The single most difficult concept for many people to grasp when discussing the possibilities of the future is the idea that as our innovations evolve so too does the context that enables those innovations. For example, when Google made public its self-driving car a lot of people scoffed at the idea that such a machine-driven car could ever be safe. After all, if we can’t depend on AT&T not to drop every call on a 3G network, how the hell are we ever going to depend on a wireless network to organize traffic? The idea of having our car controlled by AT&T rightly scares the hell out of people.
When Google began developing its self-driving car though it wasn’t assuming the infrastructure of today would remain unchanged; instead, Google assumes that by the time the vehicle is ready to be commercialized wireless technology will have improved so much that it will be as reliable as say the electricity in your home (the dependability of your electricity is obviously geographically determined, but if you’re regularly experiencing power-outages it’s not because the technology doesn’t exist but likely because your network is poorly managed).
Last week I published an article on the World Economic Forum blog talking about new concepts of leadership in a digital era. Though I myself am quite passionate about the idea of direct democracy through digital means, one of the difficulties of discussing the topic is the prevalence of cynicism amongst those who believe that governments are needed to protect people from themselves. The concentration of power in the hands of the few, they argue, is needed for the public good.
Such cynicism, I must admit, does not come without historical precedent: if you look, for example, at the history of plebiscites and referendums in Canada and the U.S., one finds plenty of instances whereby direct democracy has been deeply divisive, abused, and highly emotionally charged. Those of us who lived through the 2008 campaign for Proposition 8 in California, have seen how the popular will can be mobilized against a minority group in order to surpress their rights. If digital democracy means more Proposition 8 then count me out!
The problem here is that, like the Google car, people assume that whatever version of direct democracy we have would simply be super-imposed on our existing context. There are, however, alternatives: for example, I live in Switzerland and here people vote online regularly on everything from a tax on dogs (Swiss people love taxes) to whether or not the country should have a minimum wage (it doesn’t, yet wages are higher than in France, which does. Go figure). People have even voted to raise their own income tax! If this model works in Switzerland, why can’t it work elsewhere?
You’ll sometimes hear people refer to the Swiss model as if it is the exception that proves the rule while implying that the Swiss are some sort of super-sophisticated uber-race that have pacifism built into their DNA. These arguments, in short, are hog-wash: what they have is a political system which provides the context for this type of political culture to thrive. In addition certain checks and balances are in place (there could always be more) to prevent abuse: For example, when a question is submitted for a referendum there is a team of neutral linguists that look at the proposal and define the question to prevent leading questions and to determine the correct phrasing to best represent the meaning.
In addition, because Swiss people vote so often on the very mundane to the very important, they develop a culture and a context which fit the structure. When I asked a Swiss member of parliament about why the system works in Switzerland and not elsewhere her theory was that the solution for the rest of the world is more democracy, not less. Whenever you have referendums, she noted, they are usually instigated by politicians trying to legitimize tough decisions, or they’re based solely on contentious issues. When you have a say in everything, she argued, you develop an etiquette to carry out the conversation in public. If, on the other hand, you’re only consulted on the most emotive issues you’ll be unlikely to develop that culture; instead you develop battle grounds.
Of course I don’t mean to suggest that the Swiss model is perfect: more recently it has been manipulated by populist abuse, including the Minaret controversy of 2009. Populism, though, is not necessarily the product of democracy but the society that allows it to thrive. Aside from public denouncements of these types of abuses, they can also be prevented by a strong constitution and legal code that, for example, outlaw the use of referendums to infringe on the rights of minority groups (i.e. Prop 8).
Where I am going with all this is that when people invoke Winston Churchill to say that “democracy is the worst system of government except all the rest,” they give themselves permission to stop dreaming of a democracy that is even better. Despite the fact that the history of our governance in the Western World is a constant de-centralization of powers, we seem to be stuck on the notion that 200 years ago an extra-ordinary group of people developed a system that would serve us forever, when in fact our democracy needs to be continually renovated to serve the needs of our evolving societies.
When representational democracy was created the principle was that someone from your community would travel to the capital to represent you, with your community being limited to those who communicate with, i.e. your neighbours. This notion is flawed in our increasingly interconnected world because we can in fact represent ourselves because in the digital age the distance is erased. Second, the community of people who live around us is only one of the many communities we belong to because we now communicate across traditional borders all the time. A district or constituency, therefore, is an arbitrary grouping not any more or less meaningful than any of my other communities.
In my aforementioned article I quoted Marshall McLuhan as having said that “politics is the process of solving the problems of today with the tools of yesterday.” Though accurate his statement is not meant to be fatalistic: there is no reason why we can’t solve the problems of today with the tools of today. The question now is whether or not we dare to dream of a different context, meaning laws, checks-and-balances, etiquettes, etc., that would enable a different system of governance and a different culture of governance. The only thing that is holding us back is our deep-seated fear of ourselves as well as the impending battle with our current governing lot who will be reluctant to break up the monopoly of power we have bestowed them. If we can allow ourselves to dream we’ll quickly see, as my former Google Colleague and true practitioner of digital democracy, Weal Ghonim has pointed out: “The power of the people is greater than the people in power.”