Digital or human democracy?

The following text by David Bovill is an excerpt from a debate about purely digital democracy, in response to the proposal from the Cosmopolitical party.

The proposal is roughly what I believed in when I first proposed using Liquid Democracy in the late 90’s, and started coding implementation in the early 2000’s. So I’m a natural advocate, but it is a position I rejected around 2003.

I still agree with most of it, but I absolutely disagree with the online only element, and since you have expressed this so clearly, I’d like to try to say why.

It is partly a practical reason, but only partly. More fundamentally it is a deep human reason grounded on what I would consider the fundamentals of politics from a philosophical perspective.

The human reason is based on experience of tow types of people – my neighbours, and hackers.

I have tried many times to organise groups using online voting, and seen many groups try to use Liquid Democracy (as you define it) and my neighbours, or at least some of them won’t use it, and don’t want to use it. They are also right about this, that is their instincts are based on more than a dislike of online culture or interacting with computers.

The question I asked myself is how to get the grandmother who lives two doors down to use the computer, or how to get the mother of 5 children two floors down to do the same.

At first I thought well it’s easy, let’s get one of her kids to talk to her, and then he can use his mobile phone… then I thought well how about if she came to the community meeting and talked to people and the delegative vote was registered there….. ?

Thinking of this harder, and trying out a few scenarios, I got what was missing from this picture of democracy.

This idea of text based, deliberative democracy, is fundamentally elitist hacker culture that does not respect the diversity of human thought (neurodiversity), nor culture. Just as important it does not take into account the value of different forms of understanding and therefore deliberation about human value, and human value IS politics.

Making text only, intellectual deliberation not only the primary way for a human being to express their political opinion is not simply excluding certain types of people (ie discriminatory and therefore antidemocratic) – but it is also epistemically wrong – as it ignores other very useful ways human beings sense and judge value.

Secondly the problem of hacker culture. What you describe is a perfect medium for a certain type of human – it is ideal democracy for hacker culture. Not just digital natives, but also people who understand / prefer to express themselves rationally and in text. We should allow these people to express themselves that way. But we should be wary of two things.

First we should recognise that there is a real danger of hackers / coders becoming the new lawyers, bankers, politicians and high priests of our age. They have increasing respect and status, they speak their own highly technical language, and they are increasingly demanding that everyone else do things the way they prefer to do things.

Secondly we need to recognise that people who see things this way are not “rational” while other people are “irrational”. They are just different. We need other perspective. They (as an emerging class of people) need other perspectives to make competent political decisions.

For those reasons we need physical meetings, we need face-to-face discussions, we need art, and documentary, and anthropological techniques in our politics and our political systems.

We need “democratic sensors” that capture the full range of human experience and judgments – text does not do that and never will.

A good text only interface is a wonderful thing for those that like and are powerful in our ability to express things in the written word. But NEVER impose this one modality on the rest of us. There are many ways for human beings to express themselves, and if you want to bring more empathy and tolerance into politics – universalising text as the only way to do this is almost certainly not the best way to get there.

David Bovill


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