THE BLOG
04/11/2013 08:12 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

The Limits of Digital Democracy

As the digital revolution continues its inexorable march into every aspect of our daily lives, the way we engage with the political process is undergoing a fundamental shift. Digital media are transforming the way we interact with political campaigns, lobby our elected representatives, strive for accountable government, and even how we conduct revolution. And 'clicktivists' are getting more excited by the day about the future prospects for the fledgling idea of 'democracy 2.0'.

Imagine a parliament run entirely on videoconferences between MPs, with online communities and digital networks helping form policy and the casting of votes thereafter. Not only would this enable governors to express their opinion from miles away, it would also make life easier for temporarily absent but eligible voters such as those in the armed forces. We'd save a bunch on administrative expenses such as travel and second homes for MPs too, who would now have more time to be politically productive as opposed to being stuck in transit. The Town Hall could just be a scaled down version of whatever mobile network we choose to operate politics on, a network that could be made so efficient as to give us far more time to comprehend the intricacies of each issue under discussion. Actually, since we seem to be transferring so much of our political selves into cyberspace anyway, why don't we just go the whole hog and do away with physical politics entirely?

There are several problems with this version of cyber-utopianism, however. First, any reasonable individual must concede that the beneficial effect of electronic voting has yet to be proven conclusively. In Sheffield's 2007 local elections, voting by internet and telephone was piloted, opening 4 days before the election. Only 4,621 people - 3.43% of the voters that were eligible - utilised these opportunities. The Electoral Commission also said that it had "some concerns with the accountability and transparency of the process of counting electronic votes" and found that the pilot scheme had "a negligible impact on turnout". Many of those who did elect to use the e-vote reported a predisposition to vote regardless.

Second, as Rafael Behr of the New Statesman notes, "of roughly ten million people in Britain who do not have access to the internet, half are in the lowest, DE socio-economic bands. Thirty-nine per cent are over the age of 65. The people least likely to have computers or web access at home are those living in social housing". The result, then, of a completely digital democracy, would be a disproportionately large focus on a middle class agenda, where the internet is primarily used to amplify the voices of the educated and privileged instead of being a true tool for democratisation. The poor, infirm, elderly and recent immigrants - groups that a progressive society should want firmly involved in the decision making process - would all suffer from their lack of access to online networks.

This is not to say that most MPs don't have it within their power to use new media maturely. In 2010 and the number of MPs on Twitter was already over 100. Today that number is nearer 400, giving MPs a combined Twitter following in excess of one million - a ubiquitous crowd capable of enforcing greater levels of transparency upon parliament.

Many in the world of politics, however, have clearly failed to embrace and utilise digital media to improve the democratic process. In the Italian Parliament, where laptops are permitted, members have been spied ogling everything from voluptuous models to serene holiday destinations during debates. Maybe that's why when, in 2011, the informal agreement between British MPs giving them leeway to use Twitter inside the chamber was challenged by the deputy Commons speaker, and an was amendment brought forward to restrict the use of electronic devices to urgent matters only. The amendment was put to vote, and nearly a third of MPs supported it. Not all of these MPs are the parliamentary equivalent of dinosaurs I'm sure; some would have had genuine concerns over bringing the House's reputation into disrepute.

As soon as a clickocracy becomes coordinated between nations, a whole new set of issues would arise as well. Now imagine some worldwide version of digital campaign group Avaaz that polled the entirety of the human race to decide on a subsequent course of political action. This would rather rapidly be scoffed at on the grounds that we wouldn't have a hope in hell of verifying the accuracy of the end result. The administrative difficulties alone would be astronomical, not to mention a possible erosion of trust in the global system of governance.

At the same time, our establishment fulfills the valuable and often thankless task of engaging in a level of research and policy planning that goes well beyond the means of most members of our online political communities. As well intentioned and ethically straight-laced as a digital crusader may be, he must ascertain with certainty that his demand has been thought through in its entirety and that he has properly assessed all of the relevant costs and benefits. Because of this, the interactive element of e-politics does not by necessity result in optimal outcomes. Evolution is necessary to remain relevant of course, but this should not be at the sacrifice of traditional methodologies that in certain circumstances could lead to better results.

So the question should be not whether the digital world should become the political one, but how far its tools should become involved in our democracy to make it function better for regular citizens. The fact that we are still searching for the right platform for e-government suggests that we can only really tell how empowering information technologies can be as political devices once we have developed them and experimented with them further.

This article is an edited extract from Justin Cash's new book "The Rise of Clickocracy: Politics for a Digital Age", out now in print here and eBook here.