Democracy - an operating system for the people


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This presentation serves as a high level theoretical introduction to the subject of democracy and digital media. The presentation takes a look at the idea of democracy and how it works in modern society. It then progresses to introduce a thesis about democracy being an operating system for the people. Building on this thesis, it aims to reveal seven criteria for democratic services. Towards the end, the presentation approaches a conceptual framework for a solution to the problems identified earlier.

This talk was originally presented in Norwegian at the Yggdrasil Conference for 2008. It has also been presented at various other occasions. The slides have been translated from Norwegian to English.

Please see slide notes.

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  • We are Håkon Skramstad and Eirik Langås from Making Waves This talk is about democracy. We are not sociologists; nor political scientists – but we work with digital media in our day jobs. This lecture is now more than a year old and we have delivered it to different audiences. Since then, Quite a lot has happened with regards to digital media and democracy and in Norway there has been an election recently. Out motivation back then was to look into something we find both important and interesting. We face the same dilemma as politicians: To deliver a long and complex message in a short timeframe. First we will take a look at the idea of democracy and how it works in modern society. Then we will introduce our thesis about democracy being an operating system for the people. We shall then build on this thesis to reveal some criteria for democratic services. Towards the end we will approach a conceptual framework for a solution to the problems identified earlier in the lecture. This lecture serves as a high level theoretical introduction to the subject of democracy and digital media.
  • We originally made this lecture based on a vision to create: [read yellow] We will not go into detail on this framework today. The goal of this lecture is rather to inspire and look at some of the thinking behind this idea.
  • In Norway we have a democracy. But what is a democracy, really? And does it work the way it is intended to work? Participation in democratic processes is continuously diminishing. Information is tabloid, and the focus is usually limited to individual populist issues. At the same time, we register a flourishing activity on the grass roots level when it comes to using the internet to share thoughts, experiences and opinions. So what can we do to make democratic processes more attractive and accessible? We will now show a short film from last year’s US election campaign that may shed some light on how democracy is experienced by the common man.
  • Before we delve further into the subject of democracy, we wish to pinpoint some of the problems related to how democracy functions today.
  • Globalization and other factors has led to an increasing complexity with mutual dependencies and a high rate of change. The recent financial crisis serves as an example of this interdependence. It is difficult to distinguish between cause and effect – not to mention finding a solution and a way forward.
  • This ever increasing complexity requires simplifications in the form of: Simple answers to complicated questions (populism) Polarization (black / white) Fragmentation and focus on individuals
  • The perceived gap between politicians and citizens is widening. Exemplified here from Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty last year. It seems unlikely that the recent re-referendum reduces this gap. Last year I was watching the news and people on the streets said they voted ”no” because they could hardly understand anything of the 270 pages of complex legal language.
  • Perhaps this simplification results in people pulling out of the traditional democratic arenas. This is manifested by: Diminishing election turnouts Lower recruitment to political parties Flattening of the public discourse. According to (which is the Norwegian Government’s official web presence) about one third of first-time voters make use of their right to vote and the number has been declining. Falling voter participation is not limited to youth. It is a trend within all age groups.
  • For many people, democratic participation is limited to answering some yes / no questions prior to the election. This results in a very limited and perhaps egoistic approach: Who can represent me and my interests?
  • Dialogue is limited to the people we already agree with. This visualization is an example of polarization of purchasing patterns from Democrats (blue on the left) read some books while republicans (red on the right) read other books. The overlap is very small..
  • The historical foundation for democracy can be traced back to meeting places in the public shpere where people met to discuss topics of common interest. Today, there may be fewer meeting places where people of mixed backgrounds and ages can meet and interact.
  • But there are new public spheres emerging on the internet Acording to SOON, 75 percent of Norwegian internet users have contributed with content in digital media. Why can we not make better use of these new digital meeting places for democratic discourse and exchange of opinions?
  • Our claim is that oppurtunities for influence is at a historical high point (illustrated here by a tabloid information graphics)
  • But all statements are not equally constructive. The challenge then, is to enable a constructuve exchange of views. User generated content can be of poor quality if moderation mechanisms are not in place.
