Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I'm the the following panel today at SXSW.

Weblogs and Emergent Democracy
Sunday, March 14
5:00 pm - 6:00 pm

Traditionally, popular will in democracies is interpreted and applied to decision-making processes indirectly through representatives--legislators, lobbyists, activists, media, etc. Will expanded growth of weblogs and social networks, as well as tools for analysis of content and connections, bring us closer to the ideal of direct democracy?

Adina Levin - Socialtext/EFFAustin
Joichi Ito , CEO - Neoteny
Jon Lebkowsky , CEO - Polycot Consulting LLC
Mitch Ratcliffe - Internet/Media Strategies Inc.
Zack Rosen

If we say anything interesting, I'll post notes here later.


some say direct democracy is not the ideal. it's hard to make arguments either way, lacking real world evidence for support. so it's probably a little bit of a stretch to simply say that direct democracy is the ideal, and not even recognize that counter-arguments exist.

Scott beat me to it. Direct democracy is definitely a debatable ideal...

BTW Emergent Democracy does not equal direct democracy. This is a common misunderstanding.

I'm curious, Joi. Under what conditions to you expect to see 'emergent democracy' emerge?

It's already clear that public discussion can change political realities, regardless of whether discussions take place in the letters to the editor of Time magazine, via electronic media like weblogs, or by the spoken word in bars or political rallies. But using the word 'democracy' implies actual governmental power of some kind, not just another influence on public opinon.

Given that the citizens of most countries are mostly pretty happy with the systems they have, and that they are extremely reluctant to let anyone else influence their own system, do you expect governments to hand over power to this emergent system?

I suppose the other option would be that the emergent system creates a kind of power of its own. Current governments ultimately rely on military power. What would this emergent system rely on?

I suppose another way to look at my question is 'How do we know when we have emergent democracy?'

I'm not sure about on the scale of countries, but here's a simple exploit of direct democracy in university student politics:

Students were asked to vote on changes to the student organization's consitution. This vote was advertised about campus very simply: "vote yes". Little other explanation was given.

So, naturally, some people voted yes. Most people didn't vote at all. The changes were all passed... and, incidentally, one of the changes was a 8% pay rise for the people running the organisation.

So i agree with Scott Reynen and Liz Lawley that direct democracy is not ideal. Law-making is *hard*, evaluating new laws is *hard*, it's easy to miss (or insert) loopholes.

Emergent democracy might mean that more people are much better informed about issues, but it is hard to imagine the entire population of a country being well informed over the merits of lengthly and highly technical laws. There still needs to be some form of representation.

Hey Joi, I was looking forward to the panel, but I was really dissapointed. It would have been cool if all the panelists had looked up from their laptops and had a real conversation with each other and the audience. You guys were barely listening to each other up there as you typed on-liners into the chat conversations, and as a result the panel was just a jumble with a lame IRC conversation next to it. Instead of hearing some interestingly different views, you all just sort of talked about some stuff.

First of all, I'm not sure that most citizens are happy with the systems they have... but I think that the initial impact that emergent democracy will have is primarily on the deliberation piece of democracy. Media influences the nature of politics and the Internet and other communications technologies will influence media and in turn politics. I think the idea that we are trying to develop is to think about how the tradition method of "messages" broadcast thru the mass media and people responding via polls might change if we can have a more conversational and deliberative process. Also, the idea is whether there is something "smarter" than just polling or asking people to vote on things that they haven't had time to think much about. Can we engage the citizens in a dialog and link this to politics in new ways. I think Emergent democracy means a lot of things, but what I'm most interested in is to see how we can apply some of what we've learned about working with complex systems in the area of decision making and leadership at a national level. How will we know when we've got "it"? I don't think "it" is really just one thing, but a gradual change in the way democracy functions as it adapts to things like the Internet. During the presentation, I used the metaphor of how the printing press created "the public" and "the public" caused a change in the way countries were governed and the governed and governing related with each other. What does the Internet do? How can we make it true to the principles of democracy?

andrew... yes. the IRC channel is a bit distracting. I guess the idea was to make it more inclusive and allow the audience to participate a bit more. It's a method that still needs some work, but something worth pursuing, I think. I am personally pretty tired of speeches and panels that don't allow the audience to interrupt or say stuff. On the other hand, we probably could have done a better job listening to each other.

Yeah, I thought we could do something pretty cool if I hopped off the stage and bridged the audience, but that sorta didn't happen. In retrospect, I realize I should've had a wireless mic and wandered around.

We had a good discussion in the green room, and we probably should've had that discussion again on the panel. OTOH I felt we did cover some important areas relative to the Emergent Democracy concept, we just didn't quite zero in and focus.

Your ideas about deliberative polling are very interesting. I wonder if they couldn't be used for policy development within a party as well as as an independent function.

When it comes to the effect the internet has on democracy, however, I'm far more skeptical. The more well known/topical/political blogs already exclude readers for comment (take Instapundit for example, who has said some pretty insulting things about the Spanish.) With no comment available, Instapundit is just another member of the media with his own personal opinion - he doesn't contribute to the political debate in a different way to any print newspaper columnist.

You might argue that people like me potentially have a greater influence on the political process than in the past. Certainly it doesn't take much effort to create a blog that anyone can read, but that's no reason to believe that it has any more effect than what I might achieve without the internet, writing letters (to politicans or newspapers) and making phone calls.

In fact, since anyone can look me up on the net and find out who I am, it's even easier for my views to be discounted because of who I am, whether be my age, gender, wealth (or lack of it), education, or those high-tech metrics that are available on Technorati.

