The rise of e-democracy and the wonderful experiment of participatory democracy


I was recently interviewed for an excellent article in IDM magazine titled Democratic participation ignited by the power of many, which explores the potential of e-democracy.

Here are some selected quotes from the article:

“Mass media will always exist. People will always want a common perspective on the world. But we are definitely seeing a fragmentation of media,” says Dawson.

Rather than social leaving mass media for dead, Dawson believes we are seeing the emergence of two forms of media that primarily feed off each other. “Often journalists look to online blogs and sources and commentary and will even quote them in their articles. They don’t need to pick up the phone anymore,” says Dawson. “There’s no better way to pick up on trends then to explore the world of social media.”

“Of course there is always the issue of the credibility of the source. But often for credibility, people will simply turn to mainstream media,” says Dawson.

Although citizen journalism is opening the doors for anyone with Internet access to have their say, it may not progress ‘democracy’ but it does improve on the dissemination of information and debate. “In the past we had to rely on press releases and reports for our information, now we have access to everything,” says Dawson.

“As you get input on creating outcomes, emergent results occur, emergent outlines where you can’t predict the outcome,” says Dawson. “Things get better with the more people that use them. You see what’s popular, what’s relevant, different approaches and bringing together of different data-sets.

There are many layers to the potential of e-democracy. The domain of transparency and dialogue, on which I was quoted here, is the first. In the US presidential elections, already in full swing with 15 months to go, there is already substantially improved engagement by voters over previous elections. People have access to – and often choose – far more diverse sources than the mainstream media in forming their opinions. The power of bloggers was amply demonstrated by the line-up of all major Democratic candidates at the recent YearlyKos convention of political bloggers. There is real participation in political dialogue, whereas before the messages were almost all filtered through mainstream media. This is not to say that all is rosy in American democracy, or the way in which issues are discussed. However we are far closer to participatory democracy when discussion of the key political issues is participatory.

In Australia, where federal elections are exected around November, it is still a far cry from the political conversations in the US. Almost all meaningful dialogue remains filtered by mainstream media. While there have been many articles in the media recently about the rise of blogging, podcasting, and YouTube in the political process, it remains a phenomena largely observed in the media, and we are definitely far from broad participation in the political dialogue.

The ultimate extension of e-democracy is where voters actively participate in the decisions that affect them, rather than every few years voting in – sometime by a slim or non-existent margin – a government that then controls the fate and direction of the nation. While this seems like science fiction to people in most nations, I have seen something close to this in action, through having lived in Switzerland in many years. The famous Landesgemeinde is where votes are taken by show of hands in a public place, which still happens in two cantons in Switzerland. On a more prosaic level, significant issues are voted on in the national and cantonal levels. An example of the latter would be investment in large local infrastructure projects, something people in the rest of the world often wish they had a say in. In addition, cantons such as Geneva have implemented online voting, meaning that voting is now a simple, quick, and easy task. In other words, in at least one part of the world, we are moving to a world in which citizens are actively shaping their world.

Many say that true participatory democracy at this level will never work for any number of reasons, including lack of understanding of issues, lack of interest, selfishness, short-term perspectives, and lack of effective democratic mechanisms. At the moment the debate is largely focused on the validity of voting machines. This is an absolutely critical issue, yet one which we can move beyond – the problem is one of process, not of technology. Yet let’s not dismiss participatory democracy out of hand. This is an experiment we must have. We must explore the degree to which it is possible to have citizens and voters to create their own world, and take unnecessary power out of the hand of politicians, who are rigthly mistrusted by voters around the planet. We don’t know where the experiment will take us, but there is no question calllng most developed countries democracies is a sham. Technology has started the shift towards participation. Let’s see if we can, over time, create true participatory democracies.

1 reply
  1. Ron Lubensky
    Ron Lubensky says:

    Hi Ross, you might be interested in what the newRepublic organisation is trying to do. They recently staged a well-attended pilot World Cafe event in Sydney to explore how our representative democracy could be reinforced. While eParticipation offers new methods of engagement, increased citizen participation needs to be encouraged full stop. This has been happening at the local and regional levels with more and more Citizens Juries making recommendations on planning and infrastructure issues, for example. The newRepublic movement will attempt to take this possibility to a new level.

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