  • Our claim is that democratic institutions only take advantage of these new opportunities on a superficial level. Here we see EUTube which is the European Union’s channel on Youtube. But how suitable is Youtube as a tool for democratic processes?
  • Simultaneously, the private sector has started listening to its customers. This is Dell’s Community Pulse. [Tell Dell Hell Story] In Dell’s case, this is not a superficial makeover. Extensive organizational changes followed in the wake of the blogging attack on Dell’s customer service.
  • To sum up this introduction: There is an increasing complexity of issues. A simplification of democratic discourse A declining participation in traditional democratic arenas And, new emerging public spheres on the internet But what is democracy, really?
  • When you ask people for a definition of democracy, the most common response is: Majority rule. But is it that simple; is democracy a tyranny of the majority?
  • Here we see some photographs from two Danish artists who in light of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2004 set out to bring democracy from Europe to Iraq. They brought with them a container with an instruction book for democratic principles, a manual for a nomadic parliament and a democracy flag. This art project brings attention to the fact that democracy is more than just elections. It is also principles, culture and a way of life that must permeate the masses.
  • According to the invitation to the Norwegian State’s design competition for 2008, the aim was to promote accessible, attractive and appealing polling stations. They identified the same trends that we have pointed out, but focused on the inappropriate physical environment related to elections. But is it really the polling stations that represents the real issue?
  • The word democracy is derived from the Greek word demos, meaning people or indirectly - representative government. Here wee see a quote from JFK which implies something about democracy requiring a broadest possible degree of participation.
  • And another interesting quote from Roosevelt where he implies that democratic processes must evolve with changes in society over time.
  • From the current situation, it may be possible to move in three directions: Towards an elitist democracy through a deeper engagement from experts (EU). Towards a thin democracy through a broader engagement of the oceans of people (gasoline price hysteria). In a balanced democracy, citizen’s engagement is both deep and broad. But how to achieve such a balance?
  • Our thesis is that democracy is an operating system for the people.
  • This is a common visualization of an operating system architecture. Components and processes are built in layers.
  • So what does this operating system for the people consist of? It is hard to find an established model: But we can identify: - Principle of the division of powers - A set of principles and practices, such as freedom of speech etc. - Voting rights for the majority
  • In addition there are public spheres and mass media, which is often referred to as the fourth estate. Traditionally, media has been quite unidirectional in its communication.
  • Some people think that advances in technology has enabled a direct democracy, and that we no longer need this model. We believe that the aforementioned problems will also emerge in a direct democracy. And that the result is likely to be what we earlier called a thin democracy. By building a set of democratic services and processes as a layer on the existing operating system, people will be better suited to get involved on issues and influence policies. The important thing is that politicians should still make the decisions.
  • The new set of services must complement existings institutions and processes.
  • We have arrived at 7 criteria for democratic services. We will now go through them one by one with some examples.
  • The services must enable scalability and diversity. Transparency and legitimacy. That they should be open to everyone, is in the nature of democracy.
  • Prior to the yearly congress, all members of the workers’ union – LO, were requested to supply proposals for questions the LO officially could ask the political parties prior to the recent election. About 26500 people participated with a total of 63000 occupational or political input.
  • The services must be open in order for anybody to participate and influence. Wikipedia has proven that people actually do participate Because they are concerned with a topic of interest They retain some top competence Or have an agenda.
  • The services must promote dialogue By enabling people engaged in the same topics of interests, albeit with different perspectives, to meet each other. Start debates, allow people to expand their perspective and perhaps change their mind.
  • This is a framework for organized expressions of opinion for local newspapers (Origo) It allows people who are engaged in a subject, to debate and take different stances. POSITIVE Open For CRITICAL Against Skeptical
  • is a service that allows the parties in a relationship breakup express their perspectives on the breakup. Other people may take sides, comment and vote. This could have been any topic, really.
  • The services must allow people to influence and reveal how their efforts actually make a difference. Response could mean many things here: Perceived influence on the state of the real world. Interactivity in the system Response from other users or politicians.
