The political power of the digerati?

I’ve been planning to write a post on this for ages, but time has gotten away. Seriously. Since March the 26th. That’s the day I felt politics in Australia be changed by the internet.

It was the day Senator Conroy went on Q&A, the ABC”s live question and answer show, where he was inundated with questions – apparently over 2000 of them – from members of the public raising serious concerns about the proposed compulsory, national filtering scheme that Conroy – whether by choice or hospital pass – is the front man on.

My objection to a compulsory filter is on the record, so I really enjoyed hearing from the Senator – someone I’ve met since – try and defend his policy. From my perspective, it seemed like the Senator really didn’t want to defend it on its (lack of) merits; any time a Government in power invokes the names, acts and policies of their predecesssors, it is pretty clear they’re trying to avoid responsibility for the current state of play.

But this post isn’t just some rehashing of some persons opinion on a political matter – God knows there’s enough of that already.

No, the thing that really struck me during this experience back in March was how real time contributions, combined with the unique Twitter backchannel, opened my eyes to the noise, if not influence, of the digerati.

The speed of posts, quality of insight, and general ability to shape and resolve community sentiment online was truly breathtaking. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it will forever remain with me as a memory, something I’ll either look back on as a start of something, or as a glimpse of what might have been.

After the interview on Q&A and the extensive level of real time participation I shared with others involved in the debate, I started to wonder about what it all meant for our society, and the political process that for a century or two has been forming policy, laws, regulations and getting on with governing based on a representative system.

As I see it, there are three potential scenarios.

Option 1: The Digerati and Representational Politics

The first scenario is that we’re going to continue with a representative political process, but influence will move towards messages that are facilitated by the digerati. In this model, a small number of individuals are going to be elected/empowered to represent us citizens. They’ll be responsible for voting on laws and approving regulation, they’ll promise to consult with us and our general levels of apathy will ensure only a minority will engage with the political process beyond the ballot box. The positive thing about this scenario, however, is that more direct interaction, feedback, campaigning and consultation will happen using interactive technologies, today represented by websites, email and Twitter. It will be much easier for members of the public to make some noise and be noticed through the online environment, but at the end of the day you’ll still be trying to convince a person with 46 chromosomes to make decisions you agree with, with the option every 3-4 years of expressing your displeasure and voting them out.

To see this form of political interaction really take effect, more and more of us will need to become political animals. Our social networks, our digital interactions, our posts on Twitter, and more, will become influences on the perspectives, opinions and voting intentions in a more tangible and effective way than the media currently does. If Channel 9 tell me a movie is good, I’m going to take it with a very large grain of salt. If a good friend makes an impassioned plea that a policy is going to hurt their family or the environment, I’m going to give it a lot more credibility because of the shorter social distance. Is this a good thing? I don’t know. Many of the reforms that have our country in a much better place than most of Europe today – surrounding labour markets, trade, and to a (depressingly) lesser extent, welfare, aren’t popular and even though they’re right, perhaps a digerati backed political process wouldn’t have supported/allowed them…

Option 2: The Digital Revolution & Legislative Democracy

This situation is potentially the most revolutionary of all, and involves us, as citizens, voting directly on legislation, regulation, and the policy that frames these decisions. While the consequence of this sort of change wouldn’t mean the abolition of representative politics, it would change the dynamic; instead of voting for chair fillers who make up the numbers, we’d vote for politicians who are then charged with the responsibility of ‘selling’ their policies (or alternative policies) to their electorates. Their approach will need to be interactive and engaging – a bit shock for a number of politicians who are just making up numbers as pay-back from their party machines until they can make it to their generous pension scheme entry ages and retire – but in principle it could work quite nicely.

Of course, there are many potential problems with this model. While you’d be hard pressed to find an impartial citizen who’d vote down a 90% punitive tax on finance executive & worker bonuses for people who just deal in other people’s money without wearing any of the risk if things go pear shaped (as they did last year), there are numerous bills that are pretty dry and boring, and more disurbingly, you’d probably get pretty good support for a nut-job bill that promoted protectionism and increased tariffs, or, even worse, foolish and frankly racist immigration controls. This model certainly isn’t perfect, but then the current system (below) is hardly a pretty picture.

Option 3: Unrepresentative, 1901 Issue Myopia

More than a few of the 3 of you who read this post are probably thinking, “Hey, not everyone is online, not everyone is going to try and get involved. This digerati participation concept is really unrepresentative”. And you’re be right. But I’d argue, with more than 80% of Australian households now having the internet, the options above are a lot less unrepresentative and skewed than the status quo.

The third option I see is a continuation of a myopia where our political representatives remain wrapped in some of the most unrepresentative systems and irrelevant issues than ever, and we continue to be affected and held back by it.

Our current government is the Labor party, an organisation that until recently had it enshrined that at least half of their voting delegates to their national policy setting conference were appointed/sent by Unions. As demonstrated so dramatically in NSW in 2008, when the Labour Government of Day disagrees with these conferences, the results can be dramatic: effectively, the Union movement in NSW took down a Premier and a Treasurer, and put a multi-billion dollar hole in the State’s finances to protect the parochial interests of their members who like the idea of continuing to be employed by a benign employer who wouldn’t make sure things ran efficiently.

To look at what this means for our democracy, it is important to realise that only 60% of our population are in the labour force  (lets say 12.6m out of 21m in Australia). Of that 12.6m, about 650K are currently unemployed, so we’re dealing with closer to 12m workers. Last time I checked, about 15% of these workers were part of Unions (it has been on a downhill slide for a long time now), which means we’re dealing with about 1.8m Australians, a bit over 8% of the overall population, who control more than half of the Government. If you look at the heritage of many of the members of our Government, you’ll see a a long history in labour relations, focused on a 20th Century fixation on industrial relations and a preference in having all people equal, but of course some more equal than others.

The current prevailing model is where around 8% of the community have a dramatic level of control, and only a small fraction of that 8% actually care two hoots; they are just paid up members who have to vote for someone, and they let others run their political campaigns, often without a lot of consideration for the wishes of their broader constituents (I’ve seen this first hand more than once, and it isn’t pretty to see employees left unemployed by their representatives happy because they managed to estabilsh a precendent for others).

The digerati, through either influence and replacing the media function, or through direct participation, certainly isn’t perfect. There are many potential issues to address, and it isn’t like the current gerrymander enjoyed by groups who think industrial relations is actually the business of government – news flash: its the economy, defence, social issues, and not controlling the minute details of employment relationships that matter the most to our nation – are going to give up their narrow ideology easily.

But on the 26th of March, as thousands had their say, and even more participated online, I saw a glimse of the future where we could actually play a bigger part in shaping the country we live in, and the sooner we move beyond being governed by the narrow interests and ideologies of union hacks and lawyers, and instead harness the participatory power and intelligence of our citizens, the better!