Digital Britain: a passive theatre or wired carnival?
By Eva Pascoe, Chair and Co-Founder of Cybersalon Digital Futures Think-tank
A recent poll has indicated that 70% of 18-22 year olds are disengaged from the political process and shunning both of the mainstream UK parties.
In response to the increase in trend in voters’ disengagement, a new report on Digital Democracy has finally been published by Speaker John Bercow and was presented to the House of Parliament on 10th March by Meg Hilliers, MP for Shoreditch. The process of creating the report was run by a cross-party team, involving 23 public meetings held across UK and thousands of submissions by video, audio via SoundCloud, Twitter and email.
Amongst the 34 recommendations, the Commission requested the output of Parliament to be provided in the form of Open Data by 2016, setting up an option for secure online voting by 2020 and creating a “cyberchamber” for public debate on issues being discussed in the House.
The commission noted the results of a survey submitted as evidence by the University of Cambridge which noted that 53% of the respondents wanted to be engaged in the decision making process in Parliament, but only 7% felt engaged at present. This is a massive gap and one that the Commission was right to pick up on. This gap shows the public hunger for participation in some sections of the population and frustration with the current communication processes. Today already 15% of voters use postal votes and a further 65% expressed the desire to vote online.
The message that the public wants to be involved in the decision making process and is prepared to engage on digital channels seems clear and understandable, now that over 75% of people in the UK use mobile phone, that figure going up to near saturation point for young people under 35 years old. The Commission took the growth of the smart phones and tablets on board and rightly recommended an option for cyber-chamber and digital voting to be in place by 2020.
The response to this call for increased public participation and modernising of democracy for the digital age by our government was to shoot the messenger, creating a last minute attempt to unseat the leader of the Digital Democracy Commission, John Bercow, from his role of Speaker.
It was not successful. It has however amply demonstrated how uneasy the government is about any changes involving opening of the old, analogue political process, and how strong it is clinging on to past practices of obscure rituals and secret ballots.
Since 2012 Cybersalon, Centre for Study of Democracy (University of Westminster) and Middlesex University has been involved in the grass roots creation of proposals on digital democracy and the and the Digital Citizen Bill of Rights.
Following Speaker Bercow’s Digital Democracy report we have set up a debate in the House of Commons to discuss what the next steps on the implementing of his recommendations is and including them into the Digital Citizen Bill of Rights. The debate was held under the People’s Parliament program, with cross-party speakers, conducted in a hugely over-crowded Committee Room 11 – so packed that many of us were sitting on the floor!
Tom Watson MP (Labour) has expressed support for the recommendations and committed to revieving his Digital Manifesto that would improve the state of the legal framework for our rights in the digital space, and ensure that they match the rights that we enjoy already for our physical personas.
Birgitte Jonsdottir, MP for the Iceland Pirate Party who has joined us in The House of Commons via Skype from Iceland, has commented that digital engagement and citizens jointly writing the “crowd-sourced” constitution in Iceland via online and offline tools was a great step in the right direction. The process was hugely enjoyed my many people who previously had no voice in the political debate. She has specifically emphasized that it is not just the act of online voting, but offering a voice in the debate, a full participation via digital media that is scaled up to allow all interested people to join the creation of new Bills.
Following the House of Commons debate we have concluded that the key for an open and wide digital participation is the development of the digital public space (DiPS). We need tools that are simple to use, allow access to discussions, proposing ideas, sharing knowledge, expressing opinions in a space that is not censored by private owners of digital corporate spaces like Facebook.
We need public debate areas that are accessible to all and respectful of the voice of the citizens, without cutting down each opinion to 140 characters like Twitter.
The limitations of corporatized digital spaces were noticeable during the recent Eurodebate or BattleForNumber10, where in the absence of any meaningful Twitter debate, the social media commentators were reduced to analysing numbers of “boos” or “cheers” expressed by the frustrated public on Twitter
This analysis of Twitter’s “short bursts of inconsequential information” (as that is all what Twitter messages are according to it’s founder) proved to be misleading, as it attributed the ‘victory’ to Miliband (on the basis of the number of ‘cheers’) while a poll conducted by ICM for The Guardian clearly indicated that on reflection, once the public thought about the meaning of the discussions, they attributed the victory to David Cameron.
One look at the Twitter feed from this hashtag shows that it was a typical polarised groups audience, ignoring each other, not debating the issues, not picking up the dialogue, just responding to the broadcast in like the audience in gladiators battles in the Roman Colosseum.
Joanna Geary, the cheery PR Queen of Twitter makes a point that Twitter is now central to the political process, all in “140 characters at a time”.
To all of us during the Digital Citizen rights debate in the House of Commons on a cold March evening it was painfully clear enough that the UK public deserves better than having to debate vitally important political issues on a commercial, private, American-owned digital teenage banter platform that is at it’s best when ranting during “The Voice” in a prescribed length that is even shorter than the average Sun’s headline.
Twitter can’t offer a length of expression that is of use for intelligent adults attempting a meaningful conversation. It also does not scale, as an average user only reads about 30 tweets per week and as noted by Yaneer Bar-Yam, the expert on real-time sentiment analysis, it is best left to rants about bad traffic.
As Leonardo da Vinci noted, the best artists create their own paints.
To ensure that Digital Democracy and the Speaker’s report can be developed in a grown-up online conversation with all of us who want to participate, we need to create our own digital democracy tools for people’s political participation. Facebook only shows you a feed from about 17 people and does not support debating. Birgitte Jonsdottir and her Icelanders created a whole new part of Iceland constitution inviting all citizens to co-write it partially online. They have not used Twitter. Neither have they used Facebook.
We need to develop a Digital Public Space (DiPS) and launch the
debate on digital voting on the new platform. Once we develop a way to conducting a proper public debate online, then the online voting will follow. That is the likely effective path to the UK achieving digital political maturity. BBC could and should contribute here, to provide a publicly-owned, open, uncensored by private corporations our own Digital Commons and debate tools.
On those newly created “Digital Commons” we can start to create a new format of engagement, where we are free to debate in depth, fully, with room for exploring supporting documents, statistics, evidence from multiple sources to unpack the complex problems facing us in the UK.Getting the debating tools right is vital, and we will use the Digital Citizens Bill of Rights as a pilot to test the new process.
We need to look at those and others, evaluate, test and forge ahead with one that would suit specifics of the UK, to create the Cyber-chamber as specified in Digital Democracy. We recommend a sequel to the report focusing on how to generate the funds to drive the development, how to engage the BBC and permission to allocate the budget to the cyber-chamber and Government Digital Services to drive the efforts in creating DiPS, a real Digital Public Space. We can then go back to this 53% who expressed the desire to participate in the political process and invite them to meet the Parliament on line, in the cyber-chamber for all.
The Speaker, John Bercow, has started something good here, let’s push it along to make sure that we can build on the Report and continue to Part 2 to deliver the recommendation for 2020. We can then invite the disengaged 70% of 18-22 year old from Mirror’s survey and invite them to join our discussions. As Churchill said “give us the tools and we will finish the job”. The job of modernising democracy needs to be done urgently, to get the empowering tools into the hands of the people who are willing to help.
Eva Pascoe, co-founder of world’s first Internet Café Cyberia and Chair and Co-Founder of Digital Think Tank, Cybersalon.
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