I recently read a good interpretation of “Web 2.0″:
Web2.0 is a business model – harnessing and commodifying participatory culture. #digitaltrans
— narayan (@narayan_) May 15, 2012
Politics is the ultimate culmination of ‘meaningful participatory culture’. But, as we all know, politics today is a broken system. Is there any possibility to fix it, to reinvent it somehow? Is there a possibility of harnessing today’s technology to create meaningful participatory politics, or is technology ultimately the problem?
Germany weighs in on the question: New York Times columnist David Brooks writes about the German “Pirate” party, which has created a new way of engaging the political system online:
Using a software package they call Liquid Feedback, the Pirates are able to create a continuous, real-time political forum in which every member has equal input on party decisions, 24 hours a day. It’s more than just a gimmicky Web forum, though: complex algorithms track member input and generate instantaneous collective decisions.
Of course, on some level Liquid Feedback is a gimmick, an effort to get young people interested and involved in the humdrum of German politics, outside the campaign season and even off line. Whatever it is, it works: late last month some 1,300 members trekked to the small northern city of Neumünster to elect a new executive board.
But on the other hand, Gregory Ferenstein in TechCrunch argues the exact opposite: technology ultimately undermined the desire for democratic participation:
Democracy used to be a part of everyday American life. Frequent carnivals and parades would accompany political debates, as citizen-revelers would schmooze with local politicians, to discuss issues that they had direct control over. As a result, Americans were not only incredibly engaged, but well-read: a higher proportion of people read Thomas Paine’s political philosophy than watch the Superbowl today. They also patiently listened to presidential debates that last 6 or more hours at a time.
Then, technology crashed the party: “By the 1920′s, radio broadcasts had replaced mass meetings and all-day orations,” writes Kornbluh. “As the role of voters became increasingly passive, it is little wonder that their enthusiasm for electoral politics waned.” Political parties had no incentive to subsidize the good times, given the more efficient ways of mass communication at their disposal.
Ultimately, the motivation to vote has to overcome one very big problem: voting is irrational, since no one person can make a difference. No democracy in history has ever sustained high levels of engagement on the hope that citizens are willing to sacrifice their free time to make a marginal difference. The Gilded Age party machines overcame this dilemma by intermixing politics with fun (albeit in often unethical ways).
While “democracy” has ultimately halted in America in favour of political machines, I think the general American sentiment is that things shouldn’t be this way. Can we harness the power of technology, especially today’s Web 2.0 participatory culture, to change politics?
So here’s the debate: how do we go about fixing our political system? Is it technology versus analog participation? Is it about city-states versus federal governing, the problem of scaling? Or does fixing politics involve undermining politics altogether?
Roman Kudryashov is the founding editor of What Are These Ideas. Educated in design and political philosophy, he often writes about the intersection of language, society, and technology. He currently lives in New York.Contact: