Technology in politics
Software is eating politics, but not particularly
and not how idealists in politics expect.
Free and open-source software is an explicit inspiration for many new political movements across the world: Wikipolitica in Mexico, Partido de la Red in Argentina, and the European Pirate Parties, to name a few.1
Because programming is such a ruthlessly pragmatic, tool-and-text-based technical affair (“We believe in: rough consensus and running code”), programmers happen to be leading the way in distributed collaboration at this point in time. Seeing this, a particular brand of political idealists (“Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together”) has been trying for decades to create digital democracy software that has barely been able to move past the experimental phase (with experiments that often go nowhere, remain uninhabited, and die quickly or languish).
I think software fostering genuine political imagination & participation is a ridiculously overambitious goal that will only be tackled slowly and piecemeal, after many breakthroughs that are still missing2. It’s like what true AI is to the cognitively obsessed. Political idealists tend to believe that all you need to do is put people and technology together and political intelligence & enlightenment will (Arab-)spring forth. But these are both similar disservices to the true richness of cognition and politics (and reality).
(One particular blindspot is seeing mostly just formal deliberation, voting and governance in political networks, instead of the intense social grooming & weeding, ego & reputation management, and power plays that dominate—where are the apps that focus on those? This to say nothing of violence & its threat, which is OF COURSE a crucial factor in politics as is played out in the real world.)
With political imagination & execution NOT emerging magically out of digital collectives any time soon, we’re stuck with our best solution yet: specialized politicians having to try out their bold conjectures and intuitions, aided and tempered by strong traditions of political criticism, and dismissed nonviolently by majority voting.
Where then can technology be useful in politics? Everywhere, in small but crucial ways.
For instance, a lot of politics is communication, coordination & logistics. Social media, messaging & online productivity groupware, much derided as toys at first, can be real game changers here (like they are everywhere else). I will talk about it in detail in the coming weeks, there are many experiences I’d like to share from my happy political involvements these last years!
1 The funny thing is programmers have some (justified?) notoriety for being brash, petty, narrow, monomaniacal, introverted, bad at social interaction, nonverbal communication and political correctness. The opposite of the charm, suaveness, savoir faire, diplomacy, statesmanship, approachability and general well-roundedness prized outwardly in politics.
In defense of open-source programmers, they really do let it all hang out, warts and all, in mailing lists, forums and issue trackers. Politicians couldn’t conceivably replicate this because their subject matter is not abstractions but often specific people. So we rarely see how the real political sausage is made.
2 Pol.is, coalition clustering via opinion & rating surveys, is likely one such breakthrough, still in a raw form. Another one may be the simple practice of timeboxing participations in face-to-face assemblies.