Whither Democracy 2.0?

Is technology opening the way to more informed, more engaged citizens, or simply enabling armchair activism and gentrification by opinion?

December 4 th 2009

We have recently passed the first anniversary of Barack Obama's historic election. I have been reflecting back on some things that have changed and some that have remained the same during this past year. President Obama—during his campaign, in his transition period and in office—enthusiastically embraced a new way of thinking about government which had been percolating quietly in the background for a decade or more in many developed democratic nations, but which has recently grown to a loud roar. It is what some have been calling Democracy 2.0 (akin to Web 2.0, which involves user-generated content, interactivity and social networking).

Facilitated by new developments in technology, penetration of the Internet into voter households, and apparently nimbler governments using technology with businesslike savvy, this new model promises a higher degree of transparency on the part of the state and greater civic participation by citizenry than ever before. But is it working? Are we more informed or more dazed and confused? Are we more engaged, or are those so inclined still couch potatoes? Does the future hold more promise in this arena, or will the bubble of excitement burst?

I start with the premise that democracy, as a form of government, is neither an unequivocal good nor a pure evil. It depends on what we make of it. It is incumbent upon Christians who live in democratic societies to be involved in democracy, using it well to advance values such as fairness, justice, human well being and care of the earth. Thus, any development which promotes a more politically aware and active populace is something we should generally welcome, albeit reflectively. It's hard to be reflective in the face of a tremendous pace of change, attended by much hype and speculation, but reflect we must. However, let me dive in to a bit of the excitement first to give some context for what we must reflect on.

There is a documented trend of growing engagement between government and citizens via electronic communications. The charge is led by Canada, the United States and Singapore, according to several recent years of Accenture's annual government customer service survey.

The notion of "e-democracy" is the buzz. My bibliography on Technology & Democracy includes some 40 titles, most quite recent, addressing the way technology is changing our access to and influence on representative democracy. Of course, those "dead tree" books are probably dated already, so check the latest Twitter chatter. Here is a sampling of what is there at the time of this writing: "EuProfiler.eu: World e-Democracy Forum Award 2009" and "Call for Papers: 4th International E-Democracy Conference."

A major conference called Government 2010 (G2010) examining "how next generation government is set to change in the light of social, media and technology change" took place in London in October 2009 and was webcast around the world to over 1100 viewers from 29 countries.

Other terms being bandied about are "Government 2.0" and "Open Government" (as in Open Source). The web portal Directgov | innovate is a platform for software developers in the UK to create tools to enable citizen participation. People are being encouraged to help governments reduce waste, come up with online apps to promote citizen involvement, and so forth, and many are very excited about these developments. They seem to have the potential to change things in big ways.

Some recent innovative government uses of technology include a UK website where citizens can report potholes; a U.S. website where people can find every imaginable government dataset; a virtual court system in the U.S. where real cases with real jurors and real verdicts "move at Internet speed"; online voter registration for American expatriates; and sites where people can pay parking tickets online. People at conferences on e-democracy are envisioning much, much more.

How can we measure whether these developments are making a difference in people's engagement with government? One way is to look at voter turnout, though even the quaint concept of "turning out" to vote is going to be obsolete in a decade or so, as all voting moves online.

Voter turnouts in the U.S. had been declining from a high in the 1960s of over 60% to 52% in 1996, but since then they have been increasing back up to old levels. In Democracy and Technology, Richard Sclove argued that technological developments in society such as automobile-centric suburbs and home entertainment systems have contributed to a loss of community, which in turn has weakened participation in civic life. But things change so quickly. His book was published in 1995. He was focused on television, which "reduces [national politics] to a passive spectator sport." There were only 16 million people worldwide connected to the Internet at the time. That number has skyrocketed. In 1997, only 18% of U.S. households had Internet access. That number shot up to 61.7% in 2007, and could be a big reason the trends in voter turnout have reversed in just a decade.

Another method is to look at anecdotal evidence. I personally have been much more aware of what is going on in my government over the past year, and I've even participated in new ways never imaginable before. I sent in a suggestion for improvement to then President-Elect Obama's CHANGE.GOV website. I watched Obama's weekly address on YouTube for the first month or so after he took office. But my participation has been waning—or rather, it has been reduced to forwarding political news and opinion pieces to my Facebook friends, most of whom probably already agree with my views anyway. We can be easily energized by the lure of cool technology to get more involved, but then revert to apathy as usual once the novelty wears off.

One of the activities that has definitely increased in the age of widespread Internet access is "armchair activism," which involves passing around e-petitions and calls to boycott a certain company or product. Not just ineffective, these activities give people the feeling that they are involved when they really are not.

Another less innocuous effect of technology on political involvement is that the speed of electrons and the mystery surrounding what goes on inside software tend to magnify abuses that might have already existed in the past. Voting can apparently be manipulated more easily now, so there is an emergent cynicism about it and distrust of the democratic process. The Internet is a megaphone for extremism. It facilitates the gathering together of what used to be isolated fringe groups. The miracle of replication in the blogosphere and "re-tweeting" make small incidents seem like they have enormous import. Furthermore, you cannot tell someone's tone of voice in a discussion on Facebook or a web forum. It seems everyone is shouting more loudly at everyone else about political viewpoints than they were just a few years ago.

Technology is indeed affecting how we participate in democracy—in some good ways, in other deceptively impotent ways, and in still other harmful ways. Here are some of my suggestions for Christians participating in Democracy 2.0:

  • Be well informed. There is much more information available now than ever before.

  • Be careful of the source of that information. Sorting through the volume of information can be a chore. Find sources you trust to filter some of it, bookmark them, and go back to them. But be always aware of the lens you're reading it through. In a Google search, if you include "site:gov" in your search terms, you will limit the search results to only official government websites (not that they are necessarily more trustworthy, but at least you can read leaders' speeches in entirety instead of reading sound bites that twist their meanings). Independent think tanks, media outlets and bloggers can be very informative, but be aware of their biases and relative qualifications for saying what they say.

  • Think twice—nay, three times—before hitting the Send button in any political conversation online.

  • Be reflective and prayerful, and keep in mind your ultimate purpose for being an engaged citizen: do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
 

Rosie Perera is a writer, teacher/tutor, photographer, lay preacher, and all-round computer geek. After graduating from college, she worked as a software engineer for Microsoft for eleven years, where she was part of the team that created Word. She then pursued a Master of Christian Studies from Regent College in Vancouver. During this time she also developed her skills and lifelong love of photography, through courses at Focal Point photography school. Now she combines all of these into a unique multi-threaded vocation. Her passion and research interests involve the interrelationships between faith, technology and the arts.

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