I have just finished reading my first ever on-line book from the Project Gutenburg library. Well, more like a pamphlet really, but inspiring none the less. It was Open Source Democracy by Douglas Rushkoff. I came across it searching on the title. I’d never actually heard of it, and although the authors name is familiar to me, I can’t actually remember where I’ve come across it in the past. Probably several places.
His argument is about how new knowledge emergent, or bottom-up, organisation, such as one might find in chaos mathematics, the behaviour of coral colonies and perhaps more importantly considering the pamphlet title the Open Source Software movement, will eventually impact and revitalise democracy, returning power and participation to the people. This knowledge will in largely be experiential. In that we as individuals have slowly gained control over the spectacle of media. With the advent of of television, we were passive viewers of a strange ‘magic’. Remote controls, video recorders, camcorders all played their part in giving us more control and power over what we watched. Finally video games, computers and the internet played their share in reducing our attention to corporate and government controlled centralised programming and allowed us to use media as a means of communication. As people get used to the participatory nature of the web, they will start to realise how unresponsive the current democratic system is. This, he argues, is why participation in elections are falling. Apparently though, people will start to demand a more participatory democratic experience, rebuilding it in such a way as to make it more responsive.
The actual argument is slightly more complex than my brief summary, and well worth a read in full if you have time. It is not my intent to reproduce it here. I have my own argument to add…
The reason I was searching on the term was because I had an idea. And the term ‘Open Source Democracy’ summed up that idea. I wanted to see if anyone had already thought of it. Rushkoff is heading in the right direction, but falls short of the idea that came to mind. Although I might be one of the people he mentions that will rewrite the rules. That’s not a role I object to playing! So I shall put my idea out there right now. The sooner people start building towards the realisation of this idea the better really…
My idea was at first a reaction against the take over of democracy by corporate closed source electronic voting systems, with no paper trail, verifiability or accountability. Of course, being a software engineer, I realised the problem was not with electronic voting, but with trusting the building and running of electronic voting systems to closed source and unaccountable corporations. After all, with old paper voting systems, we wouldn’t have trusted a private company to count the votes in secret. Yet this is effectively what we allow electronic voting companies to do today. Whether they have actually abused their position yet is besides the point. They shouldn’t be given the power to do so in the first place.
Why would an Open Source e-voting system be different? For one thing, it would allow the public to see the source code and submit improvements, meaning better security, ensured anonymity of voters, and guaranteed accuracy. Any flaws in the system would be spotted and corrected without vested interests hiding the flaws for fear of losing profits.
But why stop there? Such a system has the potential to do so much more than simply recreate the paper based system. We could rethink democracy and make it much more responsive and participatory. Here is my idea for a new democratic system:
1. Every member of society can register as a voter, and must be uniquely identifiable to prevent voting fraud from duplicate voting counts.
2. Voters can also register as a candidate, with their own personal manifesto, and if they have them details of party allegiances.
3. Voters can register and change their support for candidates at any time. Via a secure website systems, local public booths or where available via a traditional paper ballot.
4. The position of every candidate is clear at every stage of the voting process, so voters can see whether they feel the need to back a different horse.
5. At the beginning of each month, week, day or even hour depending on the model required, the top n candidates are awarded seats, where n is the number of seats.
6. Seat holder with the most backers gets to propose the agenda for the next debate, and the other seat holders are given a set amount of time to prepare counter arguments before the debate starts.
7. After all the debate, amendments to the proposal by the lead seat holder must be declared, and each successive seat holder may propose an alternative option to the proposal.
8. Seat holders then vote on the proposal and the alternative options, using a single transferable vote.
9. Each seat holder represents the total backers they currently hold, which may be different from the total they had when they were first selected. In this way, everyone gets to vote on each proposal, not just the seat holders.
Well, at the moment it is little more than a pipe dream. And I would add some caveats to prevent the system from being taken over by tyrants. This reflects that I do not stop at support for Open Source, but take things one step further by supporting the principles of the Free Software Foundation.
First, all truly democratic systems have limits on the power of the government over its people. Most people recognise freedom of speech as an important cornerstone of democratic liberty. However, I extend this to suggest complete individual sovereignty in matters of mind, body and soul. Not only should it be beyond the remit of government to violate an individuals sovereignty, it should be considered treason against democracy for them to make an attempt to do so, resulting in an immediate ban from candidacy at the very least.
Of course, it would be good to see this system developed and tested in experimental communities before attempting to introduce it for a real government, so that any flaws in my proposal or the initial implementations of it, can be ironed out. But I think I have come up with a basic blue print for advancing on the road to a better and freer society that early democratic efforts set us upon. Later I would like to see the system tested in a real governmental situation. With all the controversy over the House of Lords reforms in the UK, our parliaments second house might well prove to be the ideal testing ground.
The UK government has already started the Open Source Academy to promote the use of cost saving Open Source Software in local government and with the Conservative Party already promising a level playing field for Open Source Software in the UK, the early signs of political momentum building in this direction are already there. But the nature of emergent behaviour politics is such that we have to build it from the bottom up rather than waiting for the powers that be to do it for us.