The Future of Politics is Mutual

sign of the times
Image by Melvinheng on Flickr, shared via a creative commons license.

This is not a post about the things that are wrong with our world. This is a post about how we make them right. Of course it is not exhaustive, and by no means is it intended to be a detailed and flawless solution, in fact it openly admits that fact, because that (you will see) it is the point.

This post is in reaction to many things, but particularly in reaction to the recent #3strikes debate, the actions of Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and a recently circulated confirmed rumour that suggests the same minister may have his sights set on the leadership of the Labour party. This is not a party political post, and I do not intend to argue why one man’s leadership would be bad for Labour, instead I intend to suggest that what this man represents is an outdated vision of politics, a vision that is bad for our country, and bad for our democracy.

Our society (and although I will talk more generally, ‘our’ here refers to UK society) is governed. We have democratically elected governments who, on the whole, make decisions and enforce laws with the intention of bettering society. I do not believe that anyone gets involved in politics for any other reason but improving the society they live in. This is the desire of the BNP, just as much as it is the desire of mainstream parties, their vision of a ‘better’ society might be opposed to the majority, but that is why they are not in power. Largely speaking, the party in power is supposed to represent the majority vision of what a better society is, and then strive towards it.

I do not believe that is currently so. Leaving aside first past the post reform and candidate selection, we wholly and entirely do not currently live in a democracy. The power is very much not ‘with the people’.

The Story

When Labour came into power in 1997, it was to the tune of a wholly broken opposition. 18 years of Conservative government had systematically deconstructed all that was of society and replaced it with the ethics of individualism. This was very good for a few, and catastrophic for a many. The many had finally realised. Labour won with more than just promises to renew, however, they won with what was for the first time, politics as marketing. It wasn’t just slogans, it was shiny adverts, they weren’t just promoting the values of the party, they were selling the story of New Labour.

Something else very important happened in 1997. The death of Diana. Others have pointed out before me how this marked an important turning point, not in politics, but in the media. This was the media as story, news not as reporting events, but as representing emotions. The papers spoke as though they spoke for us as they ordered the Queen from Balmoral.

Labour was in power without a credible opposition, and suddenly the press felt powerful. They could move the Queen to action. And someone needed opposing. If it was ‘The Sun Wot Won It’, The Sun could also oppose it.

Story is a very hard thing to fight. It is much older than democracy, much older than society.

That was the beginning of the era of Spin. Labour had ridden into power on a narrative, and the mainstream media had assumed the role of opposition using the same. One proposed a story of a better society, the other claimed to represent the stories (wishes) of the people who lived in it.

You notice how neither of these groups are made up of ‘us’?

This is the politics that politicians such as Peter Mandelson, David Cameron and (yes, even) Boris Johnson represent. (Can you think of a better story than the bumbling fool made good?)

An Information Economy.

Spin is all about distribution. Spin is about controlling the narrative of politics; it is about packaging and marketing your version of events. Spin requires complete control of information.

Spin is not working. Our society has grown out of it. Our country has been made undemocratic because of it. Our politicians do not fear the people, they fear the press. The people do not trust their politicians because the press exposes the antiquated attitudes and secrecy within their ranks. However the Press only constructs an oppositional story, it does not deconstruct it. The press is also not run for anything but the benefit of sales. No matter how well standing the broadsheet, how ubiquitous the tabloid. The mainstream media choose their story, and then they spin their readers and politicians into it.

The internet opposes and undermines that.

We live in an information age. For better or worse that is something that must be accepted. There is a rival economy, and it consists of information, it is a world (democratically, one might say) built of a thousand individual narratives. No one claims to speak for others, if someone is championed, it is because one person had the words that echo with others’. In this context the politics of Peter Mandelson et al will not work. He is a clever man, and I hope clever enough to see that one voice, big business, Spin, the politics of ‘push’, are gone. This is the century of pull, this is the century that politics has to become mutual.

Wikipolitics.

Well, everything needs a title doesn’t it? (/a hashtag).

I have blogged before about how I don’t believe in apathy, but I do believe in disengagement. I believe that British politics is due a reformation. I believe that we can demand that. Are you bored of the tone of the Labour government? Do you really believe that a Tory one will be different? Are you looking for a protest vote? A voice? You will not currently find it at the ballots.

What is Wikipolitics?

It is a starting point. It takes the open-source ethic and applies it to government. I don’t propose that we edit policy documents. I do believe that parliament should be opened up, demystified, and the power taken back. How do we do this? We’ve already started, look at projects such as Louder, 38 degrees, look at the Trafigura backlash, the Iran election, the G20 protests.

We now live in a world where we construct our own media consumption, where we pull together, build our own stories. Politics and the mainstream media are clinging on to old methods of distribution and delivery.

Whilst still acknowledging that at least 2/3 of the world does not have access to the internet (the UK figure is something like 30%, with a further 7-8% only having narrowband access – source) and those who do are likely to be from more affluent, developed backgrounds, we also need to be aware that instant publishing and access to our own media channels is incredibly empowering.

We also need to pull ourselves out of the luxury of political disempowerment. It is our responsibility to be involved in politics. If it is not one with which we wish to be involved, then we need to change it.

Reformation, Reclamation.

We need to tell our parties: “Arm your backbenchers with Flips, with Audioboo, with simple wordpress websites. Open up. Work in real-time. And don’t be afraid. We know you are, we know you are worried that you will be criticised, pulled apart, but please remember that although it has not been so before, that is what we mean by democracy. That is the open-source ethic. Let us participate”.

This worked for Obama, he brought the US the highest election turnout in a century. But then he stopped. And that where it’s gone wrong. That’s when Murdoch took back over.

The mainstream media has characterised us as a pack of baying wolves. The politicians have been characterised as lying snakes and fat cats. 2/3 people believe they cannot affect decision making. Trafigura, Jan Moir, proves we can. How about we take that to the rest of politics? How about we build our own wiki-guide to how we want to be engaged with, how we want to ask questions of the policy makers, of the parties? How about we offer a route that bypasses the mainstream media – taking honest debate and mobile video on the campaign trail, introducing them to the modern realities outside the political bubble, having a conversation, rather than being delivered a speech. You may argue that there’s no point in participating in a broken system, but how else are people to know how to fix it?

Because this is important. As it currently stands it would take as many years to get women equal representation, as it would a snail to crawl the length of the Great Wall of China. As it currently stands we are bickering and buying our way to climate disaster. As it currently stands we live lifestyles of excess and complete unsustainability. And for all our excess, are we happy? Or are we to some degree living the lives and values that are sold to us – other peoples’ stories?

We are facing a hyper-connected, global village era, politics cannot continue to be its own island.

