Sunday, October 7, 2012

Open-source Democracy

Clay Skirky (author on the internet and professor on new media)
In the TED speech excerpt below, Clay Shirky makes a case for open-source programming being applied to democracy, whereby citizens would have a constant interactive say in policy, legislation, and overall government ideas. Skirky says that the technology exists for an open-source democracy similar to open-source programming. However, he says that citizens do not have the power to make this democratic advancement. He says that politicians have the power, but they are not experimenting with participation.

An open source democracy would allow all citizens to have a meaningful platform to share their ideas in the formation and direction of society in terms of government policy and law. And unlike referendums which are restricted, open-source means daily interaction and sharing of ideas. However, even in an open-source, someone has to make the final decision on what policy or idea is successful. So it is unclear that an open-source presents a new way of governing society.

Open-source refers to software, legislation, regulations whose source code is in the public domain.

Skirky's Speech Excerpt:

".... So, the law is also dependency-related. This is a graph of the U.S. Tax Code, and the dependencies of one law on other laws for the overall effect. So there's that as a site for source code management. But there's also the fact that law is another place where there are many opinions in circulation, but they need to be resolved to one canonical copy, and when you go onto GitHub, and you look around, there are millions and millions of projects, almost all of which are source code, but if you look around the edges, you can see people experimenting with the political ramifications of a system like that. Someone put up all the Wikileaked cables from the State Department, along with software used to interpret them, including my favorite use ever of the Cablegate cables, which is a tool for detecting naturally occurring haiku in State Department prose. The New York Senate has put up something called Open Legislation, also hosting it on GitHub, again for all of the reasons of updating and fluidity. You can go and pick your Senator and then you can see a list of bills they have sponsored. Someone going by Divegeek has put up the Utah code, the laws of the state of Utah, and they've put it up there not just to distribute the code, but with the very interesting possibility that this could be used to further the development of legislation. Somebody put up a tool during the copyright debate last year in the Senate, saying, "It's strange that Hollywood has more access to Canadian legislators than Canadian citizens do. Why don't we use GitHub to show them what a citizen-developed bill might look like?" And it includes this very evocative screenshot.

This is a called a "diff," this thing on the right here. This shows you, for text that many people are editing, when a change was made, who made it, and what the change is. The stuff in red is the stuff that got deleted. The stuff in green is the stuff that got added. Programmers take this capability for granted. No democracy anywhere in the world offers this feature to its citizens for either legislation or for budgets, even though those are the things done with our consent and with our money.

Now, I would love to tell you that the fact that the open-source programmers have worked out a collaborative method that is large scale, distributed, cheap, and in sync with the ideals of democracy, I would love to tell you that because those tools are in place, the innovation is inevitable. But it's not. Part of the problem, of course, is just a lack of information. Somebody put a question up on Quora saying, "Why is it that lawmakers don't use distributed version control?" This, graphically, was the answer. And that is indeed part of the problem, but only part.

The bigger problem, of course, is power. The people experimenting with participation don't have legislative power, and the people who have legislative power are not experimenting with participation. They are experimenting with openness. There's no democracy worth the name that doesn't have a transparency move, but transparency is openness in only one direction, and being given a dashboard without a steering wheel has never been the core promise a democracy makes to its citizens.

So consider this. The thing that got Martha Payne's opinions out into the public was a piece of technology, but the thing that kept them there was political will. It was the expectation of the citizens that she would not be censored. That's now the state we're in with these collaboration tools. We have them. We've seen them. They work. Can we use them? Can we apply the techniques that worked here to this?

T.S. Eliot once said, "One of the most momentous things that can happen to a culture is that they acquire a new form of prose." I think that's wrong, but -- I think it's right for argumentation. Right? A momentous thing that can happen to a culture is they can acquire a new style of arguing: trial by jury, voting, peer review, now this. Right?

A new form of arguing has been invented in our lifetimes, in the last decade, in fact. It's large, it's distributed, it's low-cost, and it's compatible with the ideals of democracy. The question for us now is, are we going to let the programmers keep it to themselves? Or are we going to try and take it and press it into service for society at large?"

Question to Readers:

Does open-source offer a viable way to advance democracy, or it is merely a way for more public input which may or may not be listened to?


  1. The experts have been predicting this supposed electronic-democracy revolution since the early 1990s, when the internet was still refered to as "the information super-highway".

    It always sounds great, until real life gets in the way. We will always need some form of traditional government, but hopefully this open-source model will improve the quality and fairness of the decisions that get made. The trouble is that money always talks, and lately it has been talking louder than ever.

  2. Good points; it is hard to stop money because it flows like water. But like water, money can be stopped or controlled if there is the political will.

    It is unclear to us what difference an open-source model would have democracy, if there is no corresponding share of political power with the engaged public.

    For start, all government decisions posted online in a clear, categorized format and open to public comment and debate may be helpful.

    As it stands, parties are elected for a term, with almost no direct accountability to the citizens they are suppose to represent, and making decisions often times unrelated and/or inconsistent with what the parties campaigned on....

  3. I think that's a great idea. Here's one implementation of the idea...


    1. Thanks for sharing. It still comes down to whether or not those with political power listen? And how selective is the listening?

      How different is the TellThePresident different from an opinion poll? Is it anymore or any less reliable than a poll?

      How useful are yes and no answers?

      It appears that there needs to be political power connected to open-source democracy, otherwise it can be disregarded or used selectively by those with political power.


Thank you for sharing your perspective.