Over the weekend, I’ve been reading the draft of a once and future book on emergent democracy. The thesis is that many-to-many network communication is transforming human political and social organization. Theorists of emergent democracy draw on metaphors of self-organizing in networks, termites, flocks of birds.
The argument has truth and explanatory power. All changes in communication affect the nature and organization of human society. Networked communication facilitates network behavior patterns that can be described with network math.
There is also something profoundly unsatisfying about network determinism, where current forms of government are inevitably replaced by ad hoc swarms of citizens. There are two items that are missing in the ant metaphor — the nature of the nodes, and the nature of the ecosystem. In a human population, the nodes of the network are intelligent; the pheremones are ideas. The human self-organization takes place within a cultural ecosystem, with resources and constraints like money and laws, unlike termite colonies or flocks of birds, whose forms are shaped by food and weather.
Intelligence in the political network can be described along two related dimensions:
* coordinating action — in networked environment, the ability to draw groups in alignment, rather than in continual brownian bickering
* coordinating ideas — framing discourse to enable shared understanding
This frame makes the affect of the network easier to see: the network makes it easier to co-ordinate groups to take action, and makes it easier to spread ideas among groups.
By taking the environmental metaphor too literally, theorists of emergent democracy refrain from drawing models of the networked polity. After all, if the change is emergent and self-organizing, prediction misses the point. But the human environment is a built environment. Therefore, a theory of the evolution of a networked polity should take into account the constraints of the environment, and the adaptive paths from here to there.
Today, the elements of politics are election campaigns (mass marketing, fund-raising), and inter-election policy making, influenced by activist campaigns and donor money. Emergent democracy enables peer to peer get-out-the-vote activity and decentralized fundraising at election time; and enables groups of citizens to self-organize around issues in the creation and administration of policy.
Blogs, discussion groups, and “peer media” countact the centralizing tendency of mass media, and help provide greater visibility in local politics and particular issues. One chronic mistake made by the prophets of blogging as a political force is to see the conversation, opinion, and journalism in blogs as directly connected to political change.
Conversation, debate and deliberation is important in a democracy, but citizen conversation alone doesn’t make policy. There are two missing steps. First, citizens need to relearn to organize. The conversation needs to translate into action – effective advocacy for specific policy, or campaigning for specific candidates. Second, government officials need to learn how to listen. Today, politicians check polls to see what voters think. Tools like Technorati will give politicians a richer view of the opinion of particularly active citizens.
Yes, say advocates of emergence, but legislation and administration are passe in a networked age. Social decisions will just “emerge” as the sum of a million conversations. There is clearly room for greater decentralization and experimentation. However, as Stewart Brand observed in “As Buildings Learn”, buildings (and the civic infrastructure) consist of layers, with different lifespans.
One failure mode in underdeveloped states is the lack of a reliable legal system. Businesses need a stable foundation for contracts and dispute resolution, in order to conduct the shifting and fast-changing process of entrepreneurship and innovation. Roads, bridges, water and sewage systems are amortized over many decades. (Privatized decentralization is not a complete solution — if water and sewer systems are allocated to those with the ability to pay, epidemics will kill poor people and threaten the rich.) There will continue to be some stable organizational structure to create slow-changing rules, and and to choose, pay for and maintain longlasting assets.
There are other areas currently supported by government — education, health care — where there is some social agreement to spend common resources, but many opinions about how to do this, with competition between centralized and decentralized approaches.
The current geographical basis of governance — local, state/province, national, international — is shaped by geographic concentration of interests, and communication costs. As communication costs decrease, and it’s easier for citizens with common interests to band together across geography, jurisdictions will probably change.
It is useful to think about which aspects of social policy should continue to be set, funded, and managed by slow deliberative government process, which functions should remain but shift jurisdiction, and which functions should be handled by other social structures.
In sum, ideas of emergent democracy provide valuable tools for thinking about the networked polity. But a strong model of emergent democracy includes a picture of how people organize and deliberate, and how government functions in a networked world. Because the nodes of the network are intelligent, and the environment is built by people, it is not at all pointless to discuss a model of governance in a networked polity, and the answers are far from deterministic.
This essay can be found in live wiki form, here