Our democracies use outdated technologies.
GS > Back in 2005, at a company called ParTecs (Participatory Technologies), I started working in a research project for an e democracy and collaborative deliberation platform which started 10 2001. Its creator, Rufo Guerreschi, had the idea after the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre (the city in which I was born). The project had many ups and downs and never became commercially available. The company was sold, pieces of the software were released as Free/Open Source Software and most of the ideas were inherited by the Telematics Freedom Foundation, a non-profit created to promote e Democracy and the combination "Freedom+Privacy+Security" 10 communications for every world citizen.
In 2007, the ideas recycled from the old platform shaped a Telematics Freedom' project proposal called D02Gether (part of a wider program called "Continuous Democracy"). Basically, a Political Social Networking website.
By November 2008, it came to my knowledge that there was an European call open for "lCT for Govemance and Policy Modelling" due on April 2009, and one of the target outcomes was a "Govemance and Participation Toolbox". Perfect match and evolution for DoGether. I promptly invited some people that could be interested in the same arguments, and after about four months of work we came out with the proposal which you are about to read in this book.
PSdF > Two questions were going around my mind for some time before embarking in eo-writing this proposal. The first was: "how will 21st century going to be like?". And the second was: "how does technology defines the way the society emerges?". Of course the two questions were heavily intertwined.
The first question was inspired by a conversation with my father, Donato Speroni, a retired joumalist who loves his work too much to stop researching and writing. He observed how the democracies we have in the west have, by and large, been designed in the 18th century. With the technology of the 18th century. The reason why in the US, for example, the presidential elections were designed as indirect elections, with the voters choosing an electoral college who then would vote for the president was mostly for logistical reason. With the members of the electoral college voting more than one month after to permit to them to reach Washington by horseback. Similarly in Ireland the parliament only meets two days a week because in the old times each week they would go back to the province that elected them, to report on what has happened (again on horseback). Although none of this happens today, the structure has not changed much in the meantime.
The second question came to me as I was observing the birth of Web2.0. By looking at the birth of Livejournal, Delicious, several blogs, Wikipedia, Slashdot, and many others I could see how different technologies would spur different type of social interaction. Depending if the users were able to communicate to each other, could do this privately or could start a personal thread inside the comments on a post, the relation between them would change. And as this changes would happen over and over again (provided the technology would permit it), society itself would change. The most clear example for me was the blog of the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo. The most followed blog in Italy, with on average more than a thousand comments for each post. But with very limited possibilities for commentators to contact each other. Thus creating in general a huge support for the political activities of the comedian, but very little possibilities for his supporters to split into sub groups that could more easily focus on particular issues (or criticize him). The changes that would be necessary to make this happen would be very tiny. But the effect on a socio-political level (among the million people that support him) would be huge.
As the two questions came together, and started interacting, I was naturally drawn toward thinking, and imagining, how should we design a democracy for the 21 st century. As part of this quest I first joined the group metagovernment (metagovernment.org), I gave a talk in Zurich on the topic "How should the 21st century democracy be organised?" and finally agreed to join efforts with Giovani and his newly formed team to write a grant proposal on the topic.
So how is 21st century democracy going to look like? The EUGAGER proposal to the EU 7th framework programme tried to answer that question or, at least, build the first block of a truly collaborative and secure platform where Governments can deploy their web applications, while providing their citizens with a place to interact freely.
And because the European Union is still to conceive such a platform many groups on civil society are working on it.
Some enlightened politicians are trying to push for more integration between internet and bureaucracy. In the meantime normal citizens with "more-than-average" web skills (i.e. hackers and geeks) are going the other way, trying to build a bottom-up application that would let (a) a group of people to self organize and (b) scale well with size. Each of them is hitting a different wall. The politicians are hitting the wall of privacy. Privacy laws are particularly strong in the EU, and require the governments to be unable to know so much about the voters (citizens) sensitive data. On the other hand, hackers are hitting a very different wall. The wall of authority. First of all, a non-official web service will never have the authority to define what the next decisions of the government should be. Also, the people who participate in those web services are never representative samples of the population. Usually the people who participate are people interested in the topic, activists, and people directly involved. None of those representative of the society at large.
With EUGAGER we tried to provide an answer to both problems. Privacy would have been dealt by splitting the information about users between the main platform and each application. Only a person administering both could try to recover the information, but not without tricking the Security API. Authority is of course answered by the endorsement of the EU and its Member States in using it to launch or migrate their e-participation sites.
We noted that where governments actually fail to tackle their citizens' needs, proprietary platforms like Facebook succeed in gathering groups of people and stimulating them to participate, even if with lower level of identity verification, security and trust on results ... And in the meantime, our colleagues in the US are discussing very similar ideas on having the "Government as a Platform" ...
The story does not obviously end here.
GS Giovani Spagnolo
PSdF Pietro Sper.oni di Fenizio