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The net as a global library

About the author
Beth Porter is a Media and Internet Consultant in the UK. She is author of The Net Effect, a social history of the internet.

Is the internet bad for what we call democracy? Let me commit heresy in the first line. I want to change the question to: how can the internet be made good for democracy?

One dictionary definition of democracy is: “government by the common people, the primary source of political power, adhering to principles of social equality and respect for communities of individuals.”

This is cruelly far from any democracy on my horizon. Rather, the world is busy relinquishing governance to more and more unwieldy and self-serving bodies (so well described by Bill Thompson). Ministers, parliaments, councils, quangos represent fewer individual voices at the expense of more corporate interests. Even former ministers in democratic countries publicly vilify the inherently obstructive nature of the civil service.

Today’s internet may be bad for democracy because it is forever being hijacked, controlled, even legislated using a business model. It’s handy for trading but the net is not ultimately a business thing.

A better metaphor is a global library, its treasure chest of socio-cultural riches freely available to all. Making the heroic assumption that governments actually do want democracy – that messy melting-pot of opposing views – then they must stop equating net success with profit. Think culture not trade.

Information; neither commodity nor secret

The dissemination of the widest range of opinion is the foundation of a democratic structure. A century ago, newspapers were publicly posted. Free for all. Add public meetings exchanging informed views, and the structure grows and strengthens.

Our mutated democracy treats information either as a commodity or a secret. It distrusts complexity and pluralism. openDemocracy is pointing the way to a more authentically e-democratic tool of participation and dissemination. But it’s still a text-based tool of the elite.

Jan Steyaert points out something I have been publicly advocating for years: in its quest to be accessible to all, the net must become more creative in engaging people than a reliance on text. Internet discussion software needs to cut the academic and business-model ties and take a cue from the games world. Imagination must fold into the true democratic mix. Democracy is about people not systems.

The most effective use of the net to achieve democracy is an online People’s Parliament as the nation’s second chamber. Participation should be mandatory, like jury duty. Representation should reflect age, gender, areas of expertise and not geography or political party.

Gaming democracy

Sessions should be available at free public kiosks as ubiquitous as phone booths. Online sidebars can present games modelling using avatars to let people see the consequences of any legislation – and suggest their own. I do not mean tabloid reductive questions. Games allow for complexity. What is the effect on local public services if our taxes buy twenty missiles? Or ten, or thirty?

The net recommends itself by its quintessential component of interactivity. That is the tool we must use imaginatively for democratic health. Most current consultation morphs into reductive tabloid yes–no–maybe choices. Democratic participation is far more complex. The net can serve either approach. Let us use it to enhance democracy, to engage people, not just as some checklist mechanism.

Equally important is sufficient funding to train everyone to use the technology. Train everyone. For free. Everyone. All politicians, I suspect, know they are caught in the net. At the moment they are largely ignoring it, especially at local level. And that is surely bad for democracy, with or without an ‘e’.

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