Canonicalization of Democracy?

Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime

Bertolt Brecht
To Posterity (1938)
(German: An die Nachgeborenen; Danish: Til Efterkommerne)

The Council of Europe invited me to participate in Forum for the Future of Democracy held in Sigtuna in Sweden this week. The general theme was Power and empowerment: the interdependence of democracy and human rights.

I was invited to make a contribution in a break-out session about eDemocracy – key role in facilitating and strengthening democratic processes? There were, appropriately I think, many other – and bigger – themes than eDemocracy brought up during the three forum days, as the overall conclusions show, but let me nevertheless emphasize these two conclusions:

27. Information and communication technologies can be a powerful tool for the promotion and protection of human rights and democracy. They have the potential to create more transparent and responsive government and to facilitate participatory democracy. Human rights should be respected in a digital as well as in a non-digital environment and should not be subject to restrictions other than those provided for in the European Convention on Human Rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights simply because communication is carried in digital form. E-governance policies, embedded in an appropriate regulatory framework, should enhance democracy and respect human rights with a view to empowering all individuals, in particular those in vulnerable situations.

28. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that increased participation will not be brought about simply as a consequence of progress in information and communication technologies. The growing feeling of political discontent and disaffection among people must be addressed, if such technologies are to facilitate the empowerment and participation of individuals.

The next forum, to be held in Madrid in October 2008, should examine the issue of e-governance and e-democracy.

Just prior to the forum, I was in Florida at IBMs RSDC2007, which I was sad to have to leave already Tuesday morning. But then I got stuck in both Orlando and Newark airports (and learned that Continental Airlines has the worst customer service in the world), so I actually didn’t make it to the forum until Thursday mid-afternoon.

I’ll return to the forum and the RSDC-conference shortly, but want to relate to the travel experience itself first, because it really accentuated one of the points I wanted to make on the forum.

What I wanted was to pick up on Hannah Arendt, who talked about the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse, towards a system that does not listen.

With apologies to Arendt, who talked about far bigger issues than customer service in airports, Continental Airlines certainly didn’t listen, and I and the 5000 other passengers were given no voice whatsoever, and were not only forced to queue up for countless hours and eaten off with a pillow and a $14 voucher, but also lied to and deliberatedly misinformed (interestingly, but off topic, I see that Continental’s website’s flight info system can be used to track flight info further back than the immediate user interface allows, on just have to know a bit of REST (or, URL-design): I can see that the connecting flight I was supposed to be on was delayed less than a hour. They said otherwise.)

Back to Hannah Arendt and the more important stuff. She sees the public sphere as the place where light comes from, namely the light thrown on things when they take place in public. In Men in Dark Times from 1968, she argued that modernity has created a darkening or obscuring of the light from the public sphere, and caused the withdrawal of the general public (citizens) from the public world.

Her critique of modern (as in 20th Century) culture is related to the decline of community, of human solidarity, of plurality. Arendt develops the theme through her analysis of modernity’s collapse of worldliness and the accompanying erosion of individual and collective memory. Modernity, she says, is freedom from politics rather than freedom to take part and make praxis; Homo Faber instead of Vita Activa.

For Arendt, political freedom is “the right to be a participator in government”, and “no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power”, as she wrote in The Human Condition (1958).

The Council of Europe’s press announcement after the Swedish forum fittingly said that the forum “ended with a call for action to counteract a growing apathy among citizens for political participation”.

The challenges we face are manyfold. First, the dominant trend in neoliberalism is that freedom from politics for the many is held as a good thing (that is of course also a foundation for representational democracy in general). Second, when citizens do get their act together and attempt to participate, all “the system” allows for is some sort of pseudoparticipation (Pateman 1970). Third, especially in the view of globalisation and emerging democracies, the exercise of “politics” can be very dangerous to be around. Fourth, we register small pieces from which we reconstruct our perception of the whole and have it make sense. But sense is not necessarily accurate, as Kujala & Weinmann (2005) points out: Just think of the point made in “I’ve had Alzheimer’s as long as I can remember”. Firth, sense “may be in the eye of the beholder, but beholders vote and the majority rules” (Weick, 1995).

A couple of weeks ago, the Danish Prime Minister announced that he and other Cabinet ministers will supervise a group of experts in the making of a democracy canon. It takes only a simple exercise of political canonicalization (c14n) to realise that the group is heavy on people of neoliberal observations, and very light on other observations, so I suppose people like Arendt are ruled out of being canonised.

In my talk at the CoE forum, my main message was that there is n
o such thing as eDemocracy, only democracy. Similar to what we’ve been saying about eGovernment for a while, the “e” is becoming more and more useless, not because we don’t digitise, but because digitalisation is the norm, the way we do business, or at least a very integral part of the overall government transformation.

On the “e” in eDemocracy, I returned to Coleman’s and mine Bowling Together (2001) and noted that I did see some new developments occuring, but also that the main recommendations are very valid still today, IMHO.

To signify that what we talk about today is not just Plain Old Democracy, some call it “Democracy 2.0”, that is, a “next-generation” democracy. In fact one where democracy meets Web 2.0: With Tim O’Reilly’s The Architecture of Participation, and Mitch Kapor’s Architecture is Politics (and Politics is Architecture). With Cluetrain Manifesto we learned that markets are conversations, and at RSDC2007, I heard IBMs CTO proclaim that business value and social value go hand in hand, and that SecondLife is an important “public” sphere. I am not geeky enough to call Second Life a new foundation for execution of democracy, but am indeed geeky enough to claim that ”the internet” (well, “the network”) is the new foundation for execution of democracy, but should never be the only platform for usage.

Technolgies such as blogs, wikis, social/P2P networks, mobile devices and probably soon Second Life and all that hold lots of promises for a more participatory, inclusive democracy. But at the same time, these same technologies (“the network”) can be, and is, used in very undemocratic ways, and basically redefines important freedoms and rights, for example in terms of privacy and identity.

Also, there is an increasing amount of critique of Web 2.0, for example Michael Gorman’s (2007) Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters. Also:

“Web 2.0 is a cultural and intellectual catastrophe that will provoke mass media illiteracy in America. The challenge now is political. It’s to build a coalition of people philosophically opposed to the corrosive ideas in Web 2.0. This is a sales and marketing job. We’ve got to reach leaders in education, business, politics, media and the arts who care about the future of our culture. The only way to efficaciously fight back against the radical democratizers is by exposing Web 2.0 to serious public scutiny. People outside Silicon Valley get it when they are exposed to the Web 2.0 nonsense.” Andrew Keen (2007).

In his Old Revolutions Good, New Revolutions Bad: A Response to Gorman, Clay Shirky (2007) picks Gorman’s and Keen’s arguments to pieces. Others do the same.

Over in Sweden, Anders R Olsson raises some critical issues about blogging in two recent articles, Bloggar har inget med demokrati att göra and Bloggarnas makt är bara dumheter. His argument is that blogging undoubtfully has some function for some people, but that that function has nothing to do with societal enlightenment or journalistic quality. Surely, Anders has a point here. Even Gorman has a point.

Yet, they are missing the main point, I think. Blogging and the Web 2.0 trend is serendipitous, ambiguous and heterogeneous. For example, Malene Charlotte Larsen offers 25, no, 35, perspectives on online social networking. And that’s just for youngsters.

Collective-Web, e-Democracy, eCitizens, eGovernment, Politics
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