Real-time vir­tual democ­racy

The Telegram (St. John’s) - - FRONT PAGE - BY PETER TRNKA

Read the lat­est in­stal­ment in “The Democ­racy Cook­book.”

A ma­jor prob­lem with our demo­cratic form of govern­ment is apa­thy, alien­ation and dis­trust of the very form of democ­racy. If this is true, I pro­pose the idea of “vir­tual democ­racy” to find so­lu­tions, both the­o­ret­i­cal (in terms of the mean­ing of democ­racy) and prac­ti­cal (as im­me­di­ate ways to im­prove our demo­cratic habits).

The idea of vir­tual democ­racy prom­ises to raise sus­pi­cion that democ­racy is not (fully) real; to en­cour­age the sense that democ­racy is a mat­ter of de­gree, of more or less (a strug­gle rather than a guar­an­tee); to pro­mote a sense of democ­racy broader than rep­re­sen­ta­tives and elec­tions; and to ex­plore new in­sti­tu­tions of demo­cratic cul­ture and con­ver­sa­tion by means of the In­ter­net and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies.

Vir­tual democ­racy, in short, pushes us to ques­tion ba­sic as­sump­tions and to cre­ate struc­tures and in­sti­tu­tions

for demo­cratic ex­pres­sion. By do­ing so, we may edge away from rep­re­sen­ta­tional democ­racy al­to­gether to a fuller, di­rect, par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy.

Our con­tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tion lacks demo­cratic habits at the so­cial and cul­tural level. As Ray­mond Wil­liams ar­gued: “the real power of in­sti­tu­tions… [is] they ac­tively teach par­tic­u­lar ways of feel­ing, and it is at once ev­i­dent that we have not nearly enough in­sti­tu­tions which prac­ti­cally teach democ­racy.”

The chal­lenge of vir­tual democ­racy is how to con­struct new in­sti­tu­tions, new struc­tures of feel­ing, and new habits of ex­pres­sion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

What prospects do the In­ter­net and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies hold for prac­tis­ing democ­racy? In gen­eral terms, there are two ma­jor prom­ises: me­di­at­ing (or bridg­ing) dis­tances across space and across time. The out­come will be bring­ing dis­tant com­mu­ni­ties to­gether (or cre­at­ing new com­mu­ni­ties) and al­low­ing real-time ex­pe­ri­ence of dis­tant events. Both prom­ises ap­pear to tar­get the de­fi­cien­cies of a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sys­tem.

In spe­cific terms, I dis­tin­guish between two kinds of vir­tual sys­tems (or ap­pli­ca­tions): one-way, and two-way or in­ter­ac­tive. Each type of sys­tem has pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives: the is­sue is not choos­ing between them but max­i­miz­ing the demo­cratic po­ten­tial of each.

One-way sys­tems do ex­actly what the name sug­gests, i.e., con­struct one-way flows of in­for­ma­tion. Three such sys­tems de­serve men­tion.

First is the pro­vi­sion of govern­ment ser­vices elec­tron­i­cally or on­line. This is a tra­di­tional no­tion of e-gov­er­nance in which the in­for­ma­tion flows from the top down.

Sec­ond is elec­tronic vot­ing, in terms of elec­tions as well as ref­er­en­dums. Here the flow goes from bot­tom up, but is also one-way only.

The third such vir­tual sys­tem is the live stream­ing of events, both gov­ern­men­tal events such as de­bates in the House as well as peo­ple’s events, such as marches and demon­stra­tions. Each of th­ese vir­tual ex­ten­sions of rep­re­sen­ta­tional democ­racy is to some ex­tent ac­tu­al­ized. The chal­lenge is to ex­tend and in­ten­sify them.

What is of more in­ter­est than the one-way sys­tems are the two-way/ in­ter­ac­tive mod­els. It is here that some­thing like a demo­cratic con­ver­sa­tion or a demo­cratic com­mu­nity might be formed, but it is also here that we find the very op­po­site: that is, the anonymity and dis­tance of the World Wide Web en­cour­age stalk­ing, bul­ly­ing and other “troll-like” be­hav­iours. I dis­tin­guish between two forms of in­ter­ac­tive vir­tual com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Choos­ing between th­ese forms is a choice for more or less democ­racy.

The first form is re­ac­tive and per­sonal. We find it on Twit­ter and Face­book. The norm is some­thing like this: a govern­ment event angers or an­noys some­one who then goes to the web to gripe. Un­like the other forms of vir­tual democ­racy, this type seems to en­cour­age alien­ation and dis­trust. It seems, also, to make lit­tle use of the ca­pac­i­ties of the vir­tual world.

In con­trast to the re­ac­tive and per­sonal uses of the web, I pro­pose that we de­velop ac­tive and im­per­sonal ap­pli­ca­tions to pro­mote demo­cratic con­ver­sa­tion. In terms of Twit­ter and Face­book, pro­vid­ing struc­ture and tim­ing to con­ver­sa­tions, akin to the Red­dit for­mat, would be a step for­ward. Such im­prove­ments of ex­ist­ing prac­tices are to some ex­tent al­ready out there.

What is not re­ally out there is any­thing like the mass data ag­gre­ga­tion that we find in re­la­tion to con­sumer be­hav­iour. An ap­pli­ca­tion of the web to in­di­vid­ual (and group) demo­cratic pref­er­ences is lack­ing. As a health app in­forms me of my steps walked each day, I en­vis­age a democ­racy app into which I may in­put my opin­ions, and th­ese may then be ag­gre­gated (across mu­nic­i­pal­ity, prov­ince, na­tion, etc.).

Real-time pro­vi­sion of demo­cratic opin­ion, in re­sponse to govern­ment ini­tia­tives and in ad­vance of th­ese ini­tia­tives, would be a ma­te­rial ad­vance in demo­cratic cul­ture.

There are var­i­ous risks with vir­tual democ­racy, but the prom­ise of be­ing able to point to what the peo­ple ac­tu­ally say they want, as op­posed to trust­ing what rep­re­sen­ta­tives say peo­ple want, would be a big step.

The range of op­tions for the vir­tual ex­ten­sion of democ­racy is broad. I rec­om­mend that the All-party Com­mit­tee di­rect New­found­land and Labrador’s Of­fice of Pub­lic En­gage­ment (now part of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions and pub­lic en­gage­ment branch) to ex­plore the var­i­ous op­tions and make rec­om­men­da­tions con­cern­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion.

The costs of many of the vir­tual op­tions are ei­ther neg­li­gi­ble or could be met by re­pur­pos­ing funds from ex­ist­ing bud­get en­velopes. For the de­vel­op­ment of soft­ware apps, pub­lic com­pe­ti­tions would be best, as has been done in the United States.

Vir­tual democ­racy, in short, pushes us to ques­tion ba­sic as­sump­tions and to cre­ate struc­tures and in­sti­tu­tions for demo­cratic ex­pres­sion.

About the Au­thor

Peter Trnka (Phi­los­o­phy, Memo­rial Univer­sity of New­found­land) is a po­lit­i­cal philoso­pher who works on rad­i­cal­ism, rev­o­lu­tion­ary the­ory and sub­al­tern re­sis­tance. His re­cent work is fo­cused on the na­ture of groups and as­so­ci­a­tions and fea­tures a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Gwich’in Tribal Coun­cil. He was co-edi­tor of the spe­cial is­sue on Abo­rig­i­nal cit­i­zen­ship for North­ern Pub­lic Af­fairs (Au­gust 2015).

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Peter Trnka

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