nor e-government alone will solve the current political malaise, it runs deeper than just information processing. But first, let us examine the context in which we discuss politics and democracy.

The democratic process has its foundations in ancient Greece and there seems little doubt that it is an improvement on previous methods of government such the benevolent dictatorships of monarchies or military juntas. We are normally reminded that democracy puts the power in the people’s hands – even if the result is, as Esther Dyson puts it, “a tyranny of the majority”. But Stuart Kauffman reminds us, that while theoretically a democracy of majorities shouldn’t work it does by keeping subgroups from getting stuck on some locally good but globally inferior solution – perhaps the tyranny isn’t such a bad one. And of course democracy is more than just majorities, there’s a complexity of social negotiations that a mathematical or informatic analysis finds hard to account for.

The system we currently rely on in all modern democracies is representative democracy. This relies on the electorate trusting our MPs and senators to competently deal with all the issues and thus direct the civil service on our behalf. Unfortunately they seem to consistently betray our trust, and with the irregular opportunities that the populace gets to comment (ie vote) on representatives’ performance it has the makings of a clumsy system – vote for the opposition if you don’t like the current representative or keep them in power – and it desperately lacks subtlety, especially in effectively bi-partisan non-proportional systems such as in the USA.

But this view makes our democratic process appear more anaemic than it really is. Some like Kevin Kelly in “Out of Control” argue that our democratic process is an Industrial Age system that batch processes a nation’s desires powerfully at irregular intervals through General Elections with weak continuous inputs from lobbyists and pressure groups resulting in systemic imbalances in power. But while in some legal
way this may ring true the reality is that there is continuous pressure on our representatives. We can all lobby, fund pressure-groups, write letters, demand audiences with our representatives and so on. How many of us make use of these rights is another matter – they are there, often to
the chagrin of our representatives!

Perhaps that is one of the issues that we can all agree on: The culture among representatives that resents the input and thus interruptions from the average constituency member is powerful in undermining the perceived value of the previously mentioned rights and should be addressed. There’s also plenty of room for creative ways to improve the relationship between representatives and represented, including using technology to mediate this relationship.

But is representative democracy really so fatally flawed that we should replace it with a system of direct democracy? (And by direct democracy I mean one where every citizen is asked to vote on all major issues related to the running of their country). I think the reasons that the idea of direct democracy resonates for many people are complex and deep-seated…

Why direct democracy looks attractive

There can be no doubt that the power imbalances and increasingly central role money (in the form of bribes, party funding and lobbying) is playing in Western party politics is creating disaffection among the electorate.

Mix in with this the lack of proportional voting systems in many major democracies as well as the trends (identified by Manuel Castells) of rapidly falling voter turnout and an ageing voter population (due to younger generations failing to get involved) points to an increasing disparity between what is voted for and what all the people actually want.

Season this mix with some sleaze, repeated vetoes (either from presidents or on the EU stage) as well as the strange voting systems that give parties power with less than 50% of the vote. Modern representative democracy is an unpalatable dish that few want to taste. And with the current lack of faith in the process people lose interest and thus don’t educate themselves about the issues surrounding any vote – high street polls reported by the BBC showed that one of the prime reasons for the record low turnout during the last European parliamentary elections was that people simply felt that they didn’t know enough about EU issues to vote.

Thus the irony is revealed: In an age when we have more access to information than ever before we have less desire to become informed about issues core to the future of our nations. When J.C.R.Licklider riffed on these issues over forty years ago in papers including Man-Computer Symbiosis he envisioned all sorts of techno-democracy but he also assumed that citizens would have a “self-motivating exhilaration” to keep them engaged in the political process. Most certainly don’t feel exhilarated by politics now, but would direct democracy evoke such exhilaration?

If the electorate have lost all faith in their representatives and the decisions these representatives take on their behalf then it is understandable that they want to use the rallying cry of the New Economy and “cut out the middle man!” as so many New Economy darlings claim to do.

But we are learning as the New Economy becomes One Economy again that intermediaries are actually rather valuable; editors, brokers and agents often deliver an incredible amount of value by having a network of people, knowledge which can’t be packaged onto a web site and the social skills necessary to doing certain kinds of business. Representatives aren’t perfect but they take the time to debate items of legislation, harass civil servants in committees and listen to lobbyists’ arguments. How many of us would take the time to learn enough about issues to make an informed decision on every vote a direct democracy would ask us to make? Furthermore how would we decide what issues to vote on and how the questions would be asked? Would there be an executive to make sure the results of votes were actually acted on?

I can’t see that “self-motivating exhilaration” happening in a direct democracy. For if a direct democracy has no political leaders then who is going encourage such interest in the issues? Only lobbyists and politicians have enough self-interest to keep promoting politics, but they wouldn’t exist. One-on-one lobbying would be impossible, so would lobbying firms become advertising agencies that specialised in
vote-based TV and print lobbying? Can you imagine how commercial TV would become a teeming ground of interests trying to sell their position on a vote to the entire nation? I don’t think direct democracy would be impossible, but it certainly wouldn’t be easy. With no power-brokers in a direct democracy the negotiations, deals and compromises would be impossible to do – nobody would have the authority to negotiate. We might end up being considerably worse off as a result; virtually every decision would end up being challenged in the courts by some interest as they would all be unable to wrangle concessions. Every defence would have to be at the tax payer’s expense.

The stark fact of the matter is that the more votes the average citizen is expected to participate in, the more apathetic they become. A US citizen can be presented with up to 22 different positions to vote for and the US has one of the highest levels of voter apathy (though I wouldn’t claim that this is the only reason for that). I think that it’s safe to say that you can have too much of a good thing and that’s what direct democracy would offer.

There is another way…

In “The Medium is the Massage” Marshal McLuhan stated that “today, the [voting] audience can be used as a creative participating force… A new form of ‘politics’ is emerging in ways we haven’t yet noticed.” I would argue that this isn’t about direct democracy but leveraging the explosion of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the potentially equalising power of Internet technologies to re-forge the processes of representative democracy. It’s time for evolution and not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Nobody is claiming that all current-day representatives always make the ‘right’ decisions nor are they always properly informed. But I see it as a smaller task to reform culture among a couple of hundred representatives per country than encouraging entire populations to learn about each issue. Democracy will, to some extent, always be about compromise and thus the ‘right’ decisions won’t always come
through for us, but that shouldn’t stop us from committing to make the process better – even if it doesn’t always win.

Conclusion

In essence we elect representatives for one very good reason: We have lives to live and don’t want to spend our time dealing with running the country. Thus we use the time honoured management technique of delegating to others. Unfortunately the process has lost some of the magic and the current malaise among the electorate needs to be addressed.

But I strongly feel that proposing direct democracy isn’t the way to do that, it just wouldn’t work due to apathy, a lack of time to properly educate ourselves on issues and the difficulty in getting decisions implemented once they’d been voted on. The technology of the voting would be the least of direct democracy’s problems.

So let us use the technology and it’s associated cultural strengths as championed by the Internet to reform and rebuild our representative democracies into ones that are more accountable, more accessible and much better at communicating with their bosses: us.

April 2001.

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