Open source democracy (Part 3)
Wondering about how to improve democratic participation seems a rather silly and pointless exercise when your own elected representatives show open contempt for the system and the people that got them into power in the first place.
When I lived in the US, I used to get upset when all kinds of legislation would get bundled together with “money for the troops” - something no lawmaker would dare oppose. Now the New Zealand Parliament pushed through a Copyright Amendment Act under urgency, as part of the emergency provisions for Christchurch Earthquake recovery. As someone aptly commented on Twitter, “The people of Christchurch must really appreciate the urgent attention parliament is paying to their earthquake-induced copyright issues.” Who’s the cynic here?
Colin has written a well-put commentary about this sad farce, which drives home the realisation that it’s not the manifestation of democracy which is in question, but democracy itself. “Perhaps we are no better than other countries where policies seem to be bought by well-heeled lobbyists. Faced with choices like this, why should the next generation of potential voters even bother?” Indeed.
And yet, here I am, still wondering if there’s a better way.
In 2007, R.U. Sirius (of cyberculture and transhumanist fame) proposed an Open Source Party for the upcoming US election. The idea was to bring proven open source processes and principles into the political realm and address the fact that “many of us will wish […] that there could be a dynamic discourse about the many real issues and problems that get ignored.” Three years later, efforts are underway to revive the concept, founded on transparency, openness, “early and often”, expectation of community, and the principles of the Bazaar: flexibility, feedback, and modularity. The latter, of course, is based on Eric S. Raymond’s seminal paper from 2000, which to this day can be read as a model not just for software development, but for societies and governments as well. Recent global developments such as the near-collapse of the economy, the shock and awe of Wikileaks, the Twitter-fuelled revolutions in the Middle East, and the emergency of Pirate Parties all over Europe exemplify change happening right before our eyes. Is this the time for a new open source party?
I wish I could wholeheartedly agree, but I don’t. Political parties still operate within a bigger system, and I don’t believe that true change is going to come from within established structures. Moreover, the principles of open source are ways of operating, communicating, decision-making; they are methods, not substance, and people vote for parties or people based on what they stand for, not based on the processes by which they come to their decisions.
We don’t need a political party that stands for open source itself; instead, we need to promote and encourage the adoption of open source principles in our existing worlds - at home, at work, in our communities, in our political system. We have to change our actions, and in order to do that, we have to change how we think and talk about democracy.
Indeed, this goes way beyond the question of how we organise our electoral or representative political system. It goes to the fundamental question of how we extend our human capabilities, and quite literally, how we can change the world.
Ambitious? Definitely. Naive? Probably. And yet, we create the world we live in every day through the words we speak and the actions we take. If we can frame the debate, we can change the world, one step at a time.
Here are some ideas and principes we all can try out right now:
- Engage in areas where the benefits are more obvious, for example, by supporting existing efforts around open data, open government, and the government’s use of open source software. Quick wins and tangible success stories will take the fear away.
- Embrace the read-and-write culture: It’s not one-way any more; engage and contribute.
- Use the web, not mainstream media, to get news. Compare and contrast, and talk about what you learned.
- Encourage debate and competition in all areas of life.
- Work with your MPs, not against them: Open and participatory approaches are only attractive to politicians if they get them re-elected.
- Show, don’t tell. Demonstrate and live what you believe in.
- Start on the local level to test the waters. It’s easier to implement change on a smaller scaler first.
- Make many small changes in what you do, to build trust and get the word out. Then grow.
- Behave like the internet: Route around problems. Mimic technology to solve human problems.
- Create interdisciplinary networks.
- Scratch an itch: Find problems that are interesting to come up with excellent solutions.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel: Use what’s out there and build upon it.
- Be ready to start over: Most often, we don’t understand a problem until we’ve tried to solve it and failed initially.
Will applying those principles change the world? Probably not, but if I can live by them, they will change my world. If others join in, a network effect will happen.
It’s not the worst we could do. It’s the best we can do. And it’s something we can do.