  • is a UK service that allows people to report problems in their community. Users are given an overview of how these problems are being dealt with. It is possible to contribute with updates. People are informed when problems have been fixed.
  • Here is an example from CNN Youtube debates People were allowed to pose questions to politicians and receive an answer on video.
  • The services must allow for different levels of participation, but the simplest form must have a low threshold.
  • Here is a screenshot from where users are allowed to upload videos with documentary or political content. Different levels of participation is encouraged: Just by viewing a video, users influence … e.g. by affecting ”most viewed list” etc. Next, they can vote a video up or down. Moreover, it is possible to create a response in text or video.
  • Here is an example from where running polls / surveys are organized. It is easy to create polls It is really easy to submit a vote A response is obtained rapidly
  • Channeling is about relating people with good ideas and important points of view with people with power to effect change. It is about congregating individual interests in a topic in order for it to be dealt with on various levels.
  • Number 10 makes it possible to sign petitions directly to the British Prime minister. According to (who have developed the solution), 10 percent of the British population has visited to either create or support a petition.
  • FINNopp (translates to something like Invent) is an internal tool for collaboration - aiming to surface some of the good ideas that whirl around the corridors of an enterprise, and perhaps realize some of them. All employees are invited to be entrepreneurs and submit business ideas. Ideas can be combined and developed as a collective effort. IF FINNopp invites employees to be entrepreneurs, why doesn’t the government invite its citizens to be politically active?
  • The services must help you find perspectives on a case that are perceived as personally relevant. This can me obtained e.g. by using similar mechanisms Amazon use when they recommend books you may like.
  • This can be made very simple. People can register in order to receive an e-mail when something relevant to you happens in Parliament.
  • Local conditions are often perceived as relevant. Many topics also have local aspects and consequences. Here is an example from Asker Kommune (municipality). Citizens can: Search in existing cases Influence existing cases Propose new cases In the user survey for 2009, 64 percent of 600 citizens in Bærum (the neighboring municipality) say they would like to influence and be more involved in the political decision making processes, local government services and get in touch with representatives elected by popular vote.
  • Services must promote responsible conduct and accountability. On the net, debates have a tendency to degenerate into becoming irrelevant when compared to newspapers or TV. To a large extent this is a consequence of people being allowed to remain anonymous. It is exceedingly rare that people in traditional media are allowed to remain anonymous when expressing an opinion.
  • Another example from Origo. Identities are related to phone numbers in order to secure that users are who they say they are and that a history can be related to an individual user. It is possible to express opinions in the role as e.g.: Politician Student Expert
  • Moderation mechanisms are also important. Opinions can be assigned different weight based on whether or not other people perceive them as constructive or offensive.
  • We have now taken a look at some criteria for democratic services. Now: some thoughts we have come up with for a possible solution.
  • Today there is a strong focus on political parties and individuals. American sociologists have pointed out that political personality and identification with political party has been used due to a lack of understanding of the issues that are being discussed. At the same time, the issues are what’s important. We can envision experts, politicians and ordinary people in constellations around topics of common interest
  • Topics or subjects may be viewed in light of different dimensions. For example: Time: Future is related to how things should be. Presence is how they are now. By combining different dimensions it is perhaps possible to simplify without reducing complexity.
  • This is an interactive visualization of reactions to statements from politicians and others in an Australian election campaign. Multiple dimensions are addressed: We see how a topic has evolved over time (time axis) Attitudes towards different topics are sorted according to geography in the map. And the whole thing is centered around a statement somebody has presented in the public sphere. Dimensions = Time, geography, identity and statements.
  • This is an interactive visualization of public crime statistics in San Francisco. Dimensions = Time, geography and topic This service is a mashup and only allows for passive observation. The challenge here is to use this content to engage / activate people to do something about the problem.
  • Everyone is not equally active, but in topics of interests, one tends to move towards a more active participation. A democratic discourse requires both active and passive mechanisms for participation. PASSIVE PARTICIPATION Obtaining overview in topics of interests (read news and party programmes) Develop independent opinions and political consciousness Vote in local and parliamentary elections ACTIVE PARTICIPATION Contribute and set the agenda for topics of interest Participate in discussions Vote on single topics Express oneself or give public statements.