This is not a manifesto, it is a call to arms. And this is where I stop, because this is a story, too. It’s a story about us, but it’s still my version. We need to write an ending together. How can we open up the political process? What do we want to know? Do we think there should be more experts involved in policy making? Do we want to see cabinet meetings taking questions from Twitter? What tools can we offer? Comment. Engage. This is up to all of us. What can we build? (We have the technology). Go.

— Hannah Nicklin is a brightly coloured and basically nocturnal playwright, blogger, academic and geek. She normally lives over at hannahnicklin.com, and is @hannahnicklin on Twitter.

Published by Hannah Nicklin

I am Hannah Nicklin, a brightly coloured playwright, tech-enthusiast, blogger and academic. Particular interests include theatre, social media, open-source art, the politics of identity and the democratising power of the wiki-ethic. I do other things too. Usually too many.

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38 Comments

  1. Hannah, this is awesome. Really inspiring stuff, and with an emphasis I’ve not really pursued before. I was talking earlier on in the week (with @kristinhersh on twitter) about the differences between Micro/Macro ‘news’ and its influence on politics – politics is played out in the very undemocratic world of the headline, the broad gesture, the ‘attention grabbing’ black and white statement, rather than in the nuance of personal, local, human stories.

    The inherent depersonalisation of ‘macro’ is what leads so many to label some group as ‘other’ – muslims, ‘darkies’, ‘gays’, northerners, southerners, posh people, chavs, pikeys – all meaningless in the grand scheme of things, and not terms that mean anything in the context of a personal micro-narrative. If someone mugs me, I’ve been mugged by someone, not by all young people, or all working class white males, or all black people… that doesn’t work as a story. If they put ‘Another Michael commits a mugging. Let’s outlaw Michaels’, in a headline, but if it’s ‘black youth kills pensioner’, that’s OK?

    Your call to BE the news, to democratise information, to do what Toby Moores talks of as being ‘distruptive in the gaps’, to fill a space that none of Big Media can get to and reclaim the right to tell our own stories that aren’t sensational, but are deep, nuanced and full of integrity, to seek solutions that put an end to sensationalist headlines rather than fuel them.

    This is great stuff, and I’m sure I’ll be back to comment more when my typing fingers catch up with my brain 🙂

    #awesome. 🙂

  2. I’m reminded of this article PLEASE HELP. How can we save democracy?

    I’ll repeat a little of what I said there. What’s needed is not a revolution, it’s not a tearing up of the old order, it’s not taking arms against the establishment.

    What’s needed is participation.

    You mention Obama – the people who tweeted and blogged and donated weren’t doing it for democracy – they were doing it for a candidate or political party. That’s what the UK needs. Smart, educated and knowledgeable people need to join existing political parties. As the Zen Master said to the broken lightbulb, “Change must come from within”.

    I don’t much care whether you join the Lib Dems, Labour, Tory, Greens or any other party. But join and force them to raise their game. Find the local candidate that you believe in and show her how video-blogging will raise the level of debate for everyone.

    T

    1. I actually think the line is somewhere between the two – a violent revolution would solve nothing, especially as we still have recourse to a democratic process, however broken and mangled it may be… Indeed, the current system is a race to attrition. We don’t have any way of changing the way things are done, though we can have a voice within those broken structures.

      The big problem for ‘democracy’ at the moment seems to be two-fold – firstly we’ve got a system where the dissemination process for political information has switched from being party activism AND news sources of all types to being dominated by Spin doctors and game-playing. the whole idea of an ‘official’ leak is hideous. It’s a game that benefits politicians and news-rags, but not people looking for proper info, or context.

      So what do we do? Having more party activists isn’t going to help if they are ignored, or indeed when none of the parties are representing any kind of ideological spread, just different flavours of the same shit-sandwich.

      The Labour party is chock full of people who now HATE the new labour project. They see the failures of the Blairite/neo-thatcherite agenda, the monumental shift to the right, the tacet suggestion that global financial markets are the only metric of national ‘success’… There’s no big discussion happening *within* any of the parties about those questions because it isn’t *allowed* to happen, and there certainly isn’t any kind of meta-change about to happen to facilitate a more representative form of democracy.

      It sadly does appear that those kind of changes DO tend to happen in countries facing the very real thread of violence, if not all out civil war (x-ref the kind of reforms that Museveni introduced in Uganda a few years back, which were transformative, systemic and probably pulled the country back from civil war (not counting the civil war that’s already going on with the Lord’s Resistence Army on the northern border) … but still didn’t manage to deal with some of Uganda’s root problems)

      So, I love the idea that by talking about solutions, dealing in nuance, in the personal, the important, the non-headline grabbing stuff, the transformative stuff that can at any point plug into a political process looking for change – we are getting on with it, demonstrating what happens when politics loses touch with people, and we’re not being brought down by the horribly depressing picture of political engagement painted by the press.

      Clearly, political structure is required. However, much of the structure we currently have is built around mitigating against the problems of 18th and 19th century communications methods. Many more things can be voted on, many more things can be put to the people, many more things can be discussed and debated on a wider scale.

      We trust our legal system to the opinions and decisions of randomly selected panels, yet we continually hand over the power for longer form governance and change to the kind of personality that would seek a job like that in this day and age. That’s kind of scary.

      I’m not, as is obvious from this, clear about what the ‘new thing’ is. But I think engagement in political thought and impetus outside of but alongside the attricious systems we have at the moment is a good thing.

      But please, by all means, join a party too 😉

  3. Hi Terence, thanks for commenting. I completely agree that we don’t need a revolution. I do not think revolutions are useful, because all they do is replace on e power structure with another, the key is in the word – revolve – they just fall apart again. What I am calling for here is a reformation of a our political system, in participation, policy forming, and in the broken machine of parliament itself.

    I wonder how many people think it’s right that MPs swear to serve the Queen, and not the populace? Semantics, perhaps, but I believe those kinds of things are important.

    Of course people who supported Obama weren’t doing so for democracy- they were doing so for what they believed in – that however, is democracy. Democracy is the effect, not the cause. We are the cause, and (in my opinion) it is our fault that the system is currently stalling.

    What we’re facing is a kind of chicken/egg situation – people aren’t interested in party politics because it feels irrelevant. But it’s irrelevant because we’re not interested. I think we understand that needs to change, but what is the best way of doing that? And of getting a lot of people to do it?

