In 1964, in first year Politics at Monash Uni, I had to write an essay titled “Is a direct democracy possible?” Our professors wanted us to prove we’d read Plato, Mill, Marx, Burke, maybe Arendt or Jefferson -- or at least skimmed the study guides -- and to conclude that giving every citizen equal access to decision-making was so impossible that only tiny tinkerings were required to make our present system of representative government more perfect.
But, being 19, I took the question seriously. Most of my learning back then took place in the student newspaper office listening to Damien Broderick, one of the editors, who was a voracious reader on the emerging topic of computers. He told me that, soon, we would be able to collect limitless data and compute it every way imaginable, and it occurred to me that if all voters could answer the day’s questions, a central computer would be able to spit out an endless series of consensus answers to questions like Who should be allowed to marry whom? or Should Australia generate electricity with nukes? We could also propose next day’s questions, since asking is as essential as answering. I called the big computer in Canberra “the Zeitgeist Machine”, and suggested we could all have electronic keys to prevent cheating. Small screens with keyboards would be all over the place, like phone booths.
My tutor was wrinkle-browed by all this, which I assumed was because she still didn’t know if I’d read Burke or Arendt. “I don’t know what to give you so I’m making it a B+,” she said with a nervous smile. Her name, I recall, was Michelle Grattan.
Today we have all the hardware and software that Damien said we would, and mostly we use it to facebook and twitter – but we also consume and produce massive amounts of political thought, news, and gobbledegook online.
Some believe we could now deploy the Zeitgeist Machine, though they mostly argue for gradual adoption of online voting, campaigning, and policy formation. The Online Direct Democracy Party is already up and running candidates Australia-wide, and like the more nerdy group calling themselves, somewhat unfelicitously, the Flux Party, they aim to be elected to parliament in order to then vote according to decisions reached by their party members online. (Observation: the leaders and staff of both these Australian parties are almost all men.)
I called my invention the Zeitgeist Machine ironically, to suggest the inherent flaw in my utopia, namely, that while the spirit of the times, or zeitgeist, might be digested by a machine, power would remain with those who own the machine.
Things have changed since 1965, existentially. Now we have bitcoin, built on blockchain technology, which spreads control and content among so many players that none can usurp the currency, or in the political version, the power. I remain sceptical, but I’m more sceptical about the future of representative democracy. Since Thatcher and Reagan launched the corporate-sponsored campaign to disempower labor (the workers, not the parties) and all social and economic groups other than profit-driven corporations, Western democracies have devolved from being severely flawed arbitrators of power to become enforcers of the will of whichever warlords of capitalism are ascendant.
So -- rather than create new parties to challenge the warlords, how about we build a platform on which our citizens create a parallel government? Start with writing the rules for raising issues and resolving them, then build toward the constant formulation of policies. And even though this online mob would initially have no power to implement its decisions, it could announce them, challenging the inhabitants of the “real” power system to take notice, whether the issue be enormous like global warming, pretty big like the Trans Pacific Partnership, or small but fun, such as writing a national anthem that doesn’t make everyone cringe.
The point of building a parallel system is to progressively subvert and subsume the present dysfunctional one, and seeds are sprouting in Spain via the Podemos party, in Argentina inspired by Pia Mancini, and by dozens of groups in the USA such as the Personal Democracy Forum, and its blog techPresident, and in dozens of other countries.
But I reckon we should get out in front of all these initiatives and start a real, living example of online democracy. Where better than in the Byron Shire? The Council is almost all devoted to a people-run democracy, and thousands of our citizenry love gabbing on about every issue from Trump to potholes, so why don’t we do it here and now? Actually, local Flux Party nerd James Wright is already working on it, and, for what it’s worth so am I. Watch this space for further news…
By the way, if you’re thinking this is way-off-in-the-future stuff, consider where bitcoin is right now: the central bank of Denmark is planning to issue a blockchain-based digital currency called e-krone as its reserve currency – and Ernst & Young (EY), one of the world’s Big Four accounting corporations, gives secure digital wallet applications to all its employees at their headquarters, and accepts bitcoin payments for all of their consulting services (which amounted to around $7.8 billion in 2016). It’s happening in finance now – politics tomorrow