May 20, 2009

Participatory Government Online: Not a Pipe Dream

Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 8:13 am by Maggie Clark

In an undergad political science course a few years back, I recall being challenged to present explanations for public apathy in Canadian politics. Out of a class of some thirty students, I was the only one to argue that there wasn’t apathy — that low voter turnout among youth was readily offset, for instance, by far higher youth turnout in rallies, discussion forums, and the like. Youth were absolutely talking politics: they just weren’t applying this talk in the strictest of official senses.

My professor always did love such counterarguments, but my classmates never seemed to buy them. Rather, many argued that the “fact” of disengagement was not only accurate, but also healthier, because it meant that only those who “actually cared” about policy would set it. (We were working, at the time, with figures like only 2 percent of the Canadian population being card-carrying party members.) Many of these same students likewise believed that economics was not only the ultimate driving force in our culture, but also the only driving force that could lead; and also that true democracy was unwise because only a select few (I could only assume they counted themselves among this number) were able to govern wisely.

At the time, Facebook was two years old. YouTube was one. And the online landscape, though unfurling at a mile a minute, was still light years from its present levels of group interaction. My sources for the presentation in 2006 were therefore an uncertain medley of old and new media: news articles and statistics; online party forums and Green Party doctrine.

I didn’t have at my disposal, for instance, incredible videos like Us Now, a documentary encapsulating the many ways in which average citizens — seeing truly accessible means of interacting on a collective level with their environment — are achieving great success breaking down the representative government model to something much more one-on-one.

Nor did I have The Point, which provides anyone with an account and an idea the means to start a campaign, co-ordinate fundraising, organize group activities, and otherwise influence public change. (Really, check it out — it’s fantastic.)

And most regrettably of all, I didn’t have the Globe and Mail‘s Policy Wiki.
This last, I just discovered yesterday on BoingBoing.net, when they noticed the Globe and Mail’s newest project on the website: The creation of a collectively developed copyright law proposal, to be sent to Ottawa for their consideration on July 1, 2009.

As a huge policy geek, and a member of the new media generation to boot, I saw this as a goldmine of opportunity — and yet there is plenty else on the website for other policy development, too: discussion forums and wiki projects alike. So of course, in my excitement, I sent the link to a few members of the old generation — only to receive a curious collection of responses, dismissing the above as an exercise in anarchy, while simultaneously criticizing old-school committees as never accomplishing anything properly.

Well, old guard, which is it? Is our present model of representative government failing us in certain regards, and should we thus try to engage different policy-building models? Or is the same model which, despite early challenges to legitimacy, created an online encyclopedia as powerful as the Encyclopedia Britannica, by its very nature as an open-source community project unfit for political consideration?

Us Now makes the point that the internet’s promise of a more dynamic and accessible global community has had many false starts (spam, scams, and the proliferation of child pornography rings come personally to mind). But long before we became cynical of the internet’s capacity to improve our social impact, we as a society were already well used to doubting the potential of our fellow citizens to act intelligently and in the pursuit of the communal good. You can thank Machiavelli’s The Prince, Italo Calvino’s Crowds and Power, and bastardized readings of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in part for this.

A little while ago, however, I got around to reading John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, a CBC Massey Lecture Series essay collection about the rise of the management class and the utter reversion of the democracy/free market equation to the extent that the notion of democracy itself has suffered massive political distortion. Written just before the first real explosion of online communal projects — be they open source software, open-access socio-political groups, or information-dissemination tools — what Saul wasn’t able to account for in his work was the balancing force of technology itself. Rather, when he wrote these essays, technology was still very much a cornerstone of continued economic distortions in lieu of real democracy. Now, though, it’s clear that technology created through the corporate model has itself emerged as a platform for participatory government — and thus also as the undoing of those same, hierarchical economic forces. Coming full circle is fun!

So, to get back to this matter of “trusting in the intelligence of individuals, and their capacity to act in the common good,” yes, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to the contrary on the internet. Heaven knows, for instance, that the low-brow interactions which inspired CollegeHumor.com’s We Didn’t Start The Flame War are in fact a daily, persistent reality online, and make up a substantial percentage of commentary therein.

Yet any parent will tell you that the way to raise a responsible child is to give her responsibilities to live up to; a child entrusted with none will invariably continue to act like one. So rather than using, as a test of our group potential online, those sites that in no way engender a sense of responsibility for our actions, why not look at those sites that do — like ThePoint.com, and the Globe and Mail Policy Wiki?

Furthermore, if our current model of representative government no longer yields the level of public engagement we crave (read: in the ways the government wants to see), maybe it’s because citizens at large haven’t been given the opportunity to feel like real participants at all levels of the democratic process. And maybe, just maybe, the internet not only can change that perception, but already is.

After all, those same students who, in the comfort of a political science classroom just three years back, so boldly proclaimed that collective decision making was a waste of time? You’ll find every last one on Facebook and LinkedIn today.

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2 Comments »

  1. Timmyson said,

    It might be easier to check out The Point and BoingBoing if the links worked. You left the “http://” off the beginning of the links, so Firefox (and other browsers too, I’m pretty sure) is interpreting them as relative links.

    • maggieclark said,

      Thanks, Tim. Fixed now.


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