  4. Hannah, this is great, and I think you’re spot on with the sentiment.

    I think that there are some issues that merit further discussion (and I guess that space is a real issue in a blog – whole days worth of conferences could be dedicated to this one!).
    1. trad media may have a bias, but generally it’s not too hard to spot (the headline differences on a big story are a pretty good indicator!) And I know a great many journalists who, if the ad team tries to interfere with the editorial, will do exactly the opposite of what the ad folk demand. They also have a legal requirement to check out the facts. They do this with varying degrees of integrity, granted, but however slow the BBC may be in getting info out, when it does it’s more often factually right than wrong. (My own sense is that media will become more ‘tribal’ – specialist – and will change to become more blended across a variety of media, including ‘social’; but that’s another story)
    2. VERY IMPORTANTLY there are a lot of people who have no access to wiki politics/on-line resources, or who exercise their right not to want to play with computers. Or who simply don’t have the language, skills or other capacity for inclusion.
    3. Spin happens on-line too, and it’s sometimes less obvious who’s pulling the strings (I’ve lost count of how many ‘communicators or new media gurus there are!) Which also leads nicely into issues of identity and security.
    4. It was the old media property (Guardian) that broke the Trafigura story. What worries me slightly is that
    (a) it took a political story to make it news, the poisoning scandal behind it was 2006 and scarcely merited a blink. A blogger might not have had the resources/personal protection to stick with a story like that.
    (b) Was it really bad PR? For you or I it might seem that way, but Trafigura (who I had never heard of before) has had it widely advertised that it will do anything to ensure its cheap services; Carter Ruck has had it advertised that it is regarded as the legal scourge of the media; their PR company, Bell Pottinger, has had it advertised that it’s prepared to represent – and even speak for – anyone in a tight hole, no matter what they’ve done. It may well be that the story served them well reaching the kind of customers that they want?
    (c) I have no doubt whatsoever that we were all used by the Guardian (cleverly, and because we wanted to be, mind) into reacting the way we did to Trafigura – great timing, emotive issue etc.
    5. Calm and reasoned still don’t get enough mindshare. A lot of it is still flash in the pan. And if you look at what was tweeted out whilst the shootings which were happening in the military camp at the weekend were happening, there were apparently some very un-credible sources.
    6. Having conversations in public doesn’t always give the right answer: politicians have lines to toe (wrongly, in my opinion – don’t get why we allow whips) and for them it’s frightening to be wrong. If we put people on the spot we may get canned answers which haven’t been thought through, but because they’re public are hard to retract or develop? And debate can be presented as rupture or disagreement?
    7. I’m not at all sure about dicatating to either media or politicians about the tools or platforms we should use. I do realise that you have used WordPress etc as examples, but we should allow people space to innovate and use whatever media is there (trad, social, outdoor, immersive etc) in their own way to find the people that they want to connect with. It would be a tragedy if the pain of a lot of people (some great journalists with lots of integrity, amongst others, are losing their jobs) are going through was replaced with yet another ‘supermedia’. It is also, IMHO, too early – we are at the bottom of a steep hill of innovation, and as online, mobile, trad media, augmented reality start merging together we are at the start of some very exciting times for connecting and communicating in new ways.

    So yes, we can bypass – and I love the example of the environment where there is NO excuse for apathy – part of the answer lies with the individual. Yes, I understand the desire to organise.

    But I do think we need to be conscious and mindful of what we are replacing it with; as well as to make sure that we continue the worthwhile debate that you have begun here.

    1. Hi Clare, thanks for commenting. As you have handily set out your points numerically, I will reply using same 🙂

      1) “trad media may have a bias, but generally it’s not too hard to spot” I’m definitely not suggesting that trad media has no role in an information age, but I do think that they need to reclaim the ground of reporting and let go of the age of telling. And how easy is the bias of trad media to spot, really? A great deal of my peers were never taught the analytical skills or the background knowledge to question a story or publication. I know the NUJ code of conduct does promise facts, but numerous times each day tabloids are revealed to have lied, mislead and incited. Equally the black and white form of the headline (which Steve mentions above) dehumanises, and is about attention, not truth. Sure the BBC is rarely factually wrong, but it engages far too much in speculation, which often spills over into hysteria and their own brand of spin – fulfilling the story they want to tell. It’s lazy, and it’s at best not useful, at worst damaging (see the run on Northern Rock).

      2) As I mention in the post, I am very, very aware that only 1/3 of the world, and ~70% of the UK have bb internet access, which is why any attempt to make online spaces truly discursive also needs to discuss access and inclusion. This is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. However that is also no reason to exclude tech and socmed as a solution for the 70% who are online, and indeed the ethics of an online world (wiki, open source, communication not speech making) are equally applicable to RW situations. It wouldn’t just be bringing parliament into an information age, it would be reclaiming the lines of communication, which IMO can only benefit all.

      3) Spin is much, much easier to spot online, because it is hyper connected- everything is linked, if you are making claims and your source says different, people will pull you up. The media gurus prey on those who are not information-age savvy, or who haven’t yet understood it’s a conversation, not a sell. Advancing the open ethics of this world will combat that.

      4. Again, I am not calling for an end to trad media. But note that it broke online (at the Guardian, who are actually one of the best mainstream papers for online engagement (particularly with their open data policies)) before it was on paper, and the source of the gag, and the question it was preventing, were picked up and published by bloggers.
      a) This could have been a sooner and non-political campaign had the victims and the society to which the harm was done had greater access to personal media channels.
      b) As far as I’m concerned the worth of it as PR is irrelevant, because PR is and should become irrelevant. We do not need intermediaries. It also revealed a good deal about our own libel laws, which I believe are being changed as a result of it. Trafigura and Carter Ruck are the symptoms of a sick society, while the society is still sick, they will still profit. You can argue quite credibly about the limitations of one form of social protest, but if the answer is sticking with the status quo, it’s the wrong one.
      c) yes the Guardian used the online world, but to the ends our world should be used – towards truth.

      5) I hear lots of people talking about the lack of reason and the problem with real-time reactions. Fine, that’s is an admitted flaw with live-blogging, but twitter is just one of the tools – not the whole box, twitter is very very good at getting on the ground and immediate info and interviews out, and for reactiving to live events. Blogging can be used for opinion pieces, reporting, or investigative journalism, Audioboo for interviews or thoughts, I would love to see someone put up a Edward R. Murrow style youtube channel, there’s so much possible, I think that at this stage, focusing on the few flaws is obstructive.

      RE point 6. I also cover that in the post- we need to admit the fallability of our representatives, and they need to be allowed to communicate to as human beings – if you reform the way we have conversation, holding it in public should become less of a problem

      And RE 7. I hope very much from the tone of my piece that I am not suggesting dictating anything – but rather the offering of tool kit- of a method of communication and a safe route to genuine interaction. I am so bored of signing petitions and writing letters to get stilted, party line responses. But without the press trying to oppose, maybe, just maybe, we might get real responses.

      Finally it is never, ever too early, you have to look ahead; you have to make leaps, because you have to question the ethics of a place before you are in it. That is the ONLY way to be “conscious and mindful of what we are replacing [trad media] with”. To quote Charles Leadbetter: “Think pirates, think mavericks, think renegades. They will re-form our world, they can tell us what the future might look like.”

      Thanks for reading. H.

