Will the geeks break our democracy?

Geeks are purists. Or at least, most of them are. Pragmatism is tolerated but deprecated. (of course, some people think geeks are autistic but that’s another story). Purists (and autistics) find much of the business of being human far too messy and random. This manifests itself in a generalised impatience with the inefficiencies and inequities of human societies, systems and institutions. Democracy is one of the geeks’ big irritants. It’s obviously a mess. No one would design a system like this – all friction and compromise. Nothing elegant about it. The geeks, consequently, would like to reengineer democracy to better reflect their worldview. To flush out the inefficiencies and replace them with shiny, end-to-end, ‘open’ methods for translating public opinion directly into legislation and for monitoring the process (keeping the legislators honest).

The latest in a string of very worthy geek interventions is called They Work For You, from the people who brought you FaxYourMP, Public Whip and Downing Street Says. TWFY does a simple thing beautifully. It turns Hansard – parliament’s venerable contemporaneous record – into an accessible, searchable record of your representative’s appearances in the Commons. Of course, it does a lot more than that, including allowing you to correct your MP’s more egregious errors right there in the text, counting votes and marking interesting and important debates so they stand out from the rest.

So far so admirable. Surely no one would argue with making the work of legislators more accessible? I don’t know. I find myself wondering whether the democratic institutions we rely on are robust enough to withstand the fire hose of transparency and accountability the democracy hackers are getting ready to turn on it. What the hackers are planning here (and with earlier initiatives) is a ‘revolution from within’ that could, whether they like it or not, rip up the democratic cobblestones to reveal an unknown and unknowable hyperdemocratic future below. I’m pretty sure that I’m just being neurotic here – more democracy must always be a good thing, right? But what if the system currently has just enough accountability in it to keep it moving. What if more accountability actually slowed it down, gummed it up. Turned it into a machine for producing accountability and not laws? What if the apparently entirely benign hacker plot to tidy up democracy for the common good turned out to be less Socratic dream and more nasty sci-fi fantasy (cue replicants).


  1. TheyWorkForYou.com: Is your MP working for you in Parliament?

    TheyWorkForYou.com launched live on stage yesterday at NotCon, with Tom Loosemore & Stef Magdalinski performing an amusing and impassioned double act (with some heckling from the floor). They’ve taken Tom Dolan’s idea, extended it, buil…

  2. Interesting angle – not one we’d thought of when we built the site.

    One of our key aims was to *re-empower* MPs, and invigorate Parliament against the leaden hand of the Executive and the party machines.

    The ‘too much transparency with transfix MPs’ argument would worry me more if the Whips didn’t already have them by the short and curlies.

  3. I was surprised (and disappointed) at how few vocal appearances my MP had made in the House recently BUT he’s always been excellent at the local stuff and in responding when I’ve written to raise specific issues. I suppose the thing is how do you judge the general effectiveness of your MP and do they merit your continuing support? The answer’s almost always yes simply because of the lack of alternatives – sometime you vote for them with enthusiasm and sometimes overwhelming apathy.

  4. I think you make a mistake by equating openness and transparency, which TWFY provides, with democracy.

    I don’t see how increasing access and knowledge hampers the workings of a representative democracy (not a direct democracy, note). What it does do is help citizens gain knowledge and power in their dealings with their representatives. A wholly good thing by any measure, particularly given the mere dribblings of freedom of information in this country.

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