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Imagining Digital Democracy

With all of the discussion about PRISM (including the EFF's excellent document breakdown, I'm doing a lot of thinking about how our technology shapes our political structures. Consider this two core feature of democracy: The Citizen as the State. This feature is usually what is meant by "a government of the people, by the people." The citizens as a collective compose the authority of the government. In other words, all citizens have a say in governing collective matters.

Typically, we see Citizen as State established through some form of representation. With  a large or dispersed population, the election of representatives was the only way to give citizens control over government. There are clear flaws in this system, as we can see looking at our own current situation. Representatives are not always as beholden to their constituents as one would like. Winning elections, meaning funding election campaigns, is most important for a representative's career. As long as the campaign is funded, and money buys visibility and access to the public ear, the candidate need only keep donors happy. Lawrence Lessig has done a good job of discussing this problem at length.

Of course, with the communication technology we have available now, there are new ways of solving the problem of giving every citizen a say in government. Social networks and discussion forums provide a good public space for rational discourse (and less rational discourse, but let's leave that aside for now). Nevertheless, there remains a need for specialists, people who have devoted the time and training to understanding a particular field. Lawyers to explain the law and policy debates, but also scientists and engineers who can speak clearly about technical matters, educators who can explain how best to serve students, and many others.

A digital democracy may dispense with representatives but still require various specialists to spearhead communication to general audiences, explain the relevance of particular issues and legislation, and outline the results or consequences of policy decisions. In many ways, such a system would be more egalitarian. Rather than have a ruling class composed of career politicians, authority would be context sensitive. To address the needs of the education system, we should want experienced educators to provide an accurate view of what is needed. We won't need their authority when evaluating a highway development project. Context changes, authority changes. Everyone will be in charge for 15 minutes, to mutilate an Andy Warhol quote.


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