Democracy in a nutshell?

Any thoughts on the following are most welcome….

Democracy is the process and practice of self-government, nothing more and nothing less. We want people to understand that any emergent qualities organizations may have, the definition of democracy is sufficiently flexible to accommodate “emergence.” Just as “democratic” is appended to “markets” and “organization” to explain that to some degree the members of institutions are governing themselves, “emergent democracy” is a process and practice that is democratic in which unplanned results are realized through the input of the widest possible range of individual and institutional participants. It is bottom-up governance that resists the past for the past’s sake and reinvents society anew constantly. It is innovative, preserving and cannibalizing the past to create better solutions to social problems each day. It is many small changes that add up to profound solutions, an order that is intended to change, everything that has made democracy the most compelling form of government (governance?) on Earth. Democracy is so attractive that even the most undemocratic governments wrap themselves in the flag of democracy to look good for the crowds they rule.

(From Jon: There is a sentence above that I didn’t quite get. In this sentence: We want people to understand that any emergent qualities organizations may have, the definition of democracy is sufficiently flexible to accommodate “emergence.” – a word seems to be missing?)

Because democracy is practice and process, it is susceptible to changes via the application of technology. Democracy is much more than voting, it is a system of communication, debate and choice-making. Networked computers, we know, are tools that dramatically transform all these activities.

Likewise, democracy is founded on the dissemination and analysis of information among citizens. Education is both the by-product and a significant driver of a healthy democracy, as demonstrated by the high levels of educational achievement in the United States and Europe compared to most of the world during the first half of the 20th century and the rapid transition towards democracy among nations where educational levels were increased during the second half of the 20th century. Democracy demands informed people and informed people seem to demand democracy.

The proliferation of the Internet has carried information and education to parts of the world, as well as places in the United States and Europe, where it has never been available so conveniently or with such speed, enabling new achievements in education and decision-making.

From Jon: we should clarify that democracy is discussion and debate leading to decision – and one problem with purer forms of democracy is the difficulty getting past discussion to an informed and timely decision. (We should also make clear that e-demo happens within the larger framework of “democracy,” extending the existing definition of participation without really changing the basic structure of democracy, that is, self-rule)

What comes first, democracy or discussion? How does a society reach the point where it can make informed and timely decisions? Many of the mainstream ideas about democracy argue a nation has to achieve a certain order or level of prosperity to enable democratic deliberation. If you look, however, at the history of economic development, the most successful countries have always embraced investment in education before they reached prosperity — and education is a keystone of democracy, as well, if it is directed toward the growth of rationality and critical thinking. They rise together, that in totalitarian states, discussion started in small groups, who learn from one another and also learn to share control, to debate and vote and accept the rule of a majority that constantly shifts in its composition. They co-evolve or perish.

When we talk about emergence we mean that no one is in total control, but there is a great deal of control working within the emergent system. Societies establish processes for decision-making. Practice emerges and evolves based on initial processes. Emergence is a bottom-up experience of change in society in contrast to the top-down business of politics in a mass media system.

Modern media has actually caused a retrograde movement in politics, as the local gave way to the domination by national top-down forces. The availability of tools for connecting people concerned with the same issues can, but won’t necessarily, transform the politics of the 20th century into something new.

The phenomenal thing about tools is that, while they may be very expensive or difficult to obtain or build at the beginning of their lifecycle, they always become commodities, available to everyone at a very low cost eventually. In the case of tools for democracy, there are a number of factors driving the cost down more quickly than ever: the open source movement; the globalization of the Net, which yields many more sources of tools, and; the urgency felt by people who crave increased liberty and a voice in the conduct of government.

The tools we’ll discuss and use as examples in this book are primarily open source, though we’ll touch on how email and other proprietary tools can be tied into a growing system of open source tools to create additional political leverage.

But the real challenge in changing the political system is first understanding what needs to be changed before the change can happen. This challenge exists on two levels: Understanding what can be improved in democratic societies where big money and big media currently dominate the communication of ideas, and; Understanding the consequences of choices made when designing and applying new tools to human processes.

Author: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.