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I posted the following to MyWeblog : http://blahsploitation.blogspot.com/2003_03_16_blahsploitation_archive.html#91110790

Here's my EmergentDemocracy question. I've just been talking to a friend who's very depressed by the war. We've had the largest anti-war protest movement in history. Tens of millions of people across the world are against the war. Millions have actively protested on the streets.

And yet ...

As my friend points out. It hasn't delayed the war by a day, it hasn't lessened the ferocity of the attack, it hasn't helped achieve the slightest extra agreement or international co-operation.

I pointed out that maybe there's a longer term affect. People politicised by the protests may become involved in other things. It may eventually lead to more engaged voting. But my friend thinks people are already disillusioned with the representative process. He worries they'll get disillusioned with protest / activism too.

That's a worry for everyone. Many of the disillusioned will forsake politics entirely. A few, perhaps those who care the most, may become terrorists themselves, blindly attacking the innocent in their frustration at being unable to reach the guilty.

It's easy to see why this popular mood has no effect. The way representative democracy works is that it asks us to put our trust in unknown representatives, who then decide on particular issues for us. Would I have voted for Blair if I'd known he'd follow the pro-war path?

And it's easy to see why the crowds have no real effect. If I join a protest I am reduced to nothing more than an extra body to count. The most I can communicate of my subtle and complex views is what I can distill into 5 words on a placard. I'm combining with fellow protestors in the least smart, least information sharing, least discursive, least productive way imaginable.

So what can Emergent Democracy do to help? Can it offer us an alternative to both representative democracy and mob-rule?

Can it find a way to allow us to collaborate better, and achieve something proportional to our strength?

Several thoughts :


At the one extreme we have the legend of Smart-mobs in the Phillipines as told by Howard Rheingold. A large group of protestors, self-organized using mobile phones and text messages, and brought down the government. The same organisation occurred in Seatle. And I'm sure with the current anti-war movement.

But using smart tech to form an ultimately dumb mob isn't the way to go. Governments and corporations are learning to ignore things. In stable democracies they know that these manifestations don't translate into votes. And a thick cordon of police will prevent any real trouble.


Alternatively, if we all sit at home blogging, we get the discussion, the nuances, the creative interplay of ideas. Sometimes our discussions even bubble up to the political level and get widely talked about. In the media!

But, as of yet, not much more. Anti-war blogging certainly did nothing against the war. I'm not sure that even the pro-war blogs actually affected a policy which seems to have been designed in the early 90s.

So far blogging's political power is parasitic on that of the regular media and dependent on the message perculating across to the press and TV.


Online petitions, virtual marches, Fax your MP etc. have a mixed success. It's easy to filter out or ignore them.


Black hat hacktivism against government or corporate computer systems suffers the same problem as all terrorism. It fails to achieve anything but a violent reaction.


Massive, peaceful civil disobedience allegedly works. And it may work in the case of P2P filesharing forcing a change in copyright.

So, what then?

On consideration, none of these seem to solve the problem of the disenfranchised protestors. There's something missing : a way for the voices of large numbers of people to affect policy that isn't via the media or representatives or a glorified Freemasonry of who knows who through blogging.

It does require social communication technology. It does involve groups of grassroot activists finding each other and starting projects for themselves. But it has to connect with the institutions of state which aren't part of this agoric network : government, the military, the courts and police.

I think we're still short of some crucial ideas.

The best I can think of at present is applying reputation management to elected representatives. Allow people to vote on how trustworthy they believe candidates are on various issues. Allow people to view the ratings during elections. (If this doesn't already exist, Lazy Web should create it) If you categorize, people can make decisions based on their particular policy (do I want a hawk on war but a liberal on drug use?)

But it reveals the other problem of representation : you get policies as a package. What if I want a dove who's liberal on drug use but I only have a choice of libertarian hawk or puritan dove? Could the existence of a system which rates candidates on a number of categories, force those candidates to fragment their beliefs so that they respond to the majority opinion on each one.

Perhaps this is misunderstanding the whole point of ED. Perhaps it isn't about the government institutions. Perhaps networks of activists should boycott other products by the conglomerates that make the weapons. But when defence spending is so high, defence contractors often don't need any customer except the government.

So, smart thinkers in the ED conversation. Help me out here. What institution / culture / technology could have given the anti-war movement any kind of influence proportional to it's strength?


