Thursday, October 25, 2007

Straddling the Democractic Divide: Individuals or Groups?

I've realised that I've got a lot of blogreading to catch up with - there are some excellent posts out there that are very thought-provoking, and many interesting links that spiral off them. This, of course, is also rather ironic in light of the following post. Information overload is something that I've always been thinking about, but maybe it's time to take it seriously... Anyway, I digress.

This follows on from my previous post on one-click politics, along with David's summary of
how the BBC are consulting Bloggers, and also Phil's thoughts on identifying semantics in information. An odd set of links, maybe, but here's where I think they tie together: consolidation - of ideas, of opinions, and of decision-making. Where they differ is in terms of how these things should be consolidated. And it's this difference that's worth exploring in more detail, as it represents a clash of principles over what sort of democracy we're going to have in 10, 20, maybe 50 years' time.

On the one hand, the "one-click" approach is a very "modern" way of doing politics. It represents an individualist approach from a bottom-up perspective, or a populist approach at a societal level. It can be considered "liberal" as it is mainly concerned with expressing an opinion rather than negotiating one. Thus, such campaigns are often either directed at one very specific issue ("we want X") because there's little to no capacity (or desire) for deliberating over alternatives. Consolidation - working out which opinions exist and matter - comes from making an opinion public, but in the light of the large scales involved, organised expressions are generally the most effective mode of publicity. See the previous post for more on this.

On the other hand, the "underdog" of democracies (in my view) is a more interactive, more deliberative democracy - closer to the perception of the Athenian method, of rhetoric and reasoning. Debate seeks to persuade people and to argue for a case both "emotionally" and "rationally". However, this means it takes more effort, leading to possible exclusion under a kind of "time divide". Consolidation is a process here, using argument to attempt to coalesce opinion around one particular point of view.

This is probably the main point of this post: we can imagine two "opposing" forms of democracy, and two corresponding perspectives on how digital democracy tools should be built. (Naturally, things are a little more complex in reality, but I think this covers a lot of how people see the development of digital democracy.)

Tech-Politics: By the Numbers

ICT clearly affects both of these in both positive and negative ways. Greater access to information makes it easier to participate in debate, while reduced social cues (e.g. more text, less inflection) may both help and hinder interaction for different individuals. Voting is made easier, but (currently, at least ) at the possible expense of security (deleting cookies is easy when you know how). However, the current climate of individualism and mass markets (in which everyone has their own of every item, including PCs and Facebook accounts) means that the populist approach is here to stay for a while. So far, the computational basis of on-line politics, combined with this populism, has meant that the success of campaigns and political issues boils down to one thing: numbers. Ultimately - in terms of affecting policy - modern social networks are more about assembling quantity than engaging people in discussion.

Even the "blogosphere" is an example of this configuration: everyone has their own blog in which their opinions are presented. Argument is possible - and somewhat common - through comments and cross-blog debate. But for most (and here the irony continues, perhaps), the links established through comments, trackbacks and blogrolls are an accumulation of like-minded individuals, ready to be called upon when support is needed. Just like social network campaigns and petitions, at the end of the day numbers and big lists matter. The value of liberalism is defined by controlling the masses.

From Quantitative to Qualitative Populism

This brings us back to Phil's post on the semantic web and, oddly, to yesterday's quote. What are we using technology for, and in what direction are we planning to take it? The Semantic Web, or even the Syntactic Web, offer one path to overcome the disjunction between individualism and deliberation. It defines the problem as that of distillation - of being able to discern an overall, "common" sentiment from the plethora of segregated (yet interconnected) forums that now exist. In other words, the (techno)logical next step, from quantity to quality, in a pluralist, populist democracy is to treat opinion as just another measurable, to be analysed by technology. It is the measured form of opinion that changes - from polls and petitions, to emotion and context.

This is why David's post, as well as some of his previous thoughts, are interesting (and why I need to catch up with the articles linked to...). Reaching out to bloggers is one thing, but what exactly is a "cross-blog conversation"? Is it an effort to raise awareness of a particular issue, and to elicit opinions that can then be aggregated somewhere else? Or is it an attempt to come to some kind of consensus within those blogs? My experience points a lot more to the former, although I welcome people to point out counter-examples. This leaves us with the question: when it comes to real decision-making, where does the power lie? Expressing opinions on a blog is one thing, but deciding between opinions is another. Is the aggregator - the conversation "overseer" - the best position to do this, or should we be encouraging greater omni-directional interaction between the individuals?