      1. So how do we start?
        I think you amy have hit the nail on the head: we need to admit the fallability of our representatives, and they need to be allowed to communicate to as human beings – if you reform the way we have conversation, holding it in public should become less of a problem.

        Good God – we might even end up witrh a democracy! (I think one or two tribal systems in developing countries may be laughing up their sleeves at us!)

        So now the conversation is started, where to from here?

        1. Well, that is a decision for all of us to make, but starting a wiki up in order to further this conversation. To allow places for postering and discussion, but also for easy access of collated and succint information, mightn’t be a bad place to start, I’m looking into it… 🙂

    2. If we put people on the spot we may get canned answers which haven’t been thought through, but because they’re public are hard to retract or develop?

      I actually think online communication demonstrates the opposite attributes! Modern politics is full of live interviews, question times, panels, press conferences, all filmed and recorded live and broadcast live over TV and radio. This has the advantage of immediacy that traditional print media lack. But online communication has the advantages of both. It’s immediate and live – but slower than in-person chat. You can take the time to think and compose a reply.

      This not only makes it less easy to excuse politicians who say stupid shit, it makes the conversation more accessible. I’ve been to a few City Hall meetings and it always strikes me, every time, the extent to which politics is dominated by confident, charismatic, good looking, intense, charming people, who are well-spoken and warm and can convince you of anything. The rest of us, without those skills of persuasion and charm and diplomacy, can often feel we don’t stand a chance – even if we can get a word in edgeways, we don’t have the same stature, somehow – or we aren’t as well-spoken, or just don’t have the experience of speaking eloquently in public. But more subtly, I have noticed how many of those in power project a personal authority which is difficult to challenge face to face, however much you may disagree with them at a distance.

      Online communication opens this up. You don’t have to be good looking or charming to speak powerfully online. It not only makes it easier for more people to engage on a more level playing field, in text, but it also would reduce the amount of verbal faff that goes on so much in BBC politics. All the “And I’m going to tell you why that is, that’s because …” methods of answering questions, all the automatic verbal filler that gives the speaker more thinking time. You wouldn’t have people shouting over each other, you wouldn’t have the ruder person on the panel drowning the others out, you wouldn’t have posh accents talking over regional ones and men talking over women and everything else you hear all the time on radio and TV. I’m not saying online conversations are perfect, but they have advantages which I think could be useful right now.

      Also, think about the potential of online conversation. Previously, this sort of live conversation has been between a small handful of people, with a passive audience. Interaction takes place in the form of solicited questions from the audience, or phonecalls – that’s not a real exchange of ideas.

      Compare this with the comment threads on the big political blogs, where a single conversation can include 800 or more people. When have that many people ever, in the history of the human race, been able to simultaneously and actively engage in the same conversation? It even beats the Athenian ecclesia, where people had to take it in turns to speak while everyone else listened, and speakers had to be approved in advance.

      Democracy worked in Athens because it was small. Representative democracy hasn’t worked: we need a new methodology. The Internet offers unique opportunities for including the vast numbers of people who need to participate for it to work these days.

      Like you Hannah, I only have vague ideas. But I’m definitely on board and fascinated to see where this conversation leads.

  5. Of course, it’s a huge step from complaining about Trafigura and signing petitions and occasionally going to a campaign rally or somesuch to actually changing the way the country is run.

    Trafigura was a landmark action in that a stance was taken by some people on twitter and the blogosphere (how I hate that word) about transparency. To a certain extent, egged on by the media who do have a phenomenal power to mobilise people. One could compare this with the Jan Moir backlash, a similar reaction to a news report. I mostly saw these on Twitter rather then UK media, as I was out of the country at the time.

    The problem is that it’s relatively easy to mobilise people for a quick uprising on a point of principle. These two examples were easy for the average person to understand, and summarise in 140 characters. The Jan Moir article was long, I suspect many people didn’t read the half of it, and there is a certain anti-daily-mail bias in the mostly left-leaning and young group that comprise Twitter. Stephen Fry tweting about it was definitely a help. Similarly, Trafigura was a point of principle. Are there any numbers out there on who actually read the report on Trafigura once it was released in the Guardian? I know I haven’t.

    On the downside, let’s look at some campaigns that haven’t had as much of a success, even with a similar amount of social media exposure.

    No2ID has made many a stand on the matter. “I don’t want ID cards” we tweet. “ID cards violate our privacy” we blog. It’s made it into the media, and it has changed the presentation of the idea quite a bit. I dont’ think it’s substantially changed the real policy, maybe delayed it to a certian extent. I, personally, don’t believe that the ID card thing will go away, even if the government changes next year, as well seem to take a fait accomplí. A quick check of Wikipedia reminds me that it was originally a John Major proposal, and I know that a predecessor of the National Identity Register was being mocked in an episode of Yes, Minister. Oh, and a certain Mr. Blair mentioned as a matter of policy, two years before becoming prime minister, that we should scrap ID cards and spend money on putting more coppers on the street, neither of which he seems to have done.

    It’s not to say that No2ID haven’t made a change in policy, they have, but it’s too little, and it can still be changed via back-room political manouvres.

    In this age of “tl;dr” (something one person said to me about *this* article) and generally shortening attention spans, all a civil service department needs to do is hold out and people will lose interest. It took 15-20 years for ID cards, what else can wait? It worked for the Irish government with regards to the Lisbon treaty.

    And we can be spun. They’re not 100% sure how yet, but we can be. I am too jaded by the effects I’ve seen good marketing have not to believe that we can be spun. We’ll demand greater transparency, and we’ll get it. We’ll be so deluged with data that only a few people can really be bothered to slog through it and actually make some sensible summaries. And then it’ll come down as to which blogger or journalist or MP or scientist you’ll believe. Maybe it’ll produce a new kind of politician – one who weighs in and is opinionated online and respected everywhere, but has no power within parliament.

    So how does one go about making policy in a newly-connected world? I mean, I’m certainly not qualified to weigh in an opinion on this country’s agricultural policy. Ultimately, I’ll be unable to verify the benefits or downsides of an agricultural subsidy, so need to trust the experts on it. As such, my input on a whole bunch of things when opining on the Budget would be best guesses at most based upon what I’ve read written by others. Much like I assume the real politicians in the world should function, though I’m uncertain that they do all the required reading.

    Also, we’d want to avoid the mob rule effect. My gut feeling, for example, is that on a public consultation about road traffic laws, most people would opine that speed limits on motorways should either be raised or removed completely, the way most brits think the German Autbahn works. I’ve not seen any accident statistics recently, and even if I did, I’m not certain that I would trust them, or have the time to do the diligent research and thinking behind it. More to the point, I’m unsure that it would help. The government tells us drink-driving increases the accident rate, as does talking on a phone, or speeding. And yet that doesn’t stop millions of people a day doing all three. When was the last time you drove or were driven somewhere in a medium or long journey and didn’t speed in at least some part of the trip?

