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Can Technology Help the Democratic Experiment?

April 30, 2009

“Mayor was tweeting about coffee lids being a problem. Someone from a coffee shop told him over Twitter that he was using compostable lids. A few days later, someone from the city showed up to take a look at the lids.
Cool story. Direct government. Oh, Twitter.” – Matt Hartley’s Tweet from the “Can technology save democracy?” meta dialogue colour-commentary of this year’s MESH conference.

Toronto’s Mayor David Miller has made a splash with his in-session tweets. There are stories about how he impishly tweeted his constituents, joking with them about a particularly stingy council member.  As populist political capital goes, this stuff is gold, real political alchemy. But does it decrease the disconnect between government and citizens?

I don’t foresee a neo-Athenian techno-utopia where citizens will have daily referendums via Blackberry any time soon. Back in the days before things got so busy and larger-than life, there were town hall meetings. Well there still are town hall meetings, but they are typically poorly attended.

People work long hours, work never seem to be finished, and they are usually too tired to go to a meeting to decide whether the first underground driveway should go over the sidewalk and onto the main street in their district. And before they know it, it is done, without the memory of a discussion.

In those simpler times, inequity, myopic policy, power plays, bullying and systemic disenfranchisement existed, but communities were smaller , and people went to meetings. I fantasize that they felt a greater sense of civic engagement, but I don’t know if there was, and I am cautious of talking about “the good old days” I was never a part of.

However, I believe the mayor may be onto something, and the recent political shift back to centrist ideals and transparency are giving me a sense of optimism I have never felt before. If technology can facilitate citizen engagement with the Mayor of Toronto, in real time – from council chambers no less – in such a way that everybody involved are enjoying themselves, well that is a damn good start.

One more thing about those Athenians; their democracy was supported by a slave infrastructure, which freed some citizens to go and vote. Though the world’s most poorly treated workers are in “Athens,” the fortunate among us can use the products of their labour to engage our policy-makers.  Can the $100 laptop change that?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. May 13, 2009 8:35 pm

    Back in the days before things got so busy and larger-than life, there were town hall meetings. Well there still are town hall meetings, but they are typically poorly attended.

    Not in Halton, baby! Say what you like about our much maligned former MP, Garth Turner certainly raised the bar on both digital democracy and public participation in old fashioned town hall meetings. I myself first got involved in politics because I went to one of Turner’s meetings after reading about it on his blog.

    Too bad our actual Town Hall isn’t so good at getting people involved…

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