Small Robot in Parliament, Not Very Interesting

Adam Price
25 September 2009

Voicebox is a project from v, the National Young Volunteers Service, that aims to “curate the views of 16-25s, visualise the results in creative ways, and then set that data free”. The Voicebox website is a bright, imaginative portal for the data they’ve gathered, and that imagination has also been applied to the problem of political disengagement among the age group concerned. The solution proposed is a robot created for v by sidekick studios, called ‘Voicebot’, that will be installed in Parliament on the 12th of October. If you submit what you care about on the website, the Voicebot will write it out, allowing messages to go straight from young people to Members of Parliament.

This is no doubt that this Voicebot is a compelling symbol of the gap between many young people and a political system that doesn’t appear to offer them what they want. However, I'm not sure how much the writing robot can do to help their project of exciting young people in general about democratic participation, and proving that young people want to get involved - beyond the relatively small number of people that will be involved in sending messages to the robot on the website. It seems to me that it's more an interesting display of the kind of innovations we could be thinking about with current technology than something that would be useful to implement as it is.

People who want to dismiss young people as apathetic will seize on the irrelevant messages and ignore or ridicule the serious ones, and people who already recognise that the young are interested in politics but would prefer alternative means of engagement are looking for more practical ways to increase participation on a larger scale than this project, as the Voicebot is clearly not an efficient way of getting through to MPs. It might not be a bad idea as an introduction to means of engagement that capture the young’s attention and enthusiasm, but if there's nothing more concrete beyond that for young people to become involved with it risks becoming a gimmick or being taken as another gesture towards involving young people without really giving them a say, of which young people have already had quite enough.

The circular tag cloud they have going on their website is possibly more interesting as a means of highlighting issues in a democratic and widespread way, where recurring words that show up in the submissions are shown, with a larger size indicating more responses on that theme. But again, on its own it is merely a novel thought; what is needed is further thinking about where to take the ideas generated here.

Intriguingly, sidekickstudios (the creators of Voicebot) do recognise many of the questions that arise, which immediately throw up possible avenues of discussion, but without even suggesting possible answers for those questions, or angles that could be pursued, the Voicebot project will be far less interesting than the political imagination that has gone into it would suggest.

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