Crowd-sourced democracies: Clay Shirky at TEDGlobal

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Monday, October 08, 2012 View Count = 2178

Crowd-sourced democracies: Clay Shirky at TEDGlobal

by Karen McCrae

Clay Shirky has made a living discussing the various ways the Internet has, does, and will continue to affect society and politics. At the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh this summer, he expanded on the potential that collaborative online efforts posses to transform the way governments operate.

Shirky argues that technology - from the printing press to the television - has made it progressively more difficult for authorities to get away with censorship. Open-source software (OSS) is the newest in a long line of tools that can be used to better circulate information and, correspondingly, generate more (and better) political argumentation.

OSS is defined (by Wikipedia, appropriately enough) as computer software that permits a potentially unlimited number of users to study, change, and distribute that software. Linus Torvalds pioneered the use of this in computer programming, as he felt everyone should have access to source code at all times. GitHub, the world’s most popular open source code repository site, was created with these aims in mind.

Shirky advocates applying these online collaborative tools to the democratic process. He notes that a German software designer has already posted the complete set of German federal government laws and regulations to GitHub, so that German voters can track any changes made. Shirky could just as easily have discussed the crowd-sourced Icelandic constitution put forward in 2011.

By using online collaborative software, citizens can submit their requests and proposals directly to their political leaders. This has enormous potential in deepening democratic engagement and drawing in the politically apathetic who believe their voices cannot be heard in our current system. The potential for political participation, particularly amongst computer-savvy youth, is enormous.

However, Shirky does not discuss some of the possible limitations of this technology. While the ideal is direct participation, spam and online heckling are inevitable. In the Icelandic collaborative process, local staff were on hand to separate out such undesirable submissions. Democratic oversight is essential to ensure contrary opinions are not similarly removed.

Furthermore, the process to decide what information is used and which is rejected in online collaborations is complex and often fraught with challenges. Wikipedia, for instance, has come under severe scrutiny in the past for its decision to use (or not use) certain sources for its encyclopaedic entries. However, facts can be relatively easily posited in terms of “true” or “false,” while opinions cannot be. Who will decide what does and does not make it into the final version of a crowd-sourced constitution, for instance? Iceland’s experimentation seemed successful, but with a relatively homogenous population of under 320,000, the challenges it faced are relatively minimal compared to what Canada might encounter. 

Lastly, using online crowd-sourcing technology may be challenging for those without technological skills or access to computers. This may make it more difficult for those who are already disenfranchised (such as the poverty stricken and the elderly) to participate in online collaborative efforts, leaving them even further outside the decision-making process.

Using open-source software to deepen and enlarge our democracies is a fresh and innovative way to experiment with increasing democratic participation. This idea has repercussions that could change the way our societies and government operate. However, as Shirky remarks in closing, while technology is a useful tool to get opinions into the public sphere, it is political will and a refusal to be censored that keeps them there.


Karen McCrae is a recent graduate of the Political Science program at the University of British Columbia. She currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

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