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21st Century Politics: Consumption vs Deliberation
Jon Lebkowsky, 24 Feb 05

DemocracyIn thinking about the impact of emerging social technologies on politics, I think we all understand that there can be more interaction in computer-mediated environments, though much of the buzz within traditional political channels has been more consumption-based. The Howard Dean presidential campaign's unprecedented connection with its base via blogs, email lists, and meetups became legitimate in the eyes of political professionals only when the connection was monetized, and though activists have continued their conversations about the potential for grassroots technology to change the face of politics, the pros are focusing on emergent new channels for gathering funds. Money is the power to get things done. An organization or initiative can succeed in bringing large numbers of people together behind an issue or candidate, but if it's not raising money, it's not "real," from the cynnical perspective of many political operatives. Beyond campaigns, you have large consultancies showing an interet in selling egovernment expertise. Consider Deloitte, whose public sector work includes "eCitizenship for All" and whose Global Director for Public Sector research, William Eggers, has written Government 2.0, about the impact of government on technology. Accenture talks about customer relationship management for government, and offers a public sector value model for government.

There are also companies that are solely dedicated to nonprofits and advocacy organizations, like Convio, which markets "constituent relationship management" solutions, where "the key is to gather information about constituents and their interests, and use that knowledge to communicate with current and prospective constituents in a targeted and cost-effective drive membership, increase donations, foster advocacy, raise awareness or improve volunteer participation." Kintera has a similar nonprofit focus, providing "Knowledge Interaction" technology that "enables volunteers, members, donors and staff to share real-time data and information to foster a powerful sense of community and achieve common goals." And there's others: Blue State Digital, GetActive, etc.

Is this what the new technology-mediated politics is about? Or should we be looking at other kinds of options that are about more than raising money, getting votes, and "managing constituent relationships." Joi Ito worked collaboratively online with several others to create a paper on
Emergent Democracy
, which is defined in Wikipedia as "the internet phenomenon of web-based communications platforms to change the geopolitical landscape to increasingly reflect more democratic principles." Ito was particularly interested in blogs and related social software (including aggregators and blog search engines) and their potential to foster broader participation in the democratic conversation in an era of what Jock Gill has called post-broadcast politics. Scott London has written about the differences between this kind of "teledemocracy" and another, increasingly visible form, deliberative democracy:

These two models, teledemocracy and deliberative democracy, both put a premium on public discourse. But, as I hope to show here, the guiding assumptions in each case are very different. The rationale for teledemocracy is consistent with an approach to political theory variously termed "rational choice," "negative liberalism," or "the logic of collective action" by scholars. It is founded on a marketplace conception of the political world in which interests conflict and compete. By contrast, deliberative democracy is rooted in the ideal of self-governance in which political truths emerge not from the clash of preestablished interests and preferences but from reasoned discussion about issues involving the common good. In the academic literature, this model falls under the rubric of "collective rationality," "unitary democracy," or simply "deliberative democracy."
James Fishkin, Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, is the author of Democracy and Deliberation, talks about Deliberative Polling®, where
an attempt to use television and public opinion research in a new and constructive way. A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.
This is clearly a process that can be supported by Internet technology; the Center will cohost its second Conference on Online Deliberation in May.

Tom Atlee, author of The Tao of Democracy, promotes new thinking about democratic collaboration via The Co-Intelligence Institute. "Co-intelligence shows up whenever we pool our personal intelligences to produce results that are more insightful and powerful than the sum of our individual perspectives," according to the definition at the site. "Sometimes this happens when we simply listen well to each other." The institute has a page on "electronic co-intelligence."

There are several other Internet-based organizations that help people come together and talk, often in face-to-face meetings. This include America Speaks and Let's Talk America. The Co-Intelligence Institute publishes as page of links to Innovations in Democracy.

So while nonprofits and campaign organizations are still focusing on top-down organization to raise money and build less informed support, other groups are working to build environments for a deeper kind of democracy that's based on collaboration, talking, listening, and learning, much of it mediated by social technology. I can't imagine that democratic social networks will quickly replace the consumption-based model, but we may be seeing sustainable evolution. (Thanks to Ross for the email that got me thinking and resulted in this rant post.)

