Technology and Democracy: Wired Magazine Elitism versus Pirate Party Openness

Organizing Voting Rights
Logo of the Pirate Party in Germany

New Orleans  My son subscribes to Wired magazine, the glossy, tech and computer boosting publication.  I like it and read it regularly once he’s finished.  Yesterday, it was in the pile of publications I toted to the basement of the Criminal Court jury rooms to pass the time in my required biannual service as a citizen of this fair city.

An article by Wired contributing editor, Joshua Davis, called “Fewer Voters, Better Elections,” was breathtaking in its elitism and implicit attack on democracy.  Citing two current research studies, one disappointingly from Stanford, Davis argues for a random “statistically valid” sample of 100,000 of our 313 million citizens who would be polled on the questions and candidates of the day.  Davis deftly avoids the gaping holes in his argument against mass citizen participation by citing the litany of problems with the current system (lack of participation, problems of campaign financing, TV ads) and arguing for a system of random participation in “small group deliberations” which would have more time and ability to make “informed” decisions, which he likens to jury pools, ignoring all evidence to the problems with juries as well.

Parts of the Wired argument are not only anti-democratic but almost calculatingly deceptive.  First, Davis glances over the fact that he and the researchers want to pool their random people from a pool of “registered voters,” which blatantly reinforces a huge structural weakness in the current American system, which excludes, and increasingly suppresses, the citizen participation of minorities, elderly, and the poor among many others.  Secondly, Davis tries to conflate the Stanford “small group deliberations,” which he touts as “part of legally binding decision processes in 18 countries” as being the same or an adequate substitute for the real engagement and participation that is voting.  Small group, big group, mass meetings, whatever, let a thousand flowers bloom as pieces of a “decision” process, but that will never be the same as democracy, and no country has adopted that in this world.

Contrast this almost fascist advocacy of technology as a tool of the elite with an Op-ed piece by Steve Kettman in the New York Times on the use of internet tools to increase input in the building of more citizen participation.

But the Pirates’ generation isn’t as radical as their parents’, and they understand the value of conventional politics. They just believe that it’s stuck in the past.

The Pirates’ insight is that the Internet is both message and medium. Young Germans, who spend large amounts of time online, care deeply about government attempts to regulate or monitor their activity; at the same time, the Internet offers a way for the party to completely upend German politics.

Using a software package they call Liquid Feedback, the Pirates are able to create a continuous, real-time political forum in which every member has equal input on party decisions, 24 hours a day. It’s more than just a gimmicky Web forum, though: complex algorithms track member input and generate instantaneous collective decisions.

Of course, on some level Liquid Feedback is a gimmick, an effort to get young people interested and involved in the humdrum of German politics, outside the campaign season and even off line. Whatever it is, it works: late last month some 1,300 members trekked to the small northern city of Neumünster to elect a new executive board.

I’ve argued previously that the real and lasting contribution of the Occupy movement may in fact be their cumbersome, consensus building process because it at least attempts to build a better system for the expression of group decisions based on individual consent.   The Pirates, though an interesting minor party in Germany and several other countries, to their credit have created a tool that allows their members “equal input on party decisions.”

None of this solves the problems of the poor and the cavernous and growing gap across the digital divide, which like universal registration and mandatory voting is simply ignored in the USA, but at least these are steps towards more democracy, not less, and that makes running up the Jolly Roger flag a much easier choice than any offered by the Silicon Valley buccaneers who seem to have lost all contact with the rest of us in the 99%.

Pirate Party Internet Campaigning