Where's That Line Between True Democracy And Mob Rule?
from the peopleocracy dept
Way back in 7th grade social studies class, I still remember one of the first assignments we had from Mr. Kemp (I think that was his name…) was to make a suggestion for a way to change or improve the way government functions. My suggestion was that in addition to the two legislative branches (the House of Representatives and the Senate), we could add a third branch for direct citizen voting on bills. I think I called it the Peoplocracy or something. Whenever it was time to vote on various bills, the information would be broadcast via TV, and individuals could call a phone number and “vote” one way or the other. I remember that I got a bad grade on the paper, as the teacher told me such an idea made no sense: our elected officials in Congress where there to represent the will of the people, and direct voting on bills by citizens was entirely redundant and unnecessary. To this day, I still feel the teacher dismissed the idea too quickly… but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea.
Since the election there have been a bunch of stories about how President-elect Obama has built up this huge direct line of communication to a huge, passionate and committed group of citizens and supporters via the internet, and there’s plenty of speculation about how he intends to use that connection to help push his legislative agenda forward. In many ways, this is quite exciting, and I’m curious to see how it works — and hoping for the best. After all, a huge problem with our elected officials in the past is that they were so far disconnected from the citizens they were supposed to represent that their policy choices were often backwards. Instead, it was often the powerful lobbyists who got through and were able to fashion laws to support their positions, rather than the overall well-being of the citizenry.
Anything that gives the actual people a bigger voice and a better ability to communicate and connect with the President or other elected officials seems like a great idea — and we’re already seeing some of that in action with the Obama’s impressive Change.gov operation, which, among other things allows people to submit policy ideas and allows others to vote on them, in a Digg-like fashion. The possibilities for such a program are potentially limitless and incredibly powerful.
And yet… I’m still left wondering if there isn’t a huge risk as well. As we’ve seen time and time again, powerful technologies don’t discriminate. They can be used for very good purposes and they can be used for very bad purposes as well. I’m very excited about the good possibilities, but I’m wondering how much thought is being given to limiting the downside possibilities. There is, of course, the risk of “mob rule”-type decision making at times. While majority rules is the foundation of democracy, there are times when a simple majority can end up taking away the rights of a minority or put in place a dreadful and dangerous policy. This can happen especially after emotionally-charged incidents, where “mob rule” and thoughts of revenge or punishment overrule the rational parts of many people. Also, with any such system, there is the risk of gaming. As we’ve unfortunately seen with Digg over the past year or so, a small group of individuals have figured out how to effectively control the system, almost entirely stomping out the voices of others.
I don’t think this is where things are headed, and I’m not saying that the technology or embracing a direct connection to people is a bad thing. I think just the opposite is true. I’m really excited to see where all of this leads, and the fact that there’s at least some indication that we’re not dealing with politics as usual is great. But… in seeing everyone talk up how wonderful this is, I worry about what’s being done to at least guard against the worst abuses that occur when a direct connection to the people turns from rational into irrational mob rule out for blood.