Tag Archives: democracy

The credibility singularity of institutions

So, I care about democracy, and dream about fixing it. For years, and in many different contexts, I have been weaving narratives of collaboration between citizens and their institutions towards the common good. These narratives have provided ideological scaffolding for creatives, radical changemakers and civil servants to work together, reaping the benefits of diversity and discovering that they can get stuff done.

This, however, is getting harder and harder. Global problems press humanity on (take your pick: climate change, feral finance, loss of biodiversity, mounting inequalities); a globally connected citizenry, fueled by the Steve Jobs-Obama ideology of change as desirable, possible, a moral imperative even, has raised their expectations levels. Institutions, while probably not moving any slower than they did twenty years ago, have failed to keep up with the acceleration. The result is a sort of (negative) credibility singularity: you can feel people getting more impatient by the week. And not without reason: the failure to take serious action on climate change after decades of talk is very hard to justify outside the institutions’ corporate walls. What could any government agency answer to Anjali Appadurai’s passionate call to action in the video above? “Give us ten years!” to which her answer is “You just wasted twenty”. “We must not be too radical”, to which her answer is “Long term thinking is not radical”. What is there to say? She’s right.

The singularity point itself is the place where people decide democratic institutions are not delivering, and route around them to get things done. I am not looking forward to it. In fact, I happen to think democratic government institutions are still humanity’s best asset towards cooking up a coordinated, global response to global threats. But if this is to happen, a lot more radical thinking needs to take roots in Brussels (and Rome, and London, and Washington D.C. etc.). And to do it fast, while credibility can still be restored.

(Thanks: Vinay Gupta and Jay Springett)

Walking the wire: network science, online communities and democracy

Last Saturday I took part in TEDx Bologna. Rather than play safe talking about the topics I developed in my book Wikicrazia, I talked about a connection that I am still exploring, and find absolutely fascinating. I am wondering whether we can:

  1. using network science to herd the social dynamics in open online communities (how?). Get them to look at issues care about; and to accept certain rules of mutual engagement, like basing your argument on evidence. Can we use online communities as tools for analysis and solution design to collective problems, as if they were computers composed of people?
  2. embed these online communities in a framework of democratic legitimacy, using them as open spaces for citizens to participate in taking apart societal problems and designing solutions. Legitimacy here means that such communities must be participated, and so somehow led, by democratically elected institutions.

Participants to these communities sign off to a deal: they accept interaction to be directed, rather than totally free (for example, these places are not the right ones to post pictures of cats). In exchange, they get to participate in a discussion which is close to, and participated by, public decision makers. So, such communities can make credible promises – carefully ringfenced and realistic – of the kind: “the gift of your time and effort will be reciprocated with influence on the decision we make in the name of the people and in the common interest”.

I realize this is a long shot: from network science to participatory democracy, through online communities. I hope my aim is true. The talk’s video will take about a month to get through post-production. The image below is just an appetizer.

Professor Keane’s tractionless democracy

Recently I have had the good fortune of listening to a conference by political theorist John Keane. In a nutshell, what he told us is this after 1945 democracy started to morph into a model that he calls monitory democracy. In this model, the control functions are not only allocated to the legislative power and variously representative institutions arranged in the classic checks and balances scheme, but are also arrogated by citizens through media. The present phase of media democratization and pulverization is greatly increasing the effectiveness of this second type of control; furthermore, it is taking it to a global level, thanks to Internet-native organizations like Wikileaks, that have no national allegiance. The presentation’s key slide was the image you see above, with Gulliver tied down by Lilliputians. Keane used this image as an allegory of monitory democracy: with many ties, though each one is hair thin, the Leviathan can be immobilized.

With all due respect, I find this model unconvincing. Firstly, it is inadequate as a positive model: it does not describe reality accurately. According to many thinkers (including Clay Shirky, extensively quoted by Keane himself), the main novelty of the networked society is not an augmented ability for monitoring and blocking (though that is there too), but an augmented ability for barn raising on an unprecedented scale. Granted, the Internet gave us a great many blog that can sustain prolonged wrangles with public authorities on very specific issues, like no instantiation of traditional media could ever do. But above all it gave us Wikipedia, Ushahidi, Katrinalist/Person Finder and many more tools for building commons. This is no patch: it opens up radically new paths for development.

Secondly, monitory democracy is inadequate as a normative model: it’s not nearly all we need. We are faced with life-and-death challenges: contain global warming, redesign the social contract to make it acceptable for the young generations, bring finance back under control. To make a credible attempt to win them we are going to need effective, resourceful, proactive governance. Like poor tied-down Gulliver, Keane’s democracy feels horribly tractionless: think a car with strong, highly sensitive brakes and a comparatively very feeble engine. Personally, I find that the Internet’s greatest gift is that it increases our power to act collectively, not that it decreases it. By collaborating with them, we can empower institutions, keep them in check if they go bad, and help steering them, all rolled in one package. It would be irresponsible not to use this gift for the survival and thrival of the species. Even Lilliputians came to sense and freed Gulliver, harnessing his giant strength to destroy the menacing fleet of Blefuscu. I hope and believe we will have the same sense.