An internet democracy

By | 2010/08/21

Democracy seems to be a process that increasingly suffers in the age of information and mass media. To a degree, this comes down to the oft touted notion that too much information eventually adversely affects a decision making process.

It could be argued that the age of immediate information is a double-edged sword in a democratic society. The prevalence and tendency towards transparency (or to be cynical: the voyeuristic nature of people demanding to know everything about people in the media spotlight) significantly reduces the chances of politicians becoming excessively corrupt. To be sure, there’s back room deals and quid pro quo deals always going on, but there’s far less chance of it remaining out of sight.

The flip side though is that instant polling creates an insatiable need amongst many politicians to pander to the most vocal people, making policy decisions on the run and appealing to the basest parts of human nature, rather than the best parts of human nature.

One might argue that this means that politics is becoming more responsive to the requirements of the majority, but I’d argue this isn’t likely to always be the case. Consider the Dunning-Kruger effect:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it”. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than in actuality; by contrast, the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. This leads to a perverse result where less competent people will rate their own ability higher than more competent people. It also explains why actual competence may weaken self-confidence because competent individuals falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. “Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

So, if the Dunning-Kruger effect can be extrapolated to apply to those who are most vocal in their demands of politicians, it could be argued that politicians are pandering to those who are least qualified to have an input in the decision making process. If nothing else, it certainly suggests that one should doubt the notion of a “vocal majority” – and cause us to question decisions made to appeal to the noisiest.

Next, consider Simon Sinek. Simon comes from the advertising and marketing world, but actually probably understands more about human behaviour than 90% of the rest of the population. One of his theories is that there’s two ways to motivate: the most complicated is to inspire. The easier is to create fear.

In a democracy, politicians should motivate through inspiration, and maybe they did when things weren’t so instantly judged all the time, but to me the evidence is that they’ve almost 100% moved to motivation through fear – and instead of motivating people to grow and change, the main motivation focus is to get them to vote.

We see this in election slogans. Stupid, inane 5 word or less quotes that are designed to pander to the basest of human instincts. “I’ll stop the boats” and “I’ll stop the waste”, Tony Abbott has been saying in an incessant onanistic orgy of self righteousness. Both of these are designed to get people afraid – afraid of terrorists hiding as asylum seekers, and governments wasting money. Neither fail to consider the reality of the situation: many Australians are boat people – that’s how causcasians first arrived on the bloody continent! And more importantly: the government wasted some money, but they kept the country out of recession through the global financial crisis.

Logic and politics have very little to do with one another, I’m afraid. And it only seems to be getting worse.

It’s time to consider a new democratic model, one which would have several phases of implementation over more than likely at least 50-60 years, and so would allow for growth as society becomes more connected.

The primary goal of a new democratic model should be to replace the elected senate (or upper house, depending on where you live), with vetting by the people in secure internet polling. That’s right, no senate, just direct response by the population via an iPlebiscite to legislation proposed by the elected officials.

Don’t believe it can happen? Well, here’s a few theories on why I think it can:

  • In modern countries we’re already facing the gradual death of the last generation of people who won’t use computers at all.
  • Some European countries are already shifting towards enshrining broadband internet access as a fundamental right, a sure sign the intent is to get people easier access to government services.
  • Suitably secure key systems for unique authentication of a single vote being allowed per person on a topic could be designed now. Looking forward though into a long-term implementation time frame, they’ll not only be something that can be designed, but something that can be suitably mass-produced at a cheap enough price.
  • At no point would it be expected that all of the population votes. Instead, there’d be minimum percentage responses, and possibly weighted responses based on how high the voting percentage was.

Contrary to what some people may think, I can’t see the “business of government” being ground to a halt under such a scheme. After all, governments routinely suffer weeks and even months long delays in legislation getting officially passed – if anything this might even allow for a faster model.

And this wouldn’t be something that is introduced in binary fashion. I’d imagine at least a 6, but more likely 12 year trial (using the Australian political model as an example – 6 years is the term of an elected senate representative) where a new senate position is created as the “Internet Senator” for want of a better term. (OK you know I’m wanting to say it: iSenator).

So the iSenator trial would be a fairly important one, but it would be limited in a very critical way: the iSenator’s vote would be recorded, but not counted. Every 6 months both a detailed and summarised report should be generated showing what the physical senators and the iSenator voted on each issue, and highlighting any vote where it would have made a difference had the vote been counted.

We would expect some issues in the voting of iSenator for at least the year or so until the security model is appropriately sorted out, but the long-term goal of the first phase of the trial should be to instil enough confidence of a second trial phase where iSenator’s vote is eventually counted. Just one vote at that point – one vote amongst many other normally elected officials. That as well would be likely to last at least 2 senate terms.

Then of course, a complete referendum would be required before “turning off” the physical senate and going electronic.

I’m in IT, and I acknowledge whole-heartedly that the safeguards required would be enormous, and having observed the kerfuffle in the United States over electronic voting machines I recognise that what has been developed so far by corporates seems inadequate at best for this sort of model – much improvement on these models would need to be done to actually achieve home-based voting – but high-end security experts are out there willing to help.

But just because something is challenging doesn’t mean you should avoid it. Often it’s exactly the opposite.

The big question someone might have on this is: am I forgetting the bogans? I.e., if we move to citizens actually directly partaking in democracy, is this not likely to make the political practice of pandering to 30 second fear-based sound-bites more prevalent? Well, potentially yes – for a while at least. But consider that the real “silent majority” – not the people who are being Vox Pop’d – but the people who are sitting at home affected by issues and have views on what governments should and shouldn’t do – they too will be getting a say. Over time though, without being able to directly negotiate and enter into quid-pro-quo arrangements with individual senators, I’d imagine governments would have to put out a lot more information about why they want their legislation passed, so we might even see an evolutionary switch back to intelligent democracy.

The next big question is whether this will result in a senate that’s more likely to pass legislation from the government of the day, given that people have just elected the lower house. I don’t think so, mainly because I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as “I support party X and everything they do”. Sure, some people will just blindly vote a particular party (I know people on both sides of the political fence), but others have multiple political views – a common mix is you get right-wing economic conservatives who have left-wing views on social rights, and vice versa. These people usually remain unrepresented by any party.

The final question I can immediately think of is what happens to legislation that currently flows in the reverse direction? I.e., where the senate introduces something for the lower house to consider? Still possible, I’d argue: maintain an issues register of things people want considered, appropriately count unique votes and have a cut-off point at which point it becomes eligible for consideration. “For consideration” is complex, and there’d be a wide variety of ways it could be handled. Perhaps elected lower-house officials could nominate, under a conscience vote, whether they nominally agree with what has been proposed, then become the “sponsor” to flesh it out and introduce it as a private member’s bill for consideration.

So, it’s an internet democracy already out there – kick the tyres in my theory and let me know what you think.

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