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Blogs and Democracy?

For Joi Ito, blogs and computer communications are part of the key to ’emergent democracy’. Roughly speaking, ’emergent democracy’ is when the citizens begin to take direct responsibility for controlling the world around them, and public representatives and other ruling structures become less important.

I’m not quite sure that this idea is right.

I think that communities need clear, strong, democratic structures. The film “The Revolution will not be televised” describes the media-coup perpetrated against the Venezualan government and shows how important it is that democratic governments are robust enough to resist attack from vested interests.

Those structures can certainly be improved, but they need to be there and they need to be strengthened, not weakened. The structures have to be there there because someone or some group has to actually make decisions on behalf ofthe community and take responsibility for their actions.

Blogs don’t provide a way of doing that. They just provide a way to discuss and to spread ideas. I see that they have these advantages:

– they are rapidly updated.

– they are interactive and interlinked, which leads to dialog rather than bald statements.

– anyone can start a blog, about anything, provided they have the time and interest to sustain it.

Blogs and discussion boards have a role to play in decisionmaking.

– they can be a way of collecting relevant information about a topic quickly

– you can use them to solicit opinions from a lot of people

– you can have quite a sophisticated debate without having to get everyone face-to-face.

However, I think that’s where it ends. A blog is a good way to collect information and opinions, but you can’t depend on a small group of ‘followers’ of a blog to be in a position to decide what the best thing is for the community as a whole. The reasons are as follows:

– the priorities of the people who happen to be involved in the discussion may not be the same as the priorities of the population as a whole. For example, taxi drivers might be discussing the taxi business, but they might not be paying much attention to the needs of the end-consumer.

– people who aren’t experts may not understand the importance of a particular blog discussion, and as a result may not participate. For example, the average person on the street doesn’t the importance of data retention legislation, even though it impacts fundamentally on their civil liberties.

– experts in one area may not coordinate satisfactorily with experts in another area to create a good overall strategy. In an urban planning situation, for example, the people deciding on the route of the railway might not know enough about the plans that local businesses have for expansion, and so might put the stations in inappropriate positions.

In the current democratic system, senior decisionmakers are supposed to deal with all these coordination issues and to ensure that all groups are adequately and proportionately considered.

So is Joi completely wrong? No. I think we could see a big improvement in how democracy works, if we use the new tools correctly. Blogs can increase contact between the different parties in a democracy and can change things that way. For example, blogs might make it easier for a group of local residents to coordinate and make their voice heard in the halls of power.

So to sum up: I suggest a multi-tier system. Blogs generate ideas and narrow down the options. Politicians sanity-check and decide between the options and make sure they take the needs of all the community into account. Citizens monitor politicians’ performance and make contributions through blogs in areas that interest them and in which they have some expertise.

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