  • Based on these thoughts we have created a draft for one possible solution which includes some of the criteria we have discussed. These are thoughts in progress, but we wanted to do something tangible through a schematic solution sketch. We will not go into detail on this today, but Håkon will take you through some high level principles.
  • We envision a search driven portal so that none owns the information architecture. Based on small applications of: Informative sort: visualizations etc. to provide overview Interactive sort: to enable collaboration Users can move from a passive degree of participation to a more active approach by switching between the columns for Finding, learning and acting. Components (applications) are tailored to serve specific needs and if users don’t find something they can request it.
  • Users perform a search in order to bring up overviews and categories.
  • When navigating in these, content and service components appear.
  • Her is an example of an imagined specific service where it is possible to see bloggers reactions to newspaper articles related to a specific issue. Glow-effect indicates the level of emotional engagement in the texts.
  • To sum up, we can say that this is an infrastructure which enables an abundance of services. In our opinion, it is up to the authorities to provide this infrastructure. If not, the private sector with actors such as Origo, A-pressen and Facebook will take over. But the services – populating this infrastructure – could be syndicated from multiple sources. Perhaps they could be voted on in separate democratic processes. The important thing is that all these services are centralized and accessible to everybody.
  • So these are the seven criteria for democractic services: 1. Services must be open in order for everybody to have the opportunity to contribute and influence 2. Enable dialoge 3. Show how poeple’s influence actually makes a difference 4. Allow different degress of participation where the easiest has a low threshold. 5. Link people with good ideas and important points of view with people with the opportunity to do something about them 6. Allow people to find aspects that are perceived as personally relevant 8 The services must promote responsible conduct
  • Platforms are emerging. Origo is a Norwegian platform which aims to facilitate collaboration and knowledge exchange in the non-profit segment.
  • As we’ve seen during the presentation, we have mentioned MySociety several times. Boasts: We run most of the UK’s best known democracy websites
  • Leading newspapers show initiative in this arena. One example is The Guardian, which cooperates with several UK governmental agencies
  • Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament, launched a new website this year. So far they show little inititative for including democratic services.
  • We have now reached the end of this lecture. Democracy is an interesting concept which entails more than just the right to vote. In order for a democracy to function properly, many aspects must be attended to. We have introduced the thesis where we compare democracy to an operating system with many related services. And discussed which criteria these services must fulfill. Towards the end we have introduced a solution concept. Perhaps we have dived in too deep. But our goal has been to promote discussion and motivate and inspire to further work on the subject.
  • H Finally, we would like to thank people who have contributed or we have discussed with in the work with this lecutre.
  • Democracy - an operating system for the people

    1. 1. DEMOCRACY – AN OPERATING SYSTEM FOR THE PEOPLE French Political Blogosphere ( ) Eirik Langås and Håkon Skramstad, Making Waves
    2. 2. VISJON VISION Users and owners of the service are citizens and their elected representatives. A framework for exploration, learning and collaboration for democratic processes in society
    4. 4. <ul><li>Rnc in a minute </li></ul>Republican National Congress (in a minute)
    6. 6. COMPLEXITY Democracy 2 (
    8. 8. Ireland votes over the Lisbon Treaty ( )
    10. 10. Velgerguiden (
    11. 11. Divided we stand?? (
    12. 12. Coffee house discussion (wikipedia/ public sphere)
    13. 13. NEW PUBLIC SPHERES EMERGING ON THE INTERNET Social media adoption over time (Universal McCann Social)
    14. 14. The old days Post war period Future King and church set the agenda Mass media set the agenda People set the agenda? Now OPPORTUNITIES FOR INFLUENCE Populistic infographics based on Universal McCann Social
    15. 15. Tagging (
    16. 16. EUs Youtube Channel( )
    17. 17. Dell Community Pulse
    18. 18. WHAT IS DEMOCRACY?
    19. 19.
    20. 20.