    So, there’s a gut feeling effect that happens. If we were to be consulted on traffic laws, would we do the sensible thing and look at the numbers and come to conclusions based on the evidence, or would we give in to our need for speed? After all, the Germans have no speed limit on the Autobahn, why can’t we?

    The Spanish have 24-hour alcohol licensing. And yet they don’t have anywhere near as much problem with alcoholism and binge drinking as we do in the UK. It almost feels like the 24-hour licensing was a failed experiment. Who knows how it’ll turn out in the long term?

    So yes, there is a potential for huge power here. At some point, it’d be interesting to see if a policy could be formed by a public consultation using this sort of internet-connected social media 2.0 wizardry. It’s goign to take quite a few false starts, and we’ll still need professional politicians at the top of it at the end of the day. There is room for change, and it’ll happen.

    Tell you what, rather than just philosophising about it and waxing on and on. Why don’t we try it? Let’s pick an area of policy that is lighly or little legislated on in the UK, something that is understandable to the average layman, and try to form a coherent policy for it using our online tools. Hopefully we’ll get a few of the more connected MPs interested in it enough to be able to take it to parliament, and we can see how that process then affects our process.

    I feel this approach is much less controversial, and certainly newer then just trying to challenge the status quo, something that is difficult to do for complex things, and has limited results. What do you think?

    1. Hi there Moof,

      My first question for you is why is it a problem that it is relatively easy to mobilise people for a quick uprising? Surely the problem is not that very useful burst of support and energy – but how you sustain it? I did read all of the Guardian article, but that is because global and environmental politics is a particular interest of mine (or at least something on which I wish to educate myself). I understand that you could not run a country where every decision had to be understood and voted on by ever citizen, that is why we have elected representatives. The problem is that they demonstrably don’t know how to represent us – which is where wikipolitics, unmediated communication could come in. Likewise I think more ‘expert’ knowledge should be involved in policy making – just as people across twitter trusted the judgement of people who *had* read the article. I’m not saying Trafigura and Moir are complete expressions of the aims of any new type of politics – but what they are is a starting point.

      No2ID equally, you might say, represents the trouble of sustaining a campaign against a political movement which is driven by a lazy, complicit right wing media campaign against the bogey-monster that is Immigration. Everything my blog opposes.

      Being still comparatively young (does 25 still count as young, these days) I of course have yet to be really put through the mill, politically. But I have to say that I truly believe the online world is a much harder place to spin, sure they can deluge us in data, data is what computers *do*. There are people out there who love visualising it, using it, crunching it – the Guardian in particular have been very clever about that. It is important to be aware of the traps of a movment, to constantly check ourselves, but no reason not to press on, to try, at least. I don’t know what else to do but fight.

      And to return to my previous point RE your last one- no you might not be qualified to talk about agricultural policy, but if you don’t live in an agricultural constituency – you wouldn’t have to be. And I’ll echo again I think a much wider selection of scientists and ‘experts’ (kind of how the lords are used I suppose, though clearly I am opposed to the Lords [on principal – not that there should be a second house – that’s up for debate]) – that information should be widely harvested and concisely spread. The facts of a budget are for a very few, but I know that I want the health system investing in, private education and healthcare abolished, I know that I want support for the arts and sciences, and a new generation of green jobs supported. I know I don’t think anyone should be allowed to earn over £100,000, and am happy to pay 100% tax on anything over. On a local level I’d also like to know how much of my money is micro managed away. They tell us it’s too complicated; they tell us it’s dull, and they act with a sombre sobriety. It does a very good job of making it inaccessible.

      Finally, I am not suggesting a shift in the power (“I do not suggest we edit policy documents”) As our society currently stands that’s not practical. Our politicians should still make decisions, but they should be enabled to be our advocates, to be relevant, and to communicate.

      I think communication, rather than policy working, is a more useful way to start – tools (though you’re right, developed through practice). If there’s a movement for it, I think there’s a lot to be said for setting up a wiki, maybe even a manifesto, to those ends…

      1. The problem is that they demonstrably don’t know how to represent us – which is where wikipolitics, unmediated communication could come in. Likewise I think more ‘expert’ knowledge should be involved in policy making

        This is an exciting train of thought.

        My experience of London Assembly Members is that the good ones are very influenced by what their constituents tell them. Denny, who runs Police State UK with me, has told me about his old Labour MP in Milton Keynes, Brian White. Apparently he spent some time every week going door-to-door round his constituency, asking people if there was anything they wanted to talk to him about, anything bothering them, anything they wanted him to do something about. We both hate Nu-Labour but we agreed that sort of active engagement might well be enough to get us to vote for someone regardless of party affiliation.

        But this sort of engagement is rare. And with the current distance between MPs and their constituents – the vast numbers of people in each constituency, the political disenfranchisement many of them feel, the only way to get in touch being emails, faxes and letters which will get a form reply if anything – makes it easy for them to get away with staying disengaged.

        Denny said once that he’d considered running as an independent candidate and pledging, if he won, to run online mini-referendums on every issue he had to vote on in Parliament, and to vote in a way that genuinely represent his constituents, regardless of whether they agreed with his personal ethics. We debated it back and forth. It’s a flawed but compelling idea.

        First we need to fix the problems with candidate selection (what do you think of the ideas put forward in Open Up, such as open primaries?), then we need to facilitate direct public engagement between representatives and their constituents – a wiki format would be ideal. Representatives who didn’t engage would face consequences – if they persisted in refusing it might have to lose them the seat. The wiki format would facilitate fact-checking, research, comparing differing reports and bringing in the opinion of experts. It would be chaotic, possibly a much bigger and messier project than Wikipedia, but I think wikipedia is a testament to what the public can achieve. Sort of like a counterpoint to the comments on Have Your Say.

        You’d need language support, of course. Accessibility is an issue, but there could be free-to-use terminals in all public libraries, schools, universities, public centres – perhaps they would only connect to this system, to prevent people hogging the terminal to use Facebook.

        MySociety have already pioneered online tech to facilitate engagement … I think something like this is the next step. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that you want something like Google Wave, with built-in live language support, live chat and playback features, rather than a traditional wiki. Wave’s still in beta (although if you don’t have an invite and want one, we have some spares), takes a lot of memory and a fast connection, and still has lots of bugs. But I think it has a lot of potential in this context.

      2. Oh, and regarding the Lords/second house, have you seen any of the ideas for democratic reform being published as part of the Power2010 project? Thought you might be interested in this proposal by Salman Shaheen:

        The biggest potential drawback to proportional representation is that it might remove one of the most popular elements of British democracy: the local MP who hears the concerns of their constituents, represents them to Parliament and faces losing their seat if they fail to do so. This is where the Lords come in. I propose an upper house composed of constituency politicians directly elected by the alternative vote system to sit alongside a lower house that proportionately represents the wider passions of the people.

