22 February 2012

From Choice to Design - the Evolution of Democracy

Today is George Washington's birthday. The most remarkable thing about the man is that he was the very first president in the history of the world.

Over the last couple of centuries we've seen a remarkable evolution in government, which has become more democratic nearly everywhere. Even as late as 1848, democratic revolutions were suppressed across Europe. Democracy is new and I believe it's only begun to evolve. Changes in media, the shift from newspapers to social networks, have laid the foundation for this.

Democracy as we know it is essentially freedom of choice. We can vote for candidates from a variety of ideologies and platforms. And there is - by any historic standard - enormous freedom in this. But I suspect that a higher level of democracy will emerge in our lifetimes, a democracy of design to complement the democracy of choice.

Imagine that rather than just choose between candidates or parties, citizens were involved in brainstorming what sort of community they wanted. What if democracy meant involvement in citizen groups that defined  public areas, rights or freedoms, means of transportation, education, means to grow, distribute, and prepare food, and dozens of other things?

Design - actual involvement in defining and choosing among possibilities - offers far more freedom to the individual than does mere choice. And it would also give possibility far better representation than it has now. Group forums in which people argued for and explained what was possible because of new technology or ideas would have a better chance to be heard, give them a better chance to be heard over top the tired debates that often originated decades - or even centuries - ago.

Citizenship might transform from mere voting to something akin to jury duty, people called from various walks of life to participate in these community design projects. This might be something expected of everyone, an exercise of active imagination to create a public good rather than passive judgment between the lesser of evils.

The media to support this has already evolved. During the last couple of decades, newspapers have massively shriveled while blogs, tweets, social networks, and talk radio has exploded. Why? Media has transformed from a platform from which the community is informed to a platform from which it is heard. Newspapers originally emerged along with democracy as a means for communities to hear about options they'd choose between. Now, we have the infrastructure in place to begin the next phase, the phase we've seen glimmers of in the Tea Party and Occupy Wall St. In this phase, democracy will become something we define through our own voice rather than by listening to the voice of others.

This could be fascinating.

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