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Essay: A New Political Contract for Digital Democracy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st September 2013


* Article: Digital Democracy: A New Political Contract. By Thomas Leif Olsen.

(this is a version without notes)

Thomas Olsen:

“This paper argues that a ‘digital-political evolution’ should not base itself on what politicians can offer their voters, but on what voters can offer their politicians – i.e. their vote. Only then will peoples’ concerns gain priority over those of the politicians. One may argue that there is nothing new in this, but given that our electoral systems are dominated by the preferences of the politicians’ political parties – rather than those of the voters 1) – any democratic evolution ought to start by changing the conditions under which the vote itself is given to the politician, and/or his/her party. In other words is the objective of the evolution a different ‘political contract’ between the electorate and those seeking election. This is therefore first and foremost a matter of a democratic evolution – not of a digital revolution – although the digital revolution constitutes this process’ intellectual and technical backdrop.

At the core of this argument lies that today’s world — like it or not — is driven by money and financial markets, affecting everyone and everything. This is why the power-balance is more important than the specific tools in use. An ever-so-good tool in the wrong hands, or used for the wrong purpose, will not meet its intended objectives. But with the right power-balance in place can also a slightly blunter tool serve its cause.

Till date have most major battles for w.w.w.-freedom been lost to ‘the Establishment’. File-sharing and streaming has been made illegal, Wikileaks is in tatters, Manning got a 35 years jail term, Snowden is stuck in Russia while NSA is covering up – but not putting an end to – their spying activities, and so on. Although SOPA was stopped by the blogger community, other US acts like ECPA, CISPA, CFAA and TPP 2) and EU’s ACTA were not. There is not much to suggest that the overall balance of power is about to shift anytime soon. It is just too easy for ‘power’ to meddle when its starts to heat up around core interests. A new democratic model – which is what this paper argues in favour of – can hence not depend primarily on the ambitions of an ever so ambitious but – for the foreseeable future – still (in terms of ‘power’) underdog IT community. This becomes even more important if / when considering that the IT community displays the 80/20 elite-structure, not the bell-shape structure (with representative average and mean) that typically shapes communities at large 3). A revised democratic model must therefore rather build on the momentum that only large sways of people can create – IT literate or not – where digital tools are given prominent roles but do not constitute the core of the model itself.

Compare digital tools for democratic participation to electronic stock-trading, and/or to ‘high-frequency-trading’, as one type of this phenomenon is called. Claims vary, but around half of the world’s stock-trading is based on algorithms (over 70% in the US), causing manipulated rises and falls, triggered by speculative thresholds for equated data, and/or automatic orders placed to trigger turnover. This not only speeds up the bust and boom cycle artificially, it also makes speculation in both rise and fall a hugely lucrative business where speculators can earn huge returns on the fact that others are made to lose value. Just as an example; back in 2009 did this kind of rigged trading earn US firm Goldman Sachs 100 m USD – per day – during 116 trading days out of a 194-day span 4). Traders do not earn these amounts from engaging in the trade of stocks and derivatives with ‘a potential’, but because they bet that a stock will rise or fall, so doing adding to the cycle itself. Considering the world’s economy is driven by stock values, it is unfortunate that ‘betting’ should constitute such a very important influence. Democracy cannot be allowed this sorry fate.

To place democracy under the same peril would be disastrous. If democracy became a purely digitalised affair, manipulation would be the outcome, no matter whether we can already now foresee ‘how’, or not. Today’s technology will, no matter how aroused we are about it today, be antique already a handful of years from now. To base a new democratic order on today’s technology would therefore be a certain recipe for imminent disaster. Technology will evolve faster and faster, and democracy must play the role to stabilise society, not speed up the race.

A new model must therefore not base itself on any particular technology; the related risks are simply too big. It shall instead allocate a role for technology in the democratic process, and a ‘front-line’ technology available today inserted to fulfil that role – to illustrate how the model is meant to work. This technology can then be updated and replaced, as and when suitable.

Take Facebook and Twitter as examples. When the US government needed, it ruled that as both companies are US-based – and hence liable under US law – are all posts made on these media available to US prosecutors, if / when they so wish – even if the exchange took place between two non US-citizens in Iceland. Take voting machines as we currently know them; had aeroplanes had the same level of reliability, nobody would fly. Take streaming; innova-tive and in high demand, but it soon landed all innovators in debt or in jail, prosecuted by the ‘industry’. Take Bitcoins; already banned in Thailand, and it could be banned in the US over-night, would it be seen as a true threat to the US dollar. Take Liquid Feedback; touted as the democratic tool, which just after a few years of use dropped the debate-function in favour of the delegation-function, putting it back to where it came from – i.e. representative democracy.