  6. Really, really great post Hannah!

    I’m especially interested in how we can make sure the elements of technology that you talk about shifting the terms of debate, can really broaden demoncratic involvement beyond those of us already steeped neck-deep in the medium…

    You and I probably hand-wrote letters to politicians and others in power before MySociety emerged. We probably signed petitions before the Number 10 website launched. And technology has made these kinds of actions much easier for *us* (and many others) to do, but there are still many, many people who haven’t engaged in either the more difficult traditional way, or through the channels of the internet…

    I know you’re not just talking about actions themselves, but the broader dialogue/ discussion/ processes that can influence how political decisions are made. Either way, New Labour championed a new elite – ‘the Guardianista’ – to push their cause and build their story; how do we make sure that the Wikipolitic doesn’t end up inadvertently championing the still relatively priviliged strata that engages most actively through these tools?

    Very curious – I could see many of the same barriers which have kept local politics off of local peoples’ radars, still permeating the world of e-democracy… ensuring basic access is one major piece of the puzzle, but there are more fundamental questions about why people engage – on or ‘off’line…

    Great start to the conversation though!!

  7. Thanks to Steve and Hannah for starting the ball rolling; you have made me very sad that I won’t be able to make it to £1.40 this week. I just have too many commitments in Devon to take 24 hours out of my working life. (sad face)

    Hannah, you lost me at Diana. I was working in St James’ St in 1997, and all of a sudden, huge crowds of people were walking past my office, carrying flowers. I used to go down to the palace after work to mingle with the crowd. The emotions spread from person to person as Mark Earls decribes in ‘Herd’ It was a strange experience, and a strange temporary collective, like being at the Cup Final of a sport I didn’t follow. I’m not sure how this fits your ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ theme. I felt I was part of a collective that I didn’t feel any sympathy with.

    The election of Blair’s Labour was a different story. I felt sympathy, but not membrship. They were definitely not ‘us’. They were a manufactured band we could vote for on a talent show. And there was no real promise to change the world. They appealed to the same voters and emphasised how much of the Conservatives’ values they shared.

    Politics today is made up of professional politicians. People who want to improve the society we live in do all kinds of things, from writing songs to training as doctor, but I think people go into politics because they want to be part of the government. My gut feeling is that they are the worst people to represent others. But they are the ones we’ve got.

    There are thousands of stories and conversations on the Internet, and they are all opportunities for dialogue about ways we could make our world a better place. We have a very literate and creative civil society. Our representatives are not representative of us. But what is? Unfortunately, only temporary collectives. We come together over something like Trafigura, or Stephen Gateley. And every time we feel a common humanity, there are different faces at the party, and there’s always people left out and ignored.

  8. This is precisely what blogs are for. Brilliant post Hannah!

    Perhaps part of the reason why Politics clings to ‘old means of distribution and delivery’ is its perennial and profound distrust of popular agency (PDA?). Agency (to me) is the ability of x to exert effective action/influence over y, it is predicated on y’s belief that x is superior in the given context. The tacit deal of authority. As long as this belief is maintained, and media narratives are abundantly helpful in this regard, then status quo will preside.

    This distrust is manifest at most conjunctures between x and y. A good example, and somewhat relevant to the ‘Wikipolitics’ theme, is the pan-academic dismissal of Wikipedia as a non-authoritative means of reference. It is a hellfire debate that continues to rage and there’s little worth in reinstating it here.

    But the point is, how do you reconcile the redistribution of power (decentralization), the ‘demos’ in democracy, in a society permeated by a belief in social inequality?

    Marx’s Communist Manifesto was an attempt at addressing this flaw in our socio-political DNA, and many approve of it in concept, but history says it amounted to little more than dressing an old wound with new bandages – before long the blood reappears.

    So I agree that it does start with us, but I wonder whether it starts with our reconfiguration of the puzzle as is, or the reconfiguration of our relationship with the puzzle – impossible though it would seem to dislocate the two?

    I certainly share, as most here do, in the deep frustration with our current political puppet show and would gladly pledge support and contribution to another path.

    1. That’s really excellently put Andrew, and important to note both sides of the relationship – we need to reconfigure ourselves and our understanding of our own responsibilities and relationship to society as well as the political system.

      As a side note (the new bandages image prompted it) I take issue with an awful lot about the system which is built on tradition, the costumes, the oaths, the process built on centuries of rotten wood. And think that has a good deal to do with alienating (yah-boo politics) from the wider public. Again, how to tackle this odd fascination with ‘tradition’ (which is not the same as history) is another thorny bush.

  9. This is a great post! I love it. It says everything I was trying to say, but does so more powerfully and effectively.

    Thing is – there is always a thing – though, that when decision-making is delivered to the people, we may not like the decisions. What if #Trafigura or #JanMoir had been about bringing back capital punishment? Or reducing immigration? Or sending Jews to concentration camps?

    We need to be careful: people taking power could work both ways. We might not be happy with what we create.

    Still, I love this post…

    1. if we’re not happy with what we create, at least then we know who to blame!

      More seriously, reforms in education and poverty, cultural education too, and zeroing inequality would go a long way preventing people’s need to lash out at groups (which as far as I’m concerned are narratives, not realities)

      1. Ah, an optimist after my own heart!

        Chicken-and-egg question: how to you get people to accept/vote through those reforms before they’ve been educated enough to understand why they’re necessary? And even though I am absolutely right with you, I’m aware that the people starting Hitler Youth probably thought they were doing the right thing too… there always needs to be provision and tolerance in society for a multitude of ideas for it to be healthy. We don’t actually want to turn everyone into little tolerant lefty clones, even if we wouldn’t mind if everyone spontaneously realised we were right.

        Like you, I believe the intolerance we’re discussing is a narrative rather than a reality, and I think it’s possible to massively reduce it by improving society. But that’s going to be a slow process – the older people get the harder their minds are to change, and in some ways cultural reform is about waiting for intolerant, inflexible members of previous generations to die. Until then, they will resist change, and lots of people find it convenient to agree with them. How do we get to where we want to be? what are the building blocks? What is the first step? And how can we trust the residents of this broken society to trust us to change it?

  10. Thank you, Hannah, for the fantastic post, and thank you, Steve, for making it available. There are many thoughtful, considered comments that already include everything that I want so say.

    So.

    What next? How do we change things? What is the one, small and simple, thing that we can all do together to start the ball rolling?

    Many people pulling together in the same direction to make one small change will be a great start. Any ideas?

  11. Having been ordered here by a twitter post from Hannah, I suppose I’d better say something. Leading the recently formed Pirate Party UK for a couple of months has taught me a bit about how politics might work in the future, and a lot about how it does and doesn’t work right now.

