Are we there yet?
Like most people, I look at the world around me and see huge disconnects between cultures. There is no final straw, but seeing the recent protest in Saudi Arabia by women against the ban on them driving cars pretty much sums up how much global difference there is in value sets. We generally assume our own is the right one.
The web is reasonably mature now, and is being used in politics to good effect. However, I have to ask the question “are we there yet?” I don’t think we are. The proof is that we watch the news daily and often see political leaders discussing sanctions on misbehaving regimes, but we sit and watch the news as if we are powerless to act individually.
Occasionally we see news of a small internet campaign organising a protest somewhere, or how a government wants to control or censor something, but we’re rarely part of it. When we discover that governments have been spying on us, there is a lot of media debate, but little else. I think it is safe to say, “no, we are nowhere near there yet”.
The web isn’t just about technology. It has been around since the early 90s but only now are we seeing it the norm for companies to have web pages and some still don’t. It takes decades for the markets to go from first adopters to later adopters. Some people leave markets before others join them. Social networking is just reaching some web users, while droves leave Facebook every day.
We shouldn’t expect the web to stabilise. There will be something new and something dying all the time. What we should expect to stay is familiarity with the idea of being directly connected to others and to organisations. Governments are organisations too though. They want us to communicate sparingly through carefully crafted websites that give the illusion of having a say. They don’t want social networking sites that arrange mass demonstrations or direct action, and stand menacingly behind soapboxes like twitter to warn everyone that they are being watched. Government well understands that the web is a platform on which political power can be amassed and wielded. The people don’t. Not yet.
Something is missing still. Let’s see what bits we have and how they fit together. Cleaning off the dust, we have some functional social networking bits. Keeping track of contacts works. Linked-In does the business networking side pretty well, Facebook keeps track of old friends, but many of us don’t use them for any other purpose than that.
Twitter keeps us in touch with the latest developments of business relevance. The social side works for those with enough social networking energy, but a lot of us opt out of that. Being sociable only works for socialites. Behind the short term enthusiasm for a new toy, people haven’t fundamentally changed. Humans are designed to network in small tribes, around 100-150 people, and have 5-15 as reasonably close friends. The web hasn’t really changed that appetite or capability. I think that is a huge barrier preventing conventional social networking from becoming a major political tool.
I don’t tweet what I’m up to very often, I very rarely visit my Facebook page, and mostly, I don’t care what other people are doing and am not terribly interested in meeting still more people. Even though some people have thousands of contacts and keep up with a lot of them, the fact will always be that most of us don’t and don’t want to. So even the bits we have are not suited to politics, and assembling the parts of the jigsaw, it’s also obvious that there are also some big missing pieces.
We don’t have a political twitter. We don’t have an issue Facebook. We don’t really have the web pub chat. This prevents people having a properly designed platform where they go to hear what everyone else thinks and join in. About the nearest we get is the comments pages on newspaper blogs. I haven’t designed that new site yet, but it will come and someone will become a billionaire. Think about it. When something happens that angers me, I only rant at my wife and any unfortunate visitors or colleagues. Occasionally I might write a blog piece. I don’t go online to join in some mass protest activity. I would if there was one that was effective. I bet you’re the same.
We don’t have a shared ethical filter for our shopping. We don’t have a boycott net. We don’t have the sanctions engine. There is no common way of us all doing something similar at the same time to really hurt an organisation by imposing collective grass roots sanctions on it. If we did, we could do something instead of just sitting and ranting. If we could do something, we would. We all know there is no point in acting alone, suffering personal inconvenience to achieve nothing. If we can act together, we can achieve a lot, so there is a point in joining in, so we would.
Another big piece missing is that we don’t have a parallel local or national government linking the grass roots social and business fabric to allow us to tell government where to go and do it all ourselves. There is no reason a community can’t link together and bulk buy its services directly, provide its own rules and platforms. We don’t need a local government to do it. Sure, if we went down that road, we’d eventually end up with another form of local government, but having an alternative one that is based on collective grass roots networking allows us make a direct democracy with the people in charge. It allows us to bypass and make irrelevant the official channels. It lets the people stand up to their leaders in a way that just doesn’t exist today.
Today, we get a chance to vote in an election every 5 years. We don’t even make our choice based on the same issues. That makes a very weak mandate indeed. At the very least we need a platform to debate things and eventually to demand referendums if enough people feel strongly enough about something. Beyond that, it needs to be backed up with the power to organise peaceful mass demonstration, social strikes or whatever form of bulk action can make it impossible to govern further without responding to that democratic demand to be listened to.
After a lot of wandering in the networking wilderness, that eventually will be the destination. The web is the natural platform for politics. It will be the platform for politics. Democracy will be web based. We’re just not there yet.