This elicited this fascinating email response from a civil servant (who's sadly obliged by his job to remain anonymous) :

I've been thinking about issues around the "emergent democracy" topic for a couple of years. I think the energy shown both in the anti-war protests and in the various groups of people thinking about e-democracy is very exciting. It's all rather unfocused at the moment, but I suspect we're reaching a tipping point, where emergent democracy (or whatever you want to call it) becomes a "next big thing".

I think the reason that emergent democracy has such appeal is that modern politics is falling behind people's expectations. I don't believe that standards of political behaviour or the conduct of government have got worse - in fact, I think they've been getting better in recent years, largely thanks to unforgiving and sometimes unfair media pressure.

However while politics has not declined, it is still trying to conduct business in a manner that looks increasingly out of date. In the consumer world, people are wanting more and more authenticity, "real" experiences, tailored to their personal preferences. In a world of reality TV, Have It Your Way and cars with more options than Microsoft

Word, it's no wonder politics-as-usual is looking a bit faded. So people feel that politics is not connected with their lives or desires, and so they ignore it, or protest against it, or protest against it and then ignore it in frustration, as you rightly say.

But some of the alternatives are suffering from the same sort of disconnection. You are absolutely spot on to describe blogging as a form of Freemasonry, and also right to point out that being a protestor is merely being counted as one of the numbers roughly supporting the views of the organisers.

My first answer to your question about giving the anti-war protesters influence is that the anti-war protests are the wrong place to start.

If it had been a domestic issue bringing that number of people onto thestreets, the PM would have done a U-turn quicker than you could say "knife". But foreign affairs are a special case. Apart from the close relations between the US and UK at all military levels, which no PM in his right mind would want to jeopardise, the nature of diplomacy is such that once you have allied yourself with a position, it's a lot harder to flip-flop than it is on domestic issues.

But, more generally, what is it that makes Governments sit up and take notice? I've had a few years working in the Civil Service, under both political parties, and I'd say from my experience, the following characteristics (in no particular order) make a message more likely to have influence in the political world.

  1. Expertise. Academics and think tanks, depending on reputation, have a lot of access to Government, and are listened to. Politicians and civil servants are usually generalists, and so they are always ready to hear views that have been developed through years of practical and/or intellectual experience.
  2. Coherence of view. This is important for groups and organisations.

Organisations that have a strong opinion - even if it is opposed to the general tenor of the Government's views - will often get a hearing if their opinion seems to be well-thought out, and coherent across the piece. If they are (e.g.) proposing an increase in EU funding while also railing against interference from Brussels, they are likely to be ignored. Similarly, protest movements will be held to be less important if it seems that their members' views are all over the place (e.g. Countryside March) or motivated by a "motherhood and apple pie" slogan that covers a wide range of views.

  1. Reasonableness. The political classes (and this is particularly true of civil servants) have an extremely low tolerance for single-issue obsessives, of whom they see quite a lot. Organisations that explicitly acknowledge the problems with their preferred outcomes, or show an openness to compromise will receive a better hearing than last-ditchers. Conversely, people or organisations with extreme views (withdrawal from the EU, fluoridation a conspiracy, extreme anti-capitalist) will be bracketed together as "loonies" and given a (more or less) polite brush-off.
  2. From an MP or well-known pressure group. These get a hearing because they are respected for their political knowledge rather than (necessarily) their knowledge of the subject area.
  3. Public support. Petitions with a lot of signatures, or well-run local campaigns do make a difference if they are coherent and the people involved seem to have thought about the issues involved.

From an emergent democracy point of view, I'd add the so-obvious-people-forget-it point that the political class have to be aware of the view. Most politicos don't have time to read more than one newspaper a day, let alone blogs or specialist magazines. civil servants have a little more coverage, but even their media exposure is less than you might think.

So, if emergent democratic methods are going to affect what politicians do (and I think that must be the aim), they need to give the right people reasonable, thought-out opinions in a format that is easy to digest, through a medium that those people know and trust.

I think that for this to happen, there needs to be some sort of institutional structure imposed within which debates can take place.

That institution can then build a reputation with the political classes in a way that the more ephemeral blogs and protest groups cannot. It can make it its business to promote debate in an impartial way, and then present those views to government.

Needless to say, from a democratic point of view the institution needs to be:

  • a. democratically arranged;
  • b. impartial when conducting debates and discussions;
  • c. open to all;
  • d. independent of any company, government or political party;

But, given what it needs to do, it also needs to:

  • e. have a culture and procedures that encourage intelligent debate;
  • f. give members an opportunity to discover and share information on a topic under discussion before expressing a final view on it;
  • g. debate issues in a way that draws people towards consensus rather than entrenches divisions.