OK, so maybe from a political theory perspective there's not a lot new here - there have always been debates over what form of democracy is more preferable, and to what extent citizens should be involved in making decisions. However, there seems to be a huge deal of enthusiasm (and optimism. and hype.) for both ways forward under the technically networked paradigm. But what of the gap between them? I think the picture I'm laying out - that there is a conflict and an exclusivity between individuality and group-decision-making - is fairly bleak. But maybe it doesn't have to be, maybe we can have both our own voices, and participate more fully in "real" debate to explore an issue. Hopefully the next few posts will explore the 2 sides, and the gap, a bit more.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Does ICT "Tidy Up" Democracy Too Much?

There are all kinds of things I've been wanting to coalesce into blog posts recently, but for now here's a short quote that caught my eye today. It's from an chapter by Lawrence Pratchett called "Democracy Denied" (in 'Orwell in Athens').

...if anything, the symbolism of ICTs implies a clinical and rational world that emerges from their increased deployment, that has no room for the inefficiencies and inconsistencies of democracy.

This, for me, ties in with ideas about how democracy is put into practice (e.g. vote counting and quantitative representation rather than deliberation) which, hopefully, will appear in greater detail here soon.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

One-Click Politics

(Warning: Ooh, wow, this one turned into a big long post...)

David Wilcox has an interesting report on Amnesty using Facebook to recruit people. I should note that I'm not a huge fan of Facebook - I have an account to see how it works, but no contacts in my list. So far, nothing on there particularly makes me want to add any, either. That said, the number of people using it clearly earmarks it for attention on a societal scale.

Two Facebook campaigns that David picks up on - Burma and bank charges - highlight the trend in "Web 2.0 politics" that is worth investigating in more detail. Whether it's worth worrying about it, of course, depends on your point of view on how democracy should work, and what kind of participation we want.

Here's the bit from each of the above campaigns, respectively, that interests me:
The Support the Monks in Burma Facebook group has reached 300,000 members, making it one of the largest groups of Facebook, and one of the fastest growing. One thousand people are joining every hour. “We are showing that the eyes of the world are still on Burma, that ordinary people are showing their solidarity and support,” said Johnny Chatterton, the UK co-ordinator...

Bank charges:
A campaign group on Facebook reached over 5,000 members and helped lead to HSBC freezing their plans.

Now, reaching out to so many people is all very impressive. But c'mon now, is this really the modern, networked democracy we've all been looking for - one based, on the whole, on how large a number we can amass?

I think there's a good side to numbers, of course - voting and polling are examples of where they can be used to settle a decision (in the instance of an election, say) or to gauge opinion (before an election). But these are specific uses, and have specific impacts - namely, they're purely about one-way information, from the individual to the central point of data collection. There's no feedback to the individuals, and there's no interaction between individuals. It's a view of people as static individuals, not as a dynamic group.

This is also the problem I have with Facebook in general, and with other schemes such as petitions - the most visible aspect to them all is a quantity: How many people have signed up? How many friends do you have? How many widgets have you added? How many fish have you been sent today? How many campaigns are you a part of? "Participation" takes on a very bounded definition, like an economic view of consumerism. It is transformed, away from the Greek idea of democracy - rhetoric, persuasion, and exercises in evidential argument - and towards an extremely shallow, almost simulated form of populism.

Two threads lead to this, each with different effects. Firstly, the networked aspect of this is hugely influential. The comparison to polls and voting above is unfair, because Web 2.0 politics doesn't cater to individuals in the same way a survey does - it caters to connections, the links between people. Thus, when we say that X number of people have signed up to a campaign, what we may actually mean is that a social network containing that many people have signed up. In terms of the demographics and the "hierarchies" that are then part of that sign-up group, this is a fundamentally different beast. You most likely have a more homogenous group, which raises issues of representation and of organisation - are people only more likely to turn "allegiance" into "action" if their peers do so? Should a more decentralised, local-social group approach be encouraged to take advantage of this?

Secondly, the numbers-led approach encourages, I think, a lot more simplified interaction. Complex interaction paths, requiring greater thought and time, dent these numbers. In the automated, economic, on-line world, these numbers are sales, hence the hullaballoo over Amazon's one-click purchase method. In political terms, a numbers-led democracy seeks to unite the most basic of political argument - emotion - with the same technology. This can be seen in Facebook campaigns and petitions alike, where the reasons for joining in are overtly moral rather than realistic or practical (who's not going to "support" the oppressed if it doesn't actually mean doing something) and the barrier to pledging this support is as low as possible.

The only reason to worry about this trend is if it turns out to be an illusion of power. The bank fees campaign apparently changed the bank's mind. Other "campaigns", such as that to bring back old chocolate bars, support a "realistic" view of power in a network age. But in both of these, the "campaign" is little more than customer canvassing. Opinion and popular hype don't necessarily lead to "reality" - a problem that Samuel L Jackson encountered.

So popular opinion is all well and good, in some circumstances. But at the end of the day, are we setting up our politics to be an easy-riding, least-responsibility, one-click "discussion" shadow?