    21. 21. Norwegian State design competition 2008
    22. 22. John Fitzgerald Kennedy “ The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all”
    23. 23. Theodore Roosevelt “ A great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be a great democracy”
    24. 24. Broader engagement Deeper engagement ” People’s tyranny” ” Expert tyranny” Based on the report Prepare for Digital Democracy (Harvard Policy Group) Elitist democracy Balanced democracy Disengaged democracy Thin democracy
    26. 27. ELECTORATE (Votes) PARLIAMENT (legislative ) GOVERNEMENT (executive) agreement advise Freedom of speech: freedom to organize: diversity: principle of public access etc. COURTS OF LAW (judicial)
    27. 28. ELECTORATE (Votes) PARLIAMENT (legislative ) GOVERNEMENT (executive) agreement advise Freedom of speech: freedom to organize: diversity: principle of public access etc. COURTS OF LAW (judicial) Mass media Public spheres
    28. 29. ELECTORATE (Votes) PARLIAMENT (legislative ) GOVERNEMENT (executive) agreement advise Freedom of speech: freedom to organize: diversity: principle of public access etc. COURTS OF LAW (judicial) Mass media Public spheres Democratic services
    29. 30. TRADITIONAL DEMOCRACTIC SPHERES NEW DEMOCRATIC SERVICES accusations agreement on differences populist rhetorics balanced points of view undisclosed Accessible and transparent boring Interesting subjective allegations objective facts boring text visualizations lack of contact interactivity and dialogue distrust confidence static unfolding
    30. 31. <ul><li>Bottom-up </li></ul><ul><li>Enable dialogue </li></ul><ul><li>Response </li></ul><ul><li>Low threshold </li></ul><ul><li>Channeling </li></ul><ul><li>Relevance </li></ul><ul><li>Accountability </li></ul>CRITERIA FOR DEMOCRATIC SERVICES
    31. 32. CRITERION 1: BOTTOM-UP
    32. 33.
    33. 34. Wikipedia logo
    35. 36. (Østlandsposten)
    36. 37.
    37. 38. CRITERION 3: RESPONSE Sketch by Bill Verplank
    38. 39.
    39. 40.
    41. 42.
    42. 43.
    44. 45. Number 10 Downing Street
    45. 46. FINN opp
    47. 48.
    48. 49.
    49. 50. CRITERION 7: ACCOUNTABILITY Wikipedia commons
    50. 51.
    51. 52. Article comments from
    53. 54. SUBJECT ORIENTATION TOPIC Politician Layman Layman Expert Layman Expert
    54. 55. <ul><li>Time </li></ul><ul><li>Future : present : past </li></ul><ul><li>Identity </li></ul><ul><li>Individual : group : organization </li></ul><ul><li>Geography </li></ul><ul><li>Local : regional : global </li></ul><ul><li>Statements </li></ul><ul><li>Ideology : opinion : argument </li></ul>IMPORTANT TOPIC DIMENSIONS
    55. 56. Quote reactions (
    56. 57. Oakland crimespotting (
    58. 59. THE FRAMEWORK
    59. 60. PORTAL
    60. 61. CONTENT
    61. 62. COMPONENTS
    62. 63. SERVICE
    63. 64. Vertical: Niche services SERVICE DIVERSITY Horizontal: Infrastructure
    64. 65. <ul><li>Bottom-up </li></ul><ul><li>Enable dialogue </li></ul><ul><li>Response </li></ul><ul><li>Low threshold </li></ul><ul><li>Channeling </li></ul><ul><li>Relevance </li></ul><ul><li>Accountability </li></ul>CRITERIA FOR DEMOCRATIC SERVICES
    65. 66. PLATFORM 1
    66. 67. PLATFORM 2
    67. 68. PLATFORM 3
    68. 69. PLATFORM 4
    69. 70. 1984 (George Orwell)
    70. 71. 1984 (George Orwell) THANKS TO Kjersti Corneliussen (Making Waves) Bjørn Tennøe (FAST) Sven Inge Bråten (Making Waves) Torgeir Hovden (FAST) Fredrik Matheson (BEKK) Eivind Solberg (Stay Group)