Sunday, 31 July 2011

Institutions v Collaboration

In this TED talk Clay Shirky highlights the differences between the institution and collaboration, and the way they get things done. In particular he compares the costs and values of each and points out that in a collaborative effort some people contribute a lot and others contribute a little. However, small contributions may make a significant difference. I would expect the same in Interactive Democracy: most of the contributions would come from those that are interested in politics with occasional valuable contributions from others.
Clay also describes how Institutions resist the loss of control that collaborative organisation brings. I would expect the same from Westminster.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Anonymous Agression

Randi Zuckerberg, Marketing Director of Facebook and sister to its founder, Mark, commented to Marie Claire magazine "I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away... I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors." This can result in all sorts of immoral behaviour including cyber bullying, harassment and lying.
On the other hand Richard Hall writes in The Independent "Privacy advocates have condemned plans to remove online anonymity, saying it could make it harder for dissidents in countries with poor human rights records to speak out."
Perhaps our society could benefit from parallel systems: Interactive Democracy would provide a regulated forum for debate, with sanctions against bad behaviour, but providing legal voting power; and commercial organisations could provide a more corruptible but freer network that would allow dissidents to have their say.
Another concern is the control that Facebook and the other web monopolies have over our society and culture, as Rebecca MacKinnon points out here.

The Hidden Influence of Social Networks

This video presented by Nicholas Christakis explores his studies into social networks. Although he mentions voter behaviour, the talk relates to many other areas, in particular the spread of obesity in society.
The power of influence within social networks could go a long way to explain the influence of one political party or another in certain areas of the country. It may also provide some insight into how new ideas, debates and opinions could flow through society. Worth a look as food for thought.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Lewd Leadership

The phone hacking scandal, a boil that has finally burst, runs the risk of missing a central point about how the media provides leadership for our country and our culture. In the case of News of the World, and several other newspapers, they realise that "sex sells" and celebrity sex sells more. So a good number of their stories "out" the private sexual exploits of the rich and famous, celebrities and politicians. They pander to base human instincts and debase our culture in the process: they provide lewd leadership.
Until now the political powers have been feeble in their response, despite the Human Rights Act, which states:
  1. "the right to respect for private ... life"
  2. "freedom from ... degrading treatment"
  3. "the right to liberty"
  4. "freedom of assembly and association"
  5. "the right to peaceful enjoyment of your property" (including mobile phones?)
  6. "the right not to be discriminated against in respect of these rights and freedoms" (celebrities v general public)
To increase the quality of the leadership that the media provide I think it is essential that we curtail their power to exploit and manipulate, while strengthening the sector as a whole. After all, investigative journalists do some good stuff, but enquiries are often expensive with uncertain rewards.
One way of limiting lewd leadership would be to use the Human Rights Act, perhaps as a class action. Another is to limit media monopolies.
To strengthen print news (including electronic print) perhaps we should be considering some sort of financial support from our taxes: despite not paying VAT, some papers run at a loss. Perhaps we should also curtail the BBCs involvement in web-print and focus their attentions on iPlayer services instead, so that newspapers can better compete on the Web and Kindle.
(This post from January comments on phone hacking.)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Inspiring Democracy

"If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

People worry about the yobs that Interactive Democracy empowers; they worry about the dogmatic, the xenophobic, the narrow minded and the greedy. I think these are a small fraction of the population, insufficient to do any real harm. But Goethe highlights a different argument: that empowering people, involving them in the debate and making them responsible can make them better.
The idea is entertainingly captured in this video of Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, who has seen the worst aspects of human nature yet retains his optimism.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Lords Reform

