Internet Democracy/Conversation Café

Sep 01, 2012

The latest Bourne movie features an electrifying wolf attack, a tense vision of predation. The rogue spy hero, on the run and wounded or seeming so, struggles nervously. The muzzle of the lupus creases into a murderous snarl.

It doesn’t ruin the ending to say that the human uses his cleverness to overcome brutal natural speed and strength.

Of course, it’s just a story. Wolves rarely hunt humans. Highly-trained spies rarely go rogue. We have wildlife officers to control the former, and members of parliament overseeing the latter.

Our democratic representatives direct highly trained, heavily armed police and military forces. They lead ambitious, sometimes insidious, bureaucrats. They use nothing more than a watch, a dictionary, and their cleverness. It’s an amazing phenomenon, and not every society is lucky this way.

Citizens in turn defend themselves against politicians, and their warchests of public and private campaign dollars, by relying on their wits. Under the cover of busy lives, we take spare moments here and there to learn to varying degrees about the issues. Then we average out our preferences at the ballot box.

Democracy is the clever way that ordinary individuals of modest means fend off hungry predators, private or public. There’s safety in numbers, provided the numbers can coordinate effectively.

Does the Internet, do our home and mobile computers, serve democracy as well as they serve personal fulfillment and trade? Publishing opinions on public policy and making networks of like-minded people are not new innovations. The Internet combines and animates them to create whole new types of forums. It fundamentally alter the costs and speed of deliberating hard topics.

The Internet, like the computers that power it, is a universal machine. The same tubes carry both pictures of cats with pidgin english captions and crucial information for voters.

Laws regulating the Internet, therefore, need to be treated as solemnly as amendments to an Elections act. We need democratic access to the Internet just as we expect barrier-free access to the polling booth. It must be as trustworthy as a slip of paper and a golf pencil.

TransitionKW is hosting a Conversation Café on Internet Democracy at the Working Centre on 26th September. A panel (myself included) will introduce insights on equitable and safe Internet access for individuals and grassroots groups. All attendees can contribute to roundtable discussions. Democracy day itself is 15th September.

Our lawmakers at various levels are struggling with (or against) innovations brought about by the Internet, that have a direct impact on democracy.

Bill C-11 updated copyright law in an age of flawless, costless, borderless copying. Turns out it wasn’t electricity that is too cheap to meter, but information.

Bill C-30, the Lawful Access Act, is an employment manual for Big Brother. Governments’ jaundiced eye for online dissent is linked directly to their trigger fingers.

Governments seem tempted to rein in the Internet’s bit-oriented promiscuity, rather than updating our old atom-oriented economics to match it.

Until politicians see the new direction that the parade is taking, average people need to compensate for this mighty institutional inertia. That requires cleverness.

Cleverness is best deployed early. The weak but cunning hero prepares for hours before the predator, or the corporate bully, or the political tyrant, takes action. That’s what the electorate must do if it wants to apply the Internet to democracy.

If you believe the same, cast about through your social networks for a seat at the Conversation Café. You may not feel like an action hero, but you’ll be glad you took the time when the Internet’s wolves appear through the digital trees.

Kirk Zurell is a computing professional in Kitchener and an alumnus of Leadership Waterloo Region. Reach him at kirk@kirk.zurell.name