    The idea of wikipolitics is very interesting, but I see two major problems with it. Firstly, it’s well night impossible to get people to agree on anything at all. I’m trying to run a party with a very small manifesto covering just 3 policy areas, and the simple process of turning our core ideas into properly fleshed-out policies is causing us far more head-scratching than we expected. Don’t expect a Wikiparty to survive long without innumerable splits, recriminations and walk-outs. Secondly, activism is not highly effective or spread evenly around. Balancing the views of a small minority who believe really, really strongly about something with a bigger but very moderate wishy-washy general feeling of disagreement is really hard to do. The G20 protests were a perfect example of a small group of extreme people getting all the limelight, when in reality the majority of people don’t think that smashing the windows of a McDonalds will help to bring down capitalism, and are actually pretty happy with capitalism because it works better than communism.

    In short, I think Wikipolitics is in severe danger of being a recipe for a thousand tiny extreme parties not 1 big moderate one. If cohesiveness, and a way of balancing the silent majority with outspoken minorites can be found, then it’s a great, utopian idea…. but be aware that it’s not going to be easy (or perhaps even possible) to make it work.

    1. …but only if you see Wikipolitics (or whatever other term we come up with for it) as a replacement for party politics, rather than part of an extended consultation on the ‘they work for us’ idea.

      The mechanics of politics are tricky. The kind of beaurocracy necessary to run a country requires trained, studied, educated professionals. People who know about politics, political process and the various manifold bits of stuff that go on in government in order to get roads fixed and power into people’s houses and laws passed and police paid and in place and fire stations and street lighting and.. and… All stuff that pressure groups are really really shit at.

      Maybe the specific lesson here is not for the political establishment but for the pressure groups. Maybe the little interest parties who can’t form government and don’t have a joined up balanced economic plan are actually part of the problem not the solution. Perhaps we need another way of measuring support for ’causes’ and can be fed back to politicians who know what they are doing, but have, it seems, completely lost all sense of who they work for and why. …maybe the newspapers who constantly refer to facebook causes as a measure of popular opinion aren’t being so asinine after all…

      The big thing that seems to have dropped out of politics – that Hannah so rightly attributes to ‘Spin’ – is ideology. I remember seeing a Steve Bell cartoon, in which he compared Blair and Mao, saying in interview that what they shared in common was an overriding belief that they should be in power, whatever it took to get people to vote for them… Mao obviously wasn’t into voting, being a dictator, but to put together a set of crowd pleasing, media-baiting policies the way new labour did, then go against half of it, instead dismissing any failures as ‘inevitabilities and irrelavencies’ all the while doing lots of deeply undemocratic things without any sensible debate about their reasoning.

      I don’t, on the whole, mind people holding views I disagree with. Even abhorrent views are easy to deal with when they are honestly abhorrent. What’s most foul about New Labour (and Cameron’s Tories) is the same as is horrible about the BNP – they won’t just tell us what they are up to, and why. If Griffin just said “I’m a massive racist, I deny the holocaust, I want all the darkies out of britain and I hate poofs. Oh and women.” Then I’d be happier about him speaking in public, because in doing so he’d just be shown up for who he is. The attempts to legitimise his rancid views by getting on TV and being “attacked” just confirm to the muppets who voted for him that ‘they’ (the BBC-led liberal intellectual mafia who hate normal people) are out to get ‘us’.

      Labour do the same thing – they bring in ever more draconian laws, trash their own support base, fudge numbers and rarely say ‘yeah, we screwed up’, or ‘sorry, the war in Iraq was based on a lie, we should be in the Hague’ – that would be the honest thing to do. But instead they pile up lies.

      How does this change? Not, it seems, but getting a thousand new monster raving loony parties to campaign without any coherent policies, but by holding them to account, and find new (new meaning “not invented yet”) ways of involving people in the discussion that are also able to add nuance to the discussion. You can’t force lazy people to read policy documents. You can’t stop intolerant people from voting according to their prejudices. You can make the process of discussing the issues, sharing the data, facts and context within which those things exist much easier. There are new technologies emerging all the time. The political will that Hannah outlines is really inspiring. We now need to social scientists to get involved, to talk about how and why people do what they do, and how we can encourage their best intentions and find ways of undermining rather than feeding the worst excesses of fear manifest as prejudice.

      Or so it seems to me. 🙂

      1. This makes a hell of a lot of sense. Any social scientists in the house? And PhD students willing to take this idea on as a project?

        There’s a connection in my mind between the idea of Wikipolitics, the Open Source movement, the social consultancy method of groups like Tuttle… The common threads are decentralisation and collaboration, and I think that MySociety-inspired consultation might be the seed that could take root in our present system. Tuttle is more a coalition of experts which filters down to a relevant group: the Wikipolitics idea is more hierarchical, if we’re talking about improving dialogue and information exchange between the people and their representatives.

        The open source movement’s hierarchy is informal, based on expertise and experience. Getting our elected representatives to listen to those with expertise and experience of specialist issues would be a good start.

  12. The press are an unelected self appointed opposition. Instead of dealing in constructive ideas ( a manifesto) they deal in cynicism and negativity.
    Blanket oppostion is a luxury of irresponsibility and is unaccountable. It is easy to be against things another thing entirely to create and implement solutions. Twitter is an avenue as long as it is constructive, enlightened and progressive. First you have to get the public to engage and take responsibilty back. That said I do believe that the “traditional” parties are struggling to represent the people. Look at the age of the people at the Tory conference and the 70’s rhetoric of the backwoodsmen crawling out of the shadows of the left. If there is to be another way let it be one that silences the press. Tread softly, represent well.

  13. Your argument seems to be based on a core assumption, that assumption being that there is a cohesive majority view of what constitutes a better society. As Andrew Robinson pointed out above, the reality is often much more complex than that, and a cacophony of fringe parties pulling in different directions is a very real possibility if we get serious about electoral reform.

    Also, there’s a lot to be said for a slow moving political system. First past the post might not be the most democratic system in the world, but it is stable, and makes the UK an attractive market for investment for this very reason. Our political system, as it currently stands, is not particularly prone to sudden shifts, and in a global marketplace that stands us in excellent stead. This may not be particularly attractive from an idealistic perspective (there’s a significant chunk of my brain screaming as I type this) but it is very good news for people who want to continue to hold down a job. For that reason I’d be very careful about advocating reform without some extensive interdisciplinary research, focused on but not limited to unprecedented levels of public consultation. After all, you’d have to sell change on this scale to the entire electorate.

    It’s also very easy to criticise the press, and I myself do it frequently. However, it’s a lot easier to attack a lie on the pages of a few newspapers than it is to attack said lie on thousands upon thousands of websites. The internet has proved invaluable as a tool for telling the truth, but it is also bogged down with unprecedented amounts of absolute nonsense, from the comical, to the most hateful and vile material yet imagined. Every opportunity the internet offers to spread truth, it also offers to spread untruth, and, crucially, those untruths are quite impossible to contain.