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Jon, I think what you've identified with your "other groups working to build environments for a deeper type of democracy" is a nascent recognition in the public mind that "representative" democracy doesn't scale well beyond a certain point. This is to say, when an elected representative is "representing" hundreds of thousands, or millions of individuals, can they really be said to be representing anyone anymore? Particulary in a two-party system, with no free votes (as in Canada), I would argue not. Factor in the fact that votes are won based on a few newsworthy issues (Iraq, for example), as opposed to how well a given candidate actually represents your values and beliefs, and you've got "representation" in name alone. I can't name my MLA, my MP, or any of my city coucellors, school trustees, or anyone else. Nor do I have any idea what they do on a daily basis, or how they "represent" me - little accountability or dialog; I'd say the spirit of representative democracy has been broken by its girth and bad habits...

I'd argue that representative democracy's creation and evolution was driven by least-worst-type logic; i.e.: representative democracy was designed not to be the best form of democratic government, but rather a serviceable form of democratic government, given the hindrances (i.e.: post-revolution America, lack of communications services and education) that the population operated under at that time - which have since been removed. For the first time in the history of democracy, we are equipped with a means to come up with alternatives - your article has made my evening with its description of deliberative democracy.

I've idly imagined a similar system, in which citizens voted on almost every issue, in pure direct democracy style, and government consisted of bureaucracy, citizens, and technology. The twist is electronic proxied voting - very similar to the deliberative democracy that you described. With millions of people voting on every issue, it would be very easy to group people into categories of preference - i.e.: you would be in a group with all the other people that voted the same way that you did on the last 10 issues. Then, if you sit out a vote, the system proxy votes for you - casting your vote based on the assumption that you'll likely vote the same way as the majority of others in the category which your last vote placed you in. If you sat out too many votes, the system would eventually lack useable information on which to base your categorization, and would cease casting proxy votes until you had re-established a voting profile by participating again, a certain number of times. If you chose to drop out for years at a time, that's fine - you've voluntarily "opted-out" of your democracy, and you don't have any say...

Anyway, there's obviously a tonne of lose ends to that one, but what I wanted to say was thanks for a great rant, and for introducing me to some new avenues of political speculation.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 24 Feb 05

Rod, I just think it's impossible for citizens to vote effectively on every issue. If you attend to legislative sessions and see how many issues they cover, and how complex the issues are, you'll see what I mean. Representative democracy was actually supposed to be a way to deal with scale.

So I don't think we'll abandon the systems we have now in favor of something more direct. But we can clearly work with the existing systems: the idea is for citizens to deliberate effectively, and to communicate effectively about their deliberations with the various bodies that make policy and regulations - legislatures, councils, agencies, etc.

I didn't say as much as I might have about how to make this work, but we have to rejigger our thinking a bit, and learn more about how the existing systems work. We also have to learn more about the technologies that can serve as platforms for this sort of thing... so there's a set of "training issues" to address. I work with a loose coalition of techs and political activists ( who've been talking about this. We've coordinated four panels for SXSW Interactive in Austin in March.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 25 Feb 05

Jon - I don't think possible for everyone to vote on everything either - hence the need for a proxy system, so that people could vote at a minimal level to maintain their profile - 1 out of 10 issues, or something. Plus, there'd have to be some sort of process to determine what's handled by the bureaucracy vs. what get surfaced to the voting populace - so, anyway, I definintely acknowledge your point, but my suggestion (not well articulated) was that technology provides workarounds for the traditional obstacles to interactive governance.

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 25 Feb 05

We have developed a relevant new technology, which you can see in action at Right now this site features a fundraiser for a sea turtle conservation project in Sri Lanka that was destroyed by the tsunami. I aks you not to focus on the specific target of this fundraiser as much as the bigger picture of the fundraising process involved, and the possible application of this model to enable social movements (i.e. highly focused social movements) to convert online action into concrete funding for specific nonprofit projects, with the help of corporate sponsorship.

Posted by: Beau Perry on 2 Mar 05



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