I think that it's really cool that you are exploring the effects that new media like the Web can have on the political process. But I think some of the time way too much attention is paid to the mechanics of how the process works (e.g. the specific media used to send out a political message) and not enough attention is paid to the actual political process.

In the old days, you went down to the town hall and complained in person at a meeting. Now we will (hopefully) complain via email - if we're not too busy complaining amongst ourselves.

Didn't you find that the 'discussion' would have worked better if you'd spent less time worrying about using 'enabling technology' and more time *talking?*

In retrospect, yes. Trying to leverage the chat room for ambient discussion didn't work well in this context - probably partly because we didn't think enough about how it would work, and didn't take time to mention to the audience what we had in mind. I wouldn't rule out including chat again, but with more forethought.

I haven't felt that we're paying too much attention to the tools; I think that has to do with where we are in the evolution of their use - political tech isn't mature. However I do think we should pay more attention to the processes we're trying to address.

It's a stretch to base the case against direct democracy on the argument that citizens are collectively and individually too stoopit to be in charge. And moot. We the people are in charge. We just don't have access to the decision-making process but once in a blue moon, or every four years, whichever comes first.

The student government story, presumably about a handful of Key Club types who, like their bretheren and sisteren on campuses around these great United States that pretty much have a lock on the activity-fee franchise, managed to have their way with the student body, does not prove direct democracy won't work. Though, it may demonstrate dem dat has da gold makes da rules. Or, that marketing does work.

My better guess is that 8% of peanuts is not a huge raise. Wish I had actual facts, but I 'm hard pressed to imagine who gets paid in student government. If, like many non-profit associations, they have a management contract, it's probably some local W/MBE low bidder who's already doing way more than they bargained for and deserves the money. If it's the student officers and committee wonks who get a stipend for meeting attendance or other assigned duties, like they're billing at contract ho rates? Minimum wage is around 6, so let's go wild and say they're making 25, 8% is two bucks an hour. Hello? They're not getting rich here.

My point is that the example is used as evidence that people are stoopit, QED direct democracy is not ideal, direct participation is not the correct expression of citzenship, that the ideal is not ideal. I would argue that democracy does not invite us to limit our fellow citizens rights at the end of our debate about whether or not direct participation is ideal. It simply is. It was the central tennet and core value everything else is based on. Ideal is one man one vote. It isn't a question, it's a principle. That's what an ideal is.

Democracy means we all are equal. Direct and indirect are simply process mechanics--methods, not core values. Democracy is about self-representation, not intermediaries.

The system we have now is based on our forefathers' implementation constraints around access--getting the right people in the room, since everyone couldn't come and some people didn't count as real people because they weren't owners. They sat down and figured out a governance architecture for managing the greatest resource aggregation in the world. It's a business just like all the rest of business where functional hierarchies are used to slice and dice resources into manageable chunks. Representative government was a workaround in the first place, not the ideal, but a feature in the implementation package.

Emerging democratic processes and emerging technology are crashing together at this moment in time and space. Direct participation is possible. We have the tools. To me, the interesting questions are not if, but when, and what will it take for responsible transition?

I agree that addressing key processes is a good starting point.


Funnily enough I live in Australia. We don't do ancestor worship much down here. This system your grandfather worked out, it looks kind of like what they have in England, i don't think he can take all the credit :-).

We also do our democracy a little differently in Australia, mandatory preferential voting. Works quite well. Anyway...

It was a student election. As a bunch, students are above average. Definitely not stupid.

However, from the perspective of an individual it is not worth one's times to research the issues properly before voting. There's only a very small chance that your vote will affect the outcome: your vote only matters if everyone else is split *exactly* 50/50. You can't know before-hand if this is going to happen or not, but it's very unlikely.

Democracy only works because people do not behave intelligently. The non-stupid thing to do is simply not to vote (or vote randomly in countries like Australia where voting is mandatory).

I agree that every person should have political influence. But, maybe, it should be influence over something they actually have a chance of influencing.

While one person one vote is better than all the other systems, it is not ideal.

Two comments:

Firstly, I'd like to comment on the pragmatic value of direct democracy versus other systems of government.

Up until now, representative democracy has been tried as a method of governing states. It has been found to be successful in a large number of countries, particularly in North America and Western Europe. However, the same system hasn't functioned quite so well in a lot of other countries (some in South America, perhaps Japan, maybe Korea, some countries in Africa.)

In societies under major and fast change, strong democracy hasn't always been the system in place. (Eg. England during the industrial revolution, Japan during the Meiji Restoration, China right now.) Like it or not, government by the elite has worked well in some situations.

As a generalisation, I think we can say that 'representative democracy is the best system we have found so far for a number of countries in a number of situations.' It has pragmatic value proved by history.

Direct democracy has never been tried - so while it has a lot of ideological appeal, it doesn't actually have any pragmatic appeal. I'd like to compare this with government by a compassionate dictator or elite (think Singapore), which also has a lot of philosophical/ideological appeal, but less pragmatic appeal in the long run.

My second comment is that I wonder if the idea of mindspace has been explored. Everyday citizens use representatives because they can then be less concerned about political issues all the time and get on with their lives. Knowing the issues takes a lot of work. I can imagine a direct democracy whereby people just looked up the opinion of someone they knew on the web and voted the same way. (Alternatively, they might get their opinion from talkback radio.) Another problem might be that only special interest groups bother to vote at all - exactly the problem we have now anyway.

I think that deliberative polling is the best complement to representative democracy that I have seen so far.