Citizen of the Future

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in on 1 January 2002

Democracy is a great thing. I suppose a book about the future is as good a place as any to imagine whether one might ever, truly, come to be – and how.

Developing our collective autonomy – our shared responsibility for our unfolding reality – has been the great human challenge for ages and no doubt will continue to be one for ages to come. But thanks to a recent flurry of scientific, technological, and conceptual innovations, a unique opportunity for upgrading democratic participation may, in fact, be available to us today. We might even be ready to engage in something much closer to democracy than we may have previously imagined.

For the most part, democracies have been born out of revolutions. This is why, also for the most part, they haven’t ended up functioning like democracies at all. Revolutions are just that – circles. They aren’t usually fought by people with the ability to allow for anything particularly new to emerge; revolutionaries simply want to fight against whoever is oppressing them. Maybe that’s why they usually end up simply replacing them. Perhaps there is nothing truly new, under the sun, anyway. The pronouncements of Next Big Things – as far as I can tell – are more useful for riling up crowds than providing us with a cogent plan for the future.

Renaissances, on the other hand, seem to recognize the fraudulence of the novel. Literally the “rebirth of old ideas in a new context,” renaissances are simply moments when we recontextualize something very old from a new perspective. Renaissance innovations, from circumnavigation of the globe and calculus to perspective painting and the printing press, all involved increasing our concept of dimensionality, in one way or another. They increased our perspective on the stuff that we always had with us. This shift in perspective led to everything from the Protestant Reformation to the Enlightenment and republicanism.

The 20th century may have brought us through a renaissance, too. Photographing the earth from space changed our relationship to its dimensionality; so did gaining the ability to destroy it with nuclear weapons. Perspective painting finds its modern corollary in holographs. Calculus allowed us to describe one dimension in the language of another, while fractals gave us the ability to describe fractional dimensions. The Gutenberg press opened the world of reading to the masses, while the computer and Internet opened the world of writing.

Successive renaissances moved human beings from the roles of spectators to that of interpreters to that of creators. Each one increased the dimensionality of our orientation to the processes that steer civilization.

In short, the original renaissance gave individuals the ability to interpret and redefine their relationship to the institutions, ideas, and texts that guided their cultures. Our more recent renaissance gives individuals the ability to co-author them. Just as we moved from being able to encircle the globe to being able to blow it up, we are moving from the experience of our citizenship as a right to bear witness toward the sense of responsibility to participate actively.

Our many renaissance innovations, if we can call them that, provide new frames through which we can come to understand the nature of democratic participation and collective cultural engineering.

This is why so many people, on learning of the Internet, began to think of ways it could be used to enhance the participation of citizens in the affairs of their governments. The first and simplest visions were for something called “teledemocracy.” To most people, this meant being able to vote in presidential and other elections through their home computers. Soon, even more elaborate visions emerged of citizens being able to vote on every issue coming before Congress – even replacing elected officials with daily, national votes.

These are noble but misguided visions. Just as executives must not micromanage their staffs, the voting citizens of a country must not micromanage their elected executives. This is why the system of representative democracy was invented. We elect representatives who can spend all day studying issues and then voting on them more intelligently than we can because we have full-time jobs doing other things. Representative democracy is not a surrender of authority but a concession to efficiency and specialization.

Most visions and implementations of teledemocracy, so far, suffer from the worst symptoms of consumer culture: they focus on short-term ideals; they encourage impulsive, image-driven decision-making; and they aim to convince people that their mouse clicking is some kind of direct action. And anyone arguing against such schemes must be an enemy of the public will – an elitist. Teledemocracy is a populist revival, after all, isn’t it?

Perhaps. But the system of representation on which most democracies were built was intended to buffer the negative effects of such populist revivals. Although they may not always live up to it, our representatives’ role is to think beyond short-term interests of the majority. They are elected to protect the rights of minority interests – the sorts of people and groups who are still too often cast as “special interest groups.”

The true promise of a network-enhanced democracy lies not in some form of Web-driven political marketing survey, but in restoring and encouraging broader participation in some of the networked world’s more interactive forums. Activists of all stripes are gaining the freedom and facility to network and organize across vast geographical, national, racial, and even ideological differences. Indeed, democracy itself may soon outgrow the artificial boundaries of the nation-states that first spawned it.

For representative democracies in search of a sustainable future, the best course may well be a new emphasis on education, where elected leaders engage with constituents and justify the decisions they have made on our behalf, rather than simply soliciting our moment-to-moment opinions.

I can give you a few ways to tell if any particular innovation or opportunity for participation that our leaders bestow upon us is bringing us closer to participatory democracy.

First, you have to accept that the stories in our news media – from the heated debates on Meet the Press to glad-handing, “non-partisan” announcements in the Rose Garden – often have very little to do with what is actually going on. They are commonly exploited as opportunities to contextualize something that will happen in the future (hype) or to recontextualize something that happened in the past (spin). The only way to judge the integrity of what politicians say or do is to measure the extent to which they are willing to disclose their actual points of view. The more a politician claims he or she is “right,” rather than simply explaining and defending an arbitrary but heartfelt strategy, the less democratic he or she is being.

Likewise, the more the political and legislative processes are mired by issues concerning flags, God, or national pride, the less likely they are to address the realities of governance. These are artificial ways of uniting large masses of people – not mechanisms for the development and expression of a multiplicity of points of view.

Real democracy is a negotiation. It is a way of orchestrating the collective will, while protecting the rights of minorities and individuals. Although nature provides us with many models for how such organic relationships can thrive – a coral reef, say, or colony of slime mould – these organic networks are generally cruel to the weak. Government, and civilization itself, exists to improve upon nature by replacing cruelty with cooperation.

The way to tell if a given innovation achieves this is to watch out for feedback and iteration. Does the new mechanism give people a chance to express their own points of view? If so, to whom? And how are they registered? Do they become part of some oversimplified, computerized schema, or are they actively digested and responded to? Real participation doesn’t mean turning one’s elected officials into marionettes, but rather engaging with them as human beings. The measure of our ability to participate democratically has as much to do with what the politicians say back to us as what we have the ability to say to them.

The other model we might use to gauge the development of a participatory democracy would be its networkability. I find that the most effective use of the Internet in the democratic process, so far, has been the rise of networked activism. Protestors, activists, and political educators have been able to engage both locally and globally through online bulletin board services and Web sites. They can discuss issues, inform one another, and even plan rallies and other activities. A scalable democracy is not a democracy with 6 billion individuals, but a myriad of overlapping interest groups and political affinities. Individuals find leverage through affinity and collective action; meanwhile, individuals express their individuality through their selection of networks with whom to affiliate.

So, rather than looking for a single headline, revolutionary concept, or breakthrough technology to herald a new era of democratic engagement, we might best look to the subtle ways in which our networks and affiliations more accurately reflect our own agendas. The more the world begins to look and feel the way we want it to, the better job we’re doing.