If democracy shall raise out of its deep canyon of multiple choices – where people only can choose between already pre-defined alternatives like left or right, high or low or yes or no – based on a large number of assumptions they may or may not be aware of, and may or may not agree to if they actually were aware of them, it is important ‘who’ and ‘how many’ says ‘what’. To reduce democracy to Face-book’s thumb up (for like) or thumb down (for don’t like), where you can get a bonus if you click ‘thumb up’, would mean a real danger, since manipulation of both people and systems no doubt would become rampant.

What democracy really needs is a new level of debate. A new level of technology will always be knocking on the door, but whether to use it or not is just another topic for the new level of debate. The new level of debate cannot be limited to a particular segment of society, whether political- or IT-nerds, as that only would draw the same – and equally well deserved – critique as Habermas’ bourgeois public sphere did, dismissed by most since it assumed that the white, educated, landowning male would fairly represent the population at large, based on ‘reason’.

P2P has a similar built-in-trap, as it is totally dependent on the very structure it challenges. It has indeed a bright future in its own right, but until it can provide its agents with the means they need to secure food, shelter, physical and social security, medical care, etc, will all P2P-agents remain dependent on the existence of the institutionalised society that can provide that. Although Maslow gave details, does this, in practical terms, in today’s world mean ‘money’, at least until a tradable value that can replace money has been introduced. Digital currencies, such as Bitcoins, is not a replacement, since it is ‘mined by miners’, and hence not available to the rest of us unless we pay (money) for it. Such digital currencies could nevertheless shift power – assuming ‘hackers’ extract pre-defined values from computer-algorithms, rather than central banks issue value by creating debt. Those of today’s P2P-actors who actually provide freely tradable values (e.g. money) to their ‘peers’ are mainly credit-cooperatives and crowd-funders, both constituting miniscule parts of the economy in the West (although significantly larger in the non-West). Only when / where P2P has competitive advantages over institutions, will they be able to demand and cause change in the economic or democratic landscapes. This is still only the case for not-for-profit activities, why ‘culture’ (which some but not others can produce for free) has played an important role in shaping. As for now it is still anyone’s guess how and when such a shift can incur in the for-profit sector – although there indeed are good lessons to be brought home from ‘culture’ to ‘politics’.

It nevertheless seems as if the entire debate on ‘digital democracy’ is still short on the issue of power, just as Habermas (quite correctly) was accused of being. It is repeatedly assumed that ‘free speech’ and ‘free access’ actually exist, and then not only ‘free’ as in unrestricted, but also ‘free’ as in a free lunch. This is however never the case in a society with a political and financial agenda. Let me elaborate:

Free speech is considered a democratic right, but is restricted whenever it threatens ruling interests. Individuals can be brought down from power by public criticism (e.g. Nixon and Mubarak), but systems are rarely so. The Arab spring suggested otherwise, but the outcome disappointed those who thought that elitism and nepotism was now a thing of the past.

Free speech has in other words a price. This price differs from place to place and time to time – but is never zero. Those ‘well off’ pay it with influence (and money?). Those without such assets to flaunt have to put their lives at risk to get it – and still have no guarantee for success. For ‘free speech’ does not in any way mean that somebody is listening. And very often are those who can make a change not listening. They rather listen to those with sweeter tongues. Free speech is therefore a political commodity, to which a price is allocated.

Free access is even more dubious – if it can at all exist. Since access needs to be provided by somebody or somebody’s something, can price be very low if the resource to which people want access is plentiful, but high if demand exceeds supply. If the resource is state-owned it is immediately politicised, and again not ‘free’, even if it may be free of commercial charges. The ‘free access’ dilemma is often described as the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, and if private users hope to share the digital commons (for free) with large and powerful commercial users, will ‘fairness’ indeed be hard to guarantee.

Furthermore, to build a democratic evolution on the assumption that ‘free’ speech and access exist (in fact being political and/or commercial commodities) means that this evolution can end any time, since it is just a matter of whether, or when, ‘free’ access is turned off. Some-thing provided by someone else for free – for others to use – can, and probably will, in just about any politicised environment (which all societies actually are), put users at risk, as they are easily blocked out by those controlling it, whether politically, financially or technically.

The experiences from the digital revolution are no exceptions. When political or commercial interests (which very often coincide) are threatened, the ‘free’ part is switched off. It is naïve to think this is going to change without a political paradigm-shift.

As this article started out; the political evolution must build on the very opposite to political offers — i.e. on whatever the people give ‘for free’ to those wishing to hold political power. The only thing that is likely to meet this definition is our vote. But since the electoral system is hijacked by the politicians’ respective political parties (setting, running and assessing the agenda for political life), must a democratic evolution start by changing the conditions under which we actually offer our vote ‘for free’. This, as already noted, is not a matter of a digital revolution, but of a democratic evolution. Nevertheless, digital media can have an important role to play in this evolution.”

Lüneburg, August 23, 2013 / Thomas Olsen / Inkubator/GV 2.0 / Digital Democracy

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