    Broadly speaking, an excellent post. Plug the slight holes in the hull and this ship might just be seaworthy.

  14. Afterthought:

    We also need to make sure that these conversations, and any solutions we come by aren’t hijacked by the rhetoric of ‘choice’. Of ‘choosing’ which failing hospital to die in, of ‘choosing’ from a market of poor service providers because the quality ones were priced out of the market. ‘Choice’ seems largely to be about the decentralisation and monetisation of public services. This is not the ‘choice’ that wikipolitics is about-wikipolitics should have a part in producing the options, as well as the choosing.

    1. Word. Nothing winds me up more than the idea that people want a choice of schools. They just want one good school.

    2. The concept of choice winds me up something rotten. Choice still allows for poor schools, hospitals etc. to exist, but merely allows for those with the means to avoid them to do so while the rest of us suffer. It’s the minimum standards that should be raised equally, instead of highlighting the few higher standards.

      Anyway, it’s a great post and alludes to something I’ve been thinking about for some time, though am struggling to lay down cohesively, that it’s no use talking about the democratisation of media if the existing power structures remain in their current form. By this, I mean that this democratisation needs to extend from the sphere of new media to other aspects of our lives, communities, relationships etc. It’s no use being able to mobilise people online to speak out and campaign against Mandelson’s Three Strikes, for example, if we have no real way to hold him to account and overturn/affect the policy, or issue or whatever is the gripe.

      I’m also skeptical to the extent that it’s a case of disenfranchisement. It’s only something I’ve been thinking of lately and I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I feel that when something really upsets people, they will enfranchise themselves in some way or form; they will find their own voice and take their own action etc (though I think this is perhaps blurred by my own beliefs and drive that maybe don’t ring true with many other people). That’s not to say disenfranchisment isn’t a problem, it is, but I think apathy is also involved, even if it is just a different set of held values as you said on your blog not long ago.

  15. When I think of the great changes that have happened, I think of people like Gandhi and Mandela. People who were able to galvanise ordinary people into action and done without the use of technology and the hyper-connected world of the World Wide Web. Even with Obama’s election, I think the role of Social Media is overplayed but it just reinforced a mood in the US that people were ready for change. I think we do need to be inspired and uplifted to be involved in politics but that has to come from leaders, the like of which we have not seen in this country for many years. Would what you have outlined make if it more possible for a Black Prime Minister to be elected in this country? Perhaps there would be more openness with this approach but is that the only thing we want or do we want a new set of ideals for this rapidly changing World both in its connectedness but also in the Climatic issues we are facing?

    1. As it stands, women, and black/ethnic minority, plus openly LBGTC candidates are much less likely to be elected. This is (I feel) largely to do with access – access to the lifestyle, to the ambition, to the necessary networks and to political involvement in the first place. All of these things could begin to change if access to a political existence was made ubiquitous – if it wasn’t just privately educated middle class white men who did politics. Yes, great change needs advocates, but it represents a collective will. Gandhi and Mandela carried positive methods of change. What I am suggesting is not that online tools are the vehicle, but that online ethics should be applied to current stultified ones. I believe wiki-ethics carry the positive solution to the stagnant political forms of today. (NB we do also need to avoid becoming a new bourgeois, an new intelligentsia).

      Openess, I believe should go both ways, and is not opposed to the building of a new set of ideals – mutual accountability, and two-way communication are the result of the former, and the progenitor of the latter, both it would give us an opportunity to reform our society as you (and I) suggest.

  16. My friend Penny Red was at the Labour conference recently, and reported giggling over wine how a serious group of Labour thinkers held a meeting about grassroots movement. There are so many new grassroots movement harnessing the power of social media! they exclaimed. How can we make use of this exciting new development? How can WE start our own grassroots movement?

    I kid you not.

    Thinking about the information-flow idea. Politicans, the good ones, if they engage usefully with a question rather than firing off meaningless soundbites, are often moderate. The more information you have about an issue, the harder it is to be partisan. When I’ve chatted to politicians about issues I care passionately about they’ve always politely represented the other point of view to me and I’ve found myself sympathetic towards the need for balance. To be true representatives they have to realistically and diplomatically balance all sides; and they often have info of which I was unaware.

    I’m aware that what seems to me like a well-researched, principled points of view might sound like lefty frothing to a moderate who had to balance the realities of a complex political situation. Of course I think my views are more justified and coherent than the BNP, but to people in the middle, we can come across as similar. If we want to live in a democracy we have to accept that progressive, radical geeks are not the majority, and find a way of including, representing and balancing other points of view.

    What I’m thinking is that the sort of wiki or wave politics you’re talking about would be a good opportunity to open up that sort of conversation. I have had food for thought, and sometimes found my views challenged as being overly-simplistic, every time I have spoken in person to a politician about an issue I care about. Rather than only being able to find out the politics going on behind a decision I disagree with if I turn up and badger a politician in person, I want that politician to have a mandate to explain their process publically, online, where it can be read and queried and challenged if we find it inadequate. We may not like the answer but if we can see their reasoning we may become more aware of the complexity of the issue. Or we may continue to disagree, having found the counter-arguments lacking. Either way, more information and transparency can only be good.

    This sort of system would work best if it was completely universal: if you could access it anywhere, in any language, if kids were taught to log on at primary school and there was a kids section on the wiki where they could have their say and ask questions.

    I don’t know how to get from here to there. I don’t know how useful such a system would be with the self-selecting group of hyper-geeks we’d end up with. One way might be to set it up with a “starter” group of volunteers taken from all sections of society, and a starter group of politicians. Is this the sort of project we could get funding for? Like a “democratic think tank” – an experiment to see what the results were? Honestly, I don’t know how we’d get started. I worry about the demographic exclusivity of starting a project like this among geeks who all mostly agree, which wouldn’t reflect any of the realities of how it would be used more generally. As you say, we need to be wary of creating a new intelligentsia, but at the same time online ethics, the open source movement, the decentralised nature of the online information economy have exciting implications for modern democracy.

    Still thinking: thanks for the food for thought.

  17. I’ve just stumbled across Crossover, which has already happened but looks like it might have been relevant:

    Crossover’s creative lab process will explore the use of interactive and participatory media to engage audiences with contemporary science. Participants will have a unique opportunity to experiment with new applications of digital media and to develop formats combining elements drawn from documentary, drama and games; they will ask how to harness the power of social networks to devise formats rich in user contributions, what opportunities do mobile or location based platforms offer, how can games and participatory media by used to attract new audiences?

    Hey, at least it suggests you’re not the only one thinking along these lines…

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