Swapping the Senate for Reddit, and other daft ideas about digital democracy

Paul Raven @ 25-02-2010

Pool's closed (due to extropianism)For the sake of change-around, I’m gonna let someone else propose the wild idea this time. So, how’s about you US citizens swap your Senate for something like Reddit.com? [image adapted from a photo by cliff1066™]

Let’s abolish the Senate! Replace it with something truly new and egalitarian, a system that gives us thrilling optimism and empowerment, something far more representative than the so-called “House of Representatives” […] My proposal is to replace the moldering Senate with an electronic plebiscite system, i.e., something like Reddit.com.

Here’s how it works.

  1. Everyone who reaches voting age gets a log-in ID and a password.
  2. All bills advanced by the House of Representatives are posted on “reddit.com” for approval.
  3. Upvote or Downvote, voters get two weeks to cast their ballots and to state their opinions in comments as lengthy and as often as desired.
  4. The millions of comments are categorized in an efficient way so that the curious public can read all existing viewpoints. They are, in turn, also upvoted and downvoted as people find them more or less relevant.
  5. At the end of two weeks, all proposals that have received 60% (or another agreed-upon number) approval are enacted into law.

That would be just the start, apparently… :-s

Look, I’m a proponent of the idea of digitising democracy, but Reddit itself is a great example of why it wouldn’t work for major policies at a national scale. The tyranny of the minority, a banal hegemony of kneejerk special-interests NIMBYism and me-too-gimme-gimme… not entirely unlike a lot of the Western world as it already stands, in other words, albeit with more cat videos (which would admittedly be something of an improvement).

But if you can’t see how easily that sort of plebiscite framework could be gamed (let alone hacked)… well, you were a bit bold naming your website “Extropism”, let’s put it that way. Rhizomatic digital democracy could work, sure, but only in small numbers over small areas. You wanna go national with plebiscite, you need to think again, especially in a territory as large as the US – and you’re going to have to think about representatives in some shape or form, because there’s too much law and too little time for us everyday Josephines to deal with it at the same time as holding down a job. Now, if you want to talk about ways of building a representation system with total transparency and full-duplex discussion between the people and the rep, though, that’s another argument entirely…

That said, it’s hard not to be sucked in by the illusion of participation that the internet already offers – I’ve signed more petitions in the last two years than I have in my entire life, just because it’s so damned easy to do online. But things easily done are easily ignored, and that nice warm glow you get afterwards is the glow of complacency. You may not believe me, but the big charities and campaign groups are certainly waking up to it:

“… underlying slacktivism isn’t enough — you can’t just turn your profile green. If you show support you are lazy? No. But there has to be a number of people taking actions in the real world, too.” Anderson said.

It is this growing trend to show support via an online campaign that is threatening human rights movements across the globe, and the panel quickly picked up on the drawbacks of the internet in promoting false activism.

“I coined the phrase ‘mousy solidarity’ to explain how easy it is to click on a petition. We feel like we can participate.” said Professor Sreberny.

What was made clear from the event was that both sides — activists and regimes — can see the potential for technology to promote their cause. But it was the words of a press spokesman for hosts Amnesty International that really struck home, underlining the need to continue to fight across several platforms, rather than relying on new trends to promote the cause.

Speaking of supporting political protest against corrupt regimes, everyone seems a little stuck on this whole Iran business. Why don’t we just bombard Iran… with satellite internet signal!

This would be an invaluable help for a movement that the government can currently easily hinder with telecommunication cuts in the wake of large demonstrations. Most importantly, and from a US policy perspective, it would empower Iranians without committing troops or confronting the Iranian regime directly, solving the dilemma of American non-interference.

(Ah, non-interference is a dilemma, now? Is that another word for “knowing that there’s no legal way to pull it off, and remembering how badly it worked out last time?”)

Complications might, of course, arise. The Iranian government can crack down on the use of satellite dishes, as it has consistently done in the past, or attempt to jam the signal. The whole project might prove costly, perhaps cost more than the Voice Act’s $20m budget. But is a cyber war with Tehran’s regime not a more palatable route than the other “options” that remain relentlessly on the table?

Um. This chap somewhat misses the point of cyberwar – namely that the people opposing you on the web don’t necessarily have to be based in the country you’re trying to face down, or even care much about it beyond some vague and naive notion of religio-cultural brotherhood – but the idea itself isn’t entirely crazy.

In fact, if I wanted to destabilise a totalitarian regime with a censorship fixation, giving its people open internet access is one of the first things I’d want to be able to do… which leads me to suspect that toppling the Iranian regime probably isn’t as big a priority for the governments of the West as they might like us to think.

But maybe it would be, if we all just popped over to Reddit and clicked “upvote” enough times through multiple different proxy servers…