Parliament has been debating the Lords Reform Bill which proposes an 80% elected House of Lords. One point that has been deliberated is the role of the Lords as a revising chamber, tapping into the long experience of its members to scrutinise Bills proposed by Parliament, which is typically composed of younger Members, some of whom may have just won their seats.
If there is a need for a second chamber my suggestion would be that 100% of its members be elected. Elections should be held perhaps a year or two after the general election. Using an online system people could approve or dismiss any number of Lords, with those most highly rated gaining a seat. Each candidate could provide a summary of their views and a categorised CV of their experience. The system could be searchable for certain phrases, for example Conservative, environmentalist, doctor, business man. (This is another example of how Web based Democracy could allow a novel and cost effective way of voting; others may have better ideas of how to use it.)
To limit the number of Lords each Citizen had to pass judgment on the total could be divided up and allocated to geographical areas of equal population size, but different to MP's constituencies so that a "Lord" couldn't claim a stronger mandate than an MP and usurp his authority: Parliament would therefore remain the premier house.
That's not to say that I particularly approve of the House of Lords. Abolishing it would save about £60m a year that I believe would be better spent on Interactive Democracy. I suspect ID would also help to ensure good quality MPs by making them more accountable, and it would provide the facility for people to devolve their votes to ex-MPs, thereby maintaining the involvement of the most experienced politicians. (Devolving your vote means that instead of voting on each issue your self you pass your vote to another MP or ex-MP for them to use as they see fit.)
More from The Guardian here.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Web Lords

In the following video former CNN bureau head, Rebecca MacKinnon, points at how governments, politicians and web providers limit the freedoms available on the web, damaging our free speech. From her perspective Interactive Democracy provides a democratically accountable system that links individuals with their government without depending on the goodwill of the web lords: Facebook, Google, Apple, etc. (Famously, Google's motto is Don't Be Evil.)

Thursday, 21 July 2011

The God Complex

In this video Tim Harford (writer of "The Undercover Economist" in the Financial Times) explains the God Complex and the importance of making good mistakes. The idea is that many of us think we understand complex systems, in fact we don't. He suggests that all complex systems evolve from trial and error and that they are way, way, way too complex for any individual to understand. You may be thinking that this blog has a tinge of the God Complex as it seeks to enhance British representative Democracy which has evolved over centuries. But, looking at it another way, Interactive Democracy fosters innovation, change and adaptation by integrating many people's views instead of trusting to a few politicians who, Tim Harford would agree, have tendencies towards the God Complex themselves. Here are some ideas about how ID can foster trial and error:
  1. Diverse people foster ideas, debate, learn and innovate.
  2. Divorcing politicians from policy allows them to manage the process without getting tied to risky issues that may demolish their careers, in turn freeing-up innovation and trial and error.
  3. The DMAIC process (Define, Measure, Analize, Improve and Control) provides the framework for measuring the results of each policy and encouraging remedial action
  4. Regional decisions foster comparisons so that we can learn from best practice; policy research must gather experiences from abroad.
  5. The ID web site can evolve to incorporate new ways of analysis, debate and decision making.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Laughing at Democratic Activists

In this short TED Talk, Maajid Nawaz gives an interesting perspective on the need for bottom up democracy as an international movement. He compares his experiences as a reformed Islamic Extremist with his perception of "complacent", "top-down", "xenophobic" democracies. My preferred perspective is that extremism is about the demand for power by disenfranchised people, unable to participate in debate and therefore condemned to following a narrow interpretation of life.
While his views don't entirely gel with national Interactive Democracy, as he talks about the spread of ideas and narratives across national boundaries, he does provide food for thought.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011


In Comparative Government and Politics, Hague and Harrop review Referendums:
"On the plus side, referendums do seem to increase voters' understanding of the issue, their confidence in their own political abilities and their faith in government responsiveness. Like elections themselves, referendums help to educate the participants.
"But there is a reason for caution. A surfeit of referendums can tire the voters, depressing turnout."
This last comment hits against Interactive Democracy, which proposes frequent referendums, but if the system automatically transfers inactive votes to the local MP (or other approved person), then everyone remains represented whether they are engaged or not.
Hague and Harrop go on to say that "In addition to these difficulties, referendums can easily be hijacked by:
  • Wealthy companies waging expensive referendum campaigns on issues in which they have an economic interest;
  • Government control over wording as well as timing;
  • Intense minorities seeking reforms to which the majority is indifferent."
The last point is addressed by the transfer vote I just mentioned. The second point loses veracity when an effective Parliament agrees timing and wording, and the electorate can recall Parliament or express their ire at the next general election. And, is the first point any worse than what we have today, when politicians can be secretly manipulated by vested interest groups: Interactive Democracy makes wealthy campaigners contribute to the debate, not politicians' coffers. Furthermore, by having a structured system that rationalises the debate, both money and emotion become less powerful than a good argument.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Political Goods

