Democracy and the power of the individual (II): afterthoughts

Last 3-5 February 2011 I attended the conference Democracy and the Power of the Individual, organized by the Ditchley Foundation.

John Holmes, the Director of the Foundation, has published his traditional note on the conference. The note is not only worth reading as an approximate summary of what was discussed during the sessions, but especially as a good state-of-the-question list of the most relevant topics concerning democracy, politics, governance and citizenry. I honestly think that the paper definitely is a good starting point or a faithful snapshot of what is going on in the intersection of the Information Society and Politics in a very broad sense.

The Chatham House Rule wouldn’t allow me to liveblog the event as usual. Besides, that was one those events where you’re not a mere spectator but an active contributor, which puts taking notes down on your priorities pushing up thorough reflection and participation. There are, notwithstanding, some notes worth putting in order. As the Director has already published what can be regarded as the proceedings, I’d stick to my own ideas and reflections, acknowledging that many of them were triggered by the discussion and, thus, I should not be granted full ownership.

Power: empowerment vs. governance

As I explained in my position paper, I think that Information and Communication Technologies are both empowering individuals to be more active citizens and act freely within the system and, at the same time, are impoverishing democracy as we knew it. Cause and consequence at the same time, the reason behind this apparently inconsistent dichotomy is that democratic institutions have become weaker in recent years: the power to manage and change the system has shifted upwards, from national governments to supranational organizations and institutions thus depriving the former from power, while the individuals are circumventing those governments with their newly accessed digital technologies, thus strengthening their weakness.

(Political) disaffection is but a lack of hope to get to the strings that rule or can change the system, out of reach of their democratic representatives. From time to time, a quantum leap of power, a revolution, is set free and the man in the street can actually make contact with the actual decision makers.

In Tunisia or Egypt, social media fed mainstream media (mainly Al Jazeera) with grassroots-generated multimedia content and thus caught the attention of, amongst others, the US Secretary of State that was pressured by their own citizens to take sides and do not look away from the conflict.

When such things happen, is it easy to see social media as new ways of self-determination and the right to information a most valuable right.

Cause-led activism vs. policy-led politics

The problem with this self-determination that empowering ICTs provide might be that politician action becomes so atomized that once the quantum leap is over, leadership might be difficult to determine and policy making, planning, just too difficult to assemble.

The citizenry is, in this scenario, triggered by the very short term and is aware — or simply does not care — neither of the consequences in the long run nor on the possibilities of political negotiation and bargain.

In this sense, if decisions/negotiations take place just once in time, the negotiating parties have an incentive not to move and to bring discussion to stalemate situations. If, on the contrary, there is the possibility of continuous/sequential negotiation, along time, in the long run, with several rounds, negotiation becomes a game (in the sense of Game Theory) where there is a possibility to plan, to deal, to develop agreements, etc.

A short-sighted-politics scenario plus an hourglass-like distribution of power render information worthless. The abundance of information provided by openness, transparency, crowdsourcing… is useless, a placebo, if it is not aimed at bridging a democratic gap both in time (short-term vs. long-run) and space (national government vs. supranational elites).

From political institutions to democratic processes

This shift from the monolithic institution to the liquid political engagement has some causes in social media and the raise of the Web 2.0.

On the one hand, social media turns “tough politics” into “swallowable politics”, as they make complex discourses more granular, highly visual, and definitely straightforward. Once again, if social media had any kind of prominent role in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, spread of the message through virality has been one of them.

On the other hand, social media has linked content with people, so that people are bound to their own opinions, images, sounds, videos… and personal relationships 24×7, in their presence or in their absence, as their social networking sites profiles speak for them all of the time. Indeed, this deep interlinking between people and constructs provides a much needed context in politics, in citizen action.

Last, but not least, social media enables emergent behaviours, that is, complex systems that perform collective activities after simple actions. Emergent systems usually create patterns that a wise observer should be able to recognize. While we focus on how governments and political parties should use social media as individual users do, it is highly probable that they would rather leverage the power of networks by effectively identifying the patterns that the addition of individual action creates.

Indeed, transparency has changed. It now comes with the possibility of feedback attached, and most of the times feedback is generated automatically: when one link is created, it becomes part of the existing mesh of content, people and the construct that they both make up. The possibility of emergency is enabled and, with it, the generation of patterns and mass (sometimes mob) trends.

Situated politics

What to do in such a scenario?

The world of education and training is in its way to reinvent itself and is already taking about situated learning: the need to learn happens everywhere and everywhen; we should thus be able to situate learning where and when it is needed.

Situated politics is about providing tools for participation when and where the citizen needs them to carry on a civic action. In this sense, we should also enable, encourage and foster participation or engagement that is tacit or informal. And social media can play an important role in linking both sides (tacit/explicit, informal/formal) of political participation.

One of the most thrilling issues in today’s politics is that we are facing a chicken and egg dilemma in democracy:

  • We want, first of all, to change our weakened democratic institutions, leaving for later the decision whether and how social media can contribute or impact on those institutions.
  • But social media are already questioning many fundamentals, assumptions and procedures of traditional democratic institutions, thus we need to know how and what are they doing to democracy.

And maybe, one of the first topics we should address is how political action has changed of shape. On the one hand, we have communities originated offline; on the other hand, we have networks originated or powered online. These are two social organizations that have different structures, power distributions, needs, degrees of commitment. How do we try and put to work together communities and networks?

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2011) “Democracy and the power of the individual (II): afterthoughts” In ICTlogy, #89, February 2011. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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Sobre Mí

    Soy Ismael Peña-López.

    Soy profesor de los Estudios de Derecho y de Ciencia Política de la Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, e investigador en el Internet Interdisciplinary Institute y el eLearn Center de la misma. Durante 2014 también soy el Director del proyecto de Innovación Abierta de la Fundació Jaume Bofill.