April 1, 2013
The Greek polis brought us Democracy. A democracy suited for those times, tributary to the society where it was developed. The Roman Republic brought representative democracy. It’s quite easy to see why since the Roman Republic was significantly larger than any Greek City-State. Gathering all voting able citizens would have been quite unproductive. So electing representatives to vote in your stead must have seemed like a very good idea.
Springing back from ancient history, it is clear that neither of the two forms of democracy would be possible today. Beginning with the criteria that applied to citizens that could vote and leading up to the issues they voted on. One thing is clear though – Roman type democracy came out on top, it’s offsprings being todays democracies. While explaining how we got from Roman democracy to what we now call on and accept as democracy might be extremely interesting this is not the focus of this post.
The focus here lies with Greek City State type direct democracy.
Can this type of democracy be adapted for today – can we return to a more direct type of democracy? It is this writer’s view that it is – albeit not as clear cut as it’s illustrious ancestor.
Image source: Fineartamerica.com
The main issue pertaining to direct democracy has and always will be the problem with voting. If we are allowed an exercise imagine what it would mean for the 500 million strong EU populous to vote on a weekly basis. It would consume all of our time, and the logistics behind this would be damn near impossible. As some of you know, however, the Swiss use a discreet type of direct democracy embodied by the referendum. And they have gone so far as to implement voting by mail – one would receive the voting form in the mail, cast his ballot and then mail it back to the authority organizing the referendum. Fast and elegant. There is however a whole different story when expanding this EU wide. Or is it?
Imagine this scenario – it’s a regular morning anywhere across the EU. You get up, have a shower, dress for the day, and then stumble into the kitchen to brew a nice fresh morning batch of espresso/tea . Moments later, while enjoying your pick-me-up beverage of choice, you check your voting options of the day. In 3 minutes time you’ve already cast your ballot, checked Facebook and finished your beverage – time for a new day, out there, in Europe.
Now, let’s develop the “trailer” above. Smartphone usage in the EU is quite widespread, and it’s increasing at a rapid pace every month. The rate in Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom is about 42% compared to 39% in the US (source) and that was back in 01.2012. Increasing leaps in technology coupled with wider ranges of prices, from the very low to the very expensive, allow for this new expansion in world connectivity. My mum who is 50+ uses a smartphone that she has acquired only a couple months back. She’s not exactly a tech geek and was quite rapidly experiencing two left hands sindrome in the beginning. And the earlier today i was quite surprised to notice her reading the news and playing games on our daily comute. So I must imagine that smartphone penetration is reaching new territory every day. Couple that with the expansion of high speed networks expanding through the continent, with more and more availability of WIFI connections at home, at work or around town and it paints a pretty clear picture of the direction we are heading in. (let me put this down as argument A)
Mainstream media is also evolving – wide availability of internet connectivity and the confort of your own device mean that people tend to source their information online more and more each day. Television and printed news are no longer the main information source – the internet is. Blogs, online news outlets, newsletters and email seem to be the new stars. Content is also adapting – we see a definitive move from long news shows to short compressed information packets. The clutter in the news is disappearing, and for those that still want to be presented with more in depth analysis there are always people online that blog about this or that subject. Information comes to us in a very different matter than it did 50 years ago – imagine the distance we have covered since Pheidippides ran to Athens. (this would be argument B)
All this online activity leads to the creation of communities – like minded individuals with similar interests getting together to exchange information and experiences. And this is not a limited field. Whatever the field, there is a forum out there for you. These communities organise themselves and are governed by rules all abide to and the only administration has only 2 main functions – to organize and maintain the community (tech wise) and to enforce and prevent sidetracking said rules. It’a s sublime form of organic self regulation of a living organism. And this is not restricted to sports, movies or tech. This spans on every aspect of everyday life imaginable. (and lets call this argument C)
And now let’s combine arguments A, B and C – what if we could organise an online interface between a legislative / executive body and the populous that could prepare and organise ballots. That could put together informative and educational newsletters about the issues that are to be voted on, explaining all sides and relevant aspects, that each one of us could receive via email, or trough a dedicated app on your smartphone all through the day. Or you could opt on a certain number of fields that you want to express your right to vote on, and receive information only about that. You could decide on the frequency of delivery and timelines. You could read those before bed, at lunch hour, on the toilet. Organized bits of information aimed at allowing the citizen to cast an educated vote. And then you could vote the next day. Couple of minutes of your time, realtime – but allowing your voice to be heard and to matter. Technically all these could be possible within the next decade. Citizen wise, this might be a lot harder to achieve.
This leads to new questions – who is the legislative and executive. How do you insure the same type of implied direct democracy in those branches and how do you make them work? It’s not imposible – but it is here that some lessons from the Roman experience will come useful. This is the subject of part II of my exploration of this theme.
In the end, before seeing you off with more questions than answers, presumably, remember this: the only way to build a more perfect union is to allow the citizens of the union to become the union. Where each voice is just as loud, each opinion as valid, and each vote as powerful.Horatiu Ferchiu