Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Disrupting Politics Part I - For the People by the People

In 1698, 175 Russian men left their military regiment and fled to the capital. After two years of war, the soldiers were starving and had little to show for their victorious campaigns. Back in Moscow, they found sympathizers among oppressed serfs and traditionalists who were upset by the profound cultural changes being forced upon them by their monarch, Peter the Great. As the discontent grew, their rage turned to rebellion, and they plotted to overthrow their ruler. Not surprisingly, Peter the Great quickly squashed the uprising. What is more disturbing is that over the next nine months, he executed over 1,000 men for their failed allegiances, and brutally tortured some 600 more (branding many with iron). Years later, also in his quest to modernize Russia, nearly 30,000 men died in the building of his namesake city.

Yet for all his personal and political atrocities, Peter the Great is widely held as one of Russia's greatest leaders, a man who indeed shifted Russia from traditionalism and slavery to the scientific method and modernism. History is full of such juxtapositions. Many a man or woman in leadership have ruthlessly violated the rights of their people, yet through the lens history, made substantial advancements for their country and their future countrymen.

What then is the role of leaders? This question was a core debate between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as they, among others, debated America's foundations. Jefferson had a deep faith in the ability of the common to rule, while Hamilton felt that rule should come from the educated: those who had the benefit and knowledge of history to avoid pitfalls of the past. We still face this question today, with the Republican Party largely distrusting of large government, and the Democratic Party largely in favor of it.

In the United States, it is easy for us to view the Internet through the lens of the impact it can have on other countries, the recent Arab Spring being a notable example. Yet, it is worth considering what impact the Internet can have on how we rule our own county? Will democracy and modern rule look the same 100 years from now as it does today?

In the following few weeks, I'll be making suggestions as to what this looks like, in hopes to stimulate a broader discussion. My first question is this: what role should we expect elected officials to fill? Is it best to elect officials who we believe to be more knowledgeable that ourselves, and to defer to their judgment on issues that are outside of our understanding? Or is it better for an official to serve as a direct representative of the people?

If the answer is the latter, then the technological implications are broad. In this framework, a representative exists as an "aggregator of wills". Historically, it was impossible to poll the masses to determine their collective will. Yet the Internet changes that. Under the right system, each voice has the ability to "cast their ballot" on issues.

So my first challenge is this: a Senatorial candidate whose platform is to have no agenda, but rather, via online polling (through the likes of Votizen), brings every major issue to the people of his or her state, and votes as the people decide. The role of this individual will be one of an educator: he or she will commit to publishing the facts surrounding an issue, advise what he or she believes the impacts on his or her state will be, and then leave it to the people to decide. Understandably, not every issue can be brought to light: it will be at the discretion of this individual to bring forth what he or she considers to be major issues.

It's important to note that in this post, I am not siding with either Jefferson nor am I siding with Hamilton. I am simply highlighting that we have the opportunity to use technology to "test" a new form of representation. May the outcome determine the victor.

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