Poster from an unrelated political movement.
Today me and Isura will be presenting at Refresh Colombo. The title of the presentation is ‘digital democracy’, which is usually a vague and pointless subject. What we’ll be talking about is a specific idea, built upon existing work that Isura has been doing with Sarvodaya. I should emphasize that this is an idea and what we’ll present is not so much as a presentation as a request for support. I have no slides and this blog post is my notes.
What Comes After The Social Network?
Technology is cyclical, or perhaps hexagonal, but within set time frames there is the appearance of linear progress. ie, within a short time frame, you can make some predictions. Let’s start with recent memory.
Drawing an arbitrary line, let’s say that first there was the personal computer. That was the big thing, and Microsoft and Apple made some bank. Now there is the social network, which is the current big thing. What’s next?
For clues, you can see what people use the current technology for. What do they hack it to do, aside from its intended use? With PCs and the Internet, one of the first uses (a la Tim Berners Lee) was sending messages and rudimentary email, then chat, etc. That was the social use of a ‘personal’ medium, culminating in the organized social network. What do people use social networks for? A lot of things, but one prominent adaptation is politics. People use social networks to discuss and organize politically. My hypothesis is that the next big thing is the political network. The organized adaptation of social networks to political goals.
What Is Politics?
When most people think of politics, they think of politicians. What the Greek word politikos actually means is ‘of, for, or relating to citizens’. It is essentially the social relations around authority or power. It is a quirk, I believe, of the medium of democracy that we depend on representatives or professional politicians so exclusively. By medium I mean the paper and physical meeting based processes involved in mediating power. Like other sectors of human activity, this too is poised for a creative and dramatic change. Democracy 2.0 if you will. The idea that democracy will continue to run on paper is preposterous. It is poised for a big change.
When I was speaking to Isura this morning, he asked why we were talking about politics, since his research with smartphones at the village level showed that people were using them for economic and personal empowerment. What I will try to clarify in the talk is that this is what I mean by politics. Politics is the ability to get a decent road to take goods to town, and to access the tender information if the asphalt is watered down and thin. Politics is the ability to get bail for an arrested child and assure that they’re not beaten in custody. Politics is, sadly enough, the ability to get a child into school and to have decent schools at all. These are day to day impacts, and that is what I mean by politics. Not the macro-level stuff, though that is important. I mean the day to day.
Both of my grandfathers were political. My grandfather G.D. David would hold open houses where people brought him their issues, which he would go and try to sort. He ran for office, which is an interesting story in itself. My grandfather Ainsley Samarajiva was a human rights lawyer who, during various insurrection times, would try to defend the countless young and old people who were taken in. They took very immediate, very human issues and tried to document and sort them with the powers that be This is the sort of retail politics I’m talking about, the social relations that determine the flow of power, and the quality of peoples lives.
What’s The Idea?
My hypothesis is that the next big thing will be a political network. At some point governments will get IDs, drivers licenses and the other essential parts of identity online in a coherent way and that will be a new and powerful network. They definitely feel the pressure from social lobbying (especially in the Middle East) but they’re still too monolithic to really take advantage of the potential from within.
They will adapt in some way, but right now there is a brief window where governments really don’t know what’s going on. This is a chance to update the system dramatically, rather than simply recreating it online. There is a potential for dramatic, distruptive and positive change, like has happened to publishing, the music industry, telephony, etc. My idea is that we can build a political network, a sort of parallel democracy, where issues and ideas are raised, where data is collected, and where concerns are escalated to the media, to higher authorities, and where results are monitored and measured. This works with but also goes around existing political structures where they are inefficient and unfair.
For example, someone in Kilinochchi notices that new signboards are in Sinhala only (this is hypothetical, signboards I’ve seen are tri). They go to their local meeting (which is currently happening as part of the Sarvodaya Deshodaya program) and raise the issue. A young, trained person is there, and he inputs the issue and number of people concerned about it into a smartphone. This goes out across social networks and to a dashboard that the media and higher level council members have access to. They can then see that this issue has been raised in Kili, this many people are concerned, etc. The media can contact people immediately through the interface for quotes (with translation), and they run a story. The higher level Deshodaya members pick up the phone and call their school friends in the Army and government. And something is done.
How This Is Old
This is actually how things are done, and have been for years. Stuff spreads through a political network which runs entirely parallel to our institutions and stated flows. Once some young reporters (CODOC) wanted access to the north, right after the war. They filed all the relevant papers but I just laughed at them. I told them to approach stuff on a ‘machang level’, to ask their family and friends if they had any personal contacts in the Army or MOD. So, Guy asked his uncle, who asked his friend, who was school friends with someone in the Army, who got them a meeting, which got them a contact with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who approved their request. That is how they got access, and how they made the film The Truth That Wasn’t There. It’s crazy, but that’s how things work. That’s how power flows.
The idea is take these informal flows of power and route them through simple, village level technology to systemize their use and spread the power of connection to more than the connected. To give this benefit to more Sri Lankans, to the worthy.
But how to do? I actually proposed this idea as part of Milinda Moragoda’s losing mayoral campaign. They proposed that ward councils be reinstated in Colombo, and I got language inserted that would embed one digitally trained young person with a smartphone at each meeting. They would feed the system, formalizing the informal flow. We would also enable data collection via SMS, voice, and social networks, a la Usahidi.
That campaign lost, but I think the idea was good. Indeed, the idea for Kottu was initially intended to coordinate NGOs during the tsunami, an idea that was ignored by the CHA.
Recently I was in Kilinochchi with Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne (and Dr. Ari) of Sarvodaya to see their Deshodaya program. This is a sort of parallel political system which has village to national level councils, like a parallel Parliament. My proposal was to embed young digeratti here. Even more promisingly, Sarvodaya Fusion (Isura and Udara’s group) has been doing research with smartphones in villages and they are creating the vanguard of trained youth that can power such a system.
So that’s the idea. We get smartphones out to young people, we get bloggers and media socialites from Colombo or wherever to train them, we get geeks and developers to build a sophisticated data gathering system, and then we plug that in to the mainstream media, connected people that can make phone calls, and ultimately the current political system.
That is a kind of political network that we can build and test in Sri Lanka, and by the time it gets big enough that the powers that be notice, it’ll be big and powerful in its own right. Because think about it. People can’t mess with me because I’ll make a fuss here, I’ll make a fuss in the paper, people I know will make phone calls and it’ll put a lot of pressure on whoever’s messing with me to stop. If I have an idea, I can also get it out there and heard. Why not extend that power to Sri Lankans everywhere, using the basic tools of democracy (voting, group action) plus technology (algorithms to aggregate and prioritize input)? Why not give any young Sri Lankan the same power I have? I’m not any more deserving, I just had more computers in the house. That, I think, could change politics and change the world, and we have the technology and people right here.
We’ll be presenting at 5:30 at Refresh Colombo, at the Royal Skills Institute. And that’s my notes.