Real-time virtual democracy
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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).