Thinking about this over the past few months, I've come to believe that the most scalable sort of institution would have a central organisation and a number of branches or colleges. The colleges (let's call them) would be a bit like business franchises - anyone could set them up, in any way they liked, as long as they stayed in line with the democratic principles of the institution. They could be set up, for example, in a village or a company, or over the Internet. That collegiate system would allow low-level debates to take place in small groups where people would know each other and feel able to contribute without being squished by one of the big beasts of the jungle. It would also allow debates on local issues to take place without occupying the time of the rest of the institution's members.

Then those colleges would elect or select by lot, or however they chose, some of their members to the centre of the institution. From those members would be selected a Senate to act as a central discussion forum, "citizen jury/deliberative democracy" groups that could discuss a particular question or (like Commons Select Committees) 'cover' all aspects of a particular area, and a small group to run the institution's day-to-day affairs.

There would, I think, also need to be a class of members who give up their rights to speak and vote, and in return are given "host-like" responsibilities as guardians of the institution's principles adjudicating disputes, chairing discussions, etc., like a combination of the Commons' Speaker and a judiciary.

I posted this and some thoughts it sparked here : http://blahsploitation.blogspot.com/20030323blahsploitationarchive.html#91539661

I was jolted by the concluding suggestions. I guess I've fallen into the Californian / libertarian influenced ideology of assuming networks must be as decentralized and uncontrolled as possible (StupidNetwork). What my correspondant could be describing is a ChaordicOrganization, co-ordinated only by minimal protocols. Or he / she could be suggesting that there are good reasons for a centre which demands more . I think the devil is in the details of this one. Possibly subtle details of how a campaigning organization is constructed, including it's constitution, are likely to affect whether it

  • can be constructed at all
  • can reach a unified opinion
  • can delver that opinion authoritatively to government representatives

So my naive first draft at translating how this might be constructed in SocialSoftware is WikiArchy. A one level deep hierarchy of wikis.

Anonymous civil servant writes:

I think that the CA-lib approach to networks has a lot to recommend it, but only once a certain point of development has been reached. Echoing a current debate in development economics, I believe that centralised personal initiative is necessary to set up an arena in which people's creativity can be used, and to devise simple rules and protocols that are necessary for the arena's successful operation. Also, in political terms, discussion and debate are only useful if they lead to a result that is (a) clear, (b) democratic and (c) comprehensible to the political classes.

This is part of the thinking behind the institution I proposed in the email quoted above. The WikiArchy idea is a good one, but I would like to see the institution be competely agnostic on how discussions happen - it should not matter whether the college operates online or off, using Wiki or an old-fashioned mailing list. As long as the college operates in a democratic manner and follows a few simple rules, it can be part of the overarching organisation.

A good critique of where the peace movement went wrong : http://www.nathannewman.org/log/archives/000909.shtml#000909

Actually I don't believe the peace activists themselves didn't understand this. Ask most activists and they'll say they have no support for the regimes of dictators. And that they can imagine alternative strategies for promoting regime change. The problems are these :

  • such strategies can't be easily communicated in protests
  • the strategies can't be easily communicated by the media which reports on protests.

(This kind of strategy needs to be continuously refined. We try this sanction, or this request, or negotiating a team to inspect X at the threat of withdrawal. It's a continuously changing array of sticks and carrots. The regime must be tested and prodded and negotiated with again and again. You can only sum this up with a sound-bite like "Use negotiation".But how does this sound when the hawks falsely assert "negotiation has failed".

  • Also, many on the left who are anti-war have an even tougher message to sell, based on a larger even more complex, and more difficult to convey, systematic understanding. This war is a small piece of a larger pattern of US aggressive attempts to dominate the world. The bigger picture presents warmaking as only one of multiple US strategies for domination. From this perspective the war can't be judged on its own merits, but only as one battle in a larger conflict. But trying to present this message. You need to convince people that
    • the bigger picture, the US aggression, exists
    • they should be concerned by it, and against it
    • the merits of this war don't outweigh the negatives

See also AmericanWarOnIraq,ChaordicOrganization, NetoCracy, DecentralizedLeft, TheWorldOfEnds

CategoryPolitics, CategoryEmergence