In Comparative Politics Today, Almond, Powell, Strom and Dalton define three levels of Political Goods:-
  1. System Level: "The political system is charachterised by regular, stable and predictable processes domestically and internationally... [it] adapts to environmental change and challenges."
  2. Process Level: "The political system is open to and responds to a variety of forms of political action and speech, which may directly produce a sense of citizen dignity and efficacy... Citizens fulfill their obligations to the system and comply with public law and policy... Equitable procedure and equality before the law... Processes have intended effects and are no more cumbersome, expensive, or intrusive than necessary."
  3. Policy Level: "Growth per capita... health and material goods... distributive equity... safety of person and property... public order and national security... Non-discrimination... protection of vulnerable or disadvantaged citizens... freedom from regulation, protection of privacy and respect for autonomy of other individuals, groups and nations."
I suspect that Interactive Democracy would enhance the System and Process levels, enabling better Policy, as seems to be the case with Direct Democracy in Switzerland. However, the main concerns seem to be that it still requires individuals to drive democratically agreed policy (what if they don't agree with it?) and the majority threatening the liberty of minorities.
  • The first qualm is dealt with by making politically accountable ministers responsible for managing change - they can be removed from office if they don't make every effort.
  • The second point is dealt with by our acceptance of the European Human Rights Act and our evolved culture of accepting and respecting difference.
  • Both benefit from effective national debate.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Buying Votes

"... since the 1930s the technique of buying votes with the voters' own money has been expanded to an extent undreamed of by earlier politicians."
Milton Friedman, 1985

What is more, it may be argued that politicians spend money that they borrow to fulfill their promises, leaving future generations to pick up the tab.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Democracy and the Fall of the West

Is democracy as doomed as the Dodo? asks Money Week on reviewing Craig Smith's and Tom Miers' "Democracy and the Fall of the West". Their basic point is "Democracy is no guarantor of liberty because voters often want to take away the liberties of others and will vote accordingly." It's not that they think that the West will crash dramatically but they forecast a "prolonged sunset". This idea runs contrary to Niall Ferguson's idea that the Property Owning Democracy was an essential "killer app." in the rise of the West.
It is clear that there has been no tyranny of the majority in Switzerland, where voters have far more power and responsibility than in other Western Democracies. And the Swiss enjoy one of the highest standards of living of any western country, with a cohesive and supportive society. So I suggest that it isn't Democracy per se that is at fault, but our version of it, corrupted from the ideal of personal responsibility and Citizenship by our disconnectedness from political power and the irresponsibility of spinning, vote hungry politicians.
Smith and Miers suggest that the problem of our expanding welfare system can be dealt with by distributing cash equally to all citizens to spend on welfare services from government or private providers. An interesting idea, though they despair of it ever happening. But it could be an Initiative in Interactive Democracy. However, ID goes further, it distributes political power more equally between citizens (analogous to distributing money in their example) and taps into their creative potential. It encourages innovation, responsibility, learning, adaptability and evolution.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Core News Corp

"If it were left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Thomas Jefferson
It seems clear to me that the media is at the core of democracy, but, as in other areas of the real economy, monopolies seldom act for the benefit of customers or, in the case of News Corp, for the benefit of democracy. So, the emergent political will to stand up against the real or imagined power of News Corp is probably a good thing.
But Interactive Democracy offers a whole new necessity for news. Based on the demand for newspapers in Switzerland, I would expect that the introduction of ID would be a boon for newspapers. Perhaps then they wouldn't feel the need to snitch and snicker about celebrities' personal lives in order to fund their existence.