Last week, Demos published Douglas Rushkoff's book/manifesto 'Open Source Democracy' [PDF], under an open access licence. Rushkoff calls for the application of open source methods to political debate, in order to break out of the cycle of revolutionary power struggles between those who are best able to mythologise their political ideals. By deconstructing economic and political systems, and allowing the equal participation of all competent members, the end result should be optimised and bug-free democracies.
[O]ur renaissance’s answer to the printing press is the computer and its ability to network. Just as the printing press gave everyone access to readership, the computer and internet give everyone access to authorship. The first Renaissance took us from the position of passive recipient to active interpreter. Our current renaissance brings us from the role of interpreter to the role of author. We are the creators.
As game programmers instead of game players, the creators of testimony rather than the believers in testament, we begin to become aware of just how much of our reality is open source and up for discussion. So much of what seemed like impenetrable hardware is actually software and ripe for reprogramming. The stories we use to understand the world seem less like explanations and more like collaborations. They are rule sets, only as good as their ability to explain the patterns of history or predict those of the future.
For politicians who mean to lead more effectively in such an environment, the interactive solution may well be a new emphasis on education, where elected leaders use the internet to engage with constituents and justify the decisions they have made on our behalf, rather than simply soliciting our moment-to-moment opinions.
Participants in an open source collaboration must be educated in the field they are developing. People cannot expect to be able to understand and edit the code underlying any system until they have taken the time and spent the necessary energy to penetrate it. Very often, as in the case of computer software, this also depends on open standards so that the code is accessible to all. But it is also true of many other systems. If those who hope to engage in the revision of our societal models are not educated by those who developed what is already in place, they will spend most of their time inefficiently reverse-engineering existing structures in an effort to understand them. Progress can only be made if new minds are educated in the current languages, exposed to the rationale for all decisions that have been made and invited to test new methods and structures.
Those who are invited to re-evaluate our social and political structures in such a way will stand the best chance of gaining the perspective necessary to see the emergent properties of such systems, as well as avenues for active participation in them.
[Douglas Rushkoff, Open Source Democracy. Demos 2003]
Presently it's debatable whether the internet is enabling or distracting people from getting involved in political decisions. While mainstream news stories filter through and gather temporary comments, real world decisions seem to be barely affected by online reactions to the latest events. Gore Vidal has been slicing through the War Against Terror mythologies for years, and other commentators who pointed to the PNAC's Rebuilding America's Defenses as an indication of a possible incentive for these operations weren't received as seriously as they could have been. Even last month, Michael Meacher (former UK Environment Minister) presented a rational discussion of a long list of documented evidence, explaining the discrepancies in foreign policy decisions taken by the American and British governments over the last few years - but still nothing changed.
The communication function of the internet is being fulfilled, as it enables disparate groups to form and coalesce, gaining strength even as their views become more widely dispersed. Only rarely, though, does this break through to the outside world - even then, it's often brushed aside as a 'block vote' by its opponents, who don't take kindly to being usurped by loosely joined coalitions of worldwide experts in their field.
Non-governmental, non-democratic forces continue to push in the same direction. John Walker took a dismal, strangely pre-millenial view of the situation, with market forces leading DRM and disempowerment into every new technology. Fortunately, the open source software 'movement' provides a strong antidote to this. Experts worldwide, working together with no motive other than to produce the finest, least restrictive software, have empowered individuals with the freedom that commercial operators seek to restrict. Open source operating systems, components and standards (Linux/BSD, Gnome/KDE, Mozilla/Konqueror, OpenOffice.org, Jabber) provide anyone (who takes the time to learn how to use them) with the tools to route around damage and keep communication flowing.
To apply the same methodology to politics - as a powerful tool for freedom and empowerment - means that those who currently hold the knowledge need to collaborate in an open environment and provide the tools for others to understand and deconstruct the machinations and reasoning that underly the decisions currently taken on our behalf.
[T]hree stages of development: deconstruction of content, demystification of technology and finally do-it-yourself or participatory authorship are the three steps through which a programmed populace returns to autonomous thinking, action and collective self-determination.