And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

What will the future make of us?

In moments of downtime I think about that Paul Graham post about frighteningly ambitious startup ideas; specifically the part  about generating ideas:

One of my tricks for generating startup ideas is to imagine the ways in which we’ll seem backward to future generations. And I’m pretty sure that to people 50 or 100 years in the future, it will seem barbaric that people in our era waited till they had symptoms to be diagnosed with conditions like heart disease and cancer.

I love speculating on this topic (what will completely baffle our descendants when examining us?). I often cite things like smoking (“wait, why did people in 2013 keep smoking even after they knew how much it damaged their lungs?”), manual control cars (“seriously, anybody was allowed to just get inside a fast, powerful machine? Even if they’d been drinking? And they could drive it down public streets without control?!”) and others as my theories about the future. One thing I started thinking about recently was how all of this relates to politics.

In the UK (and probably most countries using our parliamentary model), MPs were elected as representatives of a given area, and they’d go to Westminster (or wherever the seat of government was located) to vote on issues and pass laws. Every couple of years, the populace was able to vote on their representative and choose someone they thought best reflected their wishes on local issues, as well as national.

When I think about how the world of the future will regard us in, let’s say, 60 years’ time, I keep coming back to this: they’ll wonder why it took us so long to realise that we’d built a global communications system covering almost every home (wait a couple more years, maybe). They’ll wonder why we still turned out to elect someone every four years that we didn’t genuinely believe would reflect our opinions. They’ll wonder why the country’s political decisions were effectively made by an elite of a thousand or so people who were supposed to be representing an entire nation’s citizens.

They’ll wonder why we built things like Facebook and Twitter but it didn’t occur to us to sweep away a government system built for a world where travelling between cities took days, communicating with voters took weeks, and voting on legislation cost millions.

A “Google Government” might be just as bad, but I’m struggling to see how we can continue to make excuses in support of a system that’s become a relic. We could have country-wide referendums on every issue the government debates — no need for electing local representatives if everyone’s got a say; directly. Parliamentary terms could be made up of voluntary committees of the public (like jury service) to set the agenda. Experts from industry and academia could sit on advisory boards to provide public context for votes and debates. The infighting and point-scoring between political parties would become redundant as every vote suddenly became equal.

Of course, this is a naive and pie-in-the-sky theory. I’m nowhere near politically educated enough to work through the implications or implementation of something like this. But I do believe that a century from now, people will wonder what took us so long to iterate once we’d built the tools to replace what was broken.

  • You say you’re nowhere near politically educated enough to work through all the challenges, but it’s a useful starting point to consider that the current system is hardly a finely-tuned model, iterated version by version to exactly meet the needs of the country. I don’t think it’s that hard to think up something better, even if it’s not perfect!

    There are some important questions that need answering, and I think it’s safe to say there are a number of academics (if not politicians) out there trying to find answers to them – most centrally perhaps trying to figure out why the potential of the internet to deliver us a more participative society as heavily championed back in the 90s hasn’t been realised. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from a reluctance to rely on private, closed systems to carry out public work to a fear of upsetting the balance in a system that is currently conveniently predictable and reliable. I think some of these can and will be overcome, but I think others will remain a challenge as long as the status quo remains favourable to those in power.

    One thing I think needs to be avoided however is focusing too heavily on seeing the ‘next step’ for a technologically enabled democracy as being removing representatives. Direct democracy is just one way of doing things and it has weaknesses as well as strengths. Yes, online platforms mean we can have opinion on-tap 24/7, but where’s the deliberation? What happens when someone actually needs a representative to champion an issue on their behalf because they’re unable to? Organisations like Involve do a lot of work (often with councils) to help people use the right democratic processes for the job at hand – sometimes that might be a citizen’s jury like you mention, sometimes another model will be more relevant.

    There are plenty of example of platforms that have started to hint at what’s possible, from the interactive budgeting tool many councils have been using recently, to the civic commons site in the US. I think there’s plenty of evidence of progress, it’s just very slow. I think what’s needed is external competition to keep setting the agenda and showing what a participatory society looks like, innovating to find ways to make even the dullest of issues engaging. Any platform that enables large (and preferably representaive) samples of people to actively engage with civic issues online will always be difficult to ignore for long.