You can vote and pay in this virtual Parliament. Vote and feed the hungry. Vote and feed the helpless. Vote and turn off the lights. Vote and give fishies to the sharks. Vote and release the sharks. Vote and do yoga.
In The United Kingdom’s version of “democracy in action,” the more than 10 million people registered to vote here by this morning can do much of this — and more — via smartphones and computers. These voters can communicate in real time with each other — the metaphor is that one person’s democratic act is up next to another person’s — while giving input to public servants using the virtual Parliament.
To hear Secretary of State John Kerry explain it, this is a revolution. Secretary Kerry used the word “revolution” four times — twice in the opening paragraphs of his story — along with three other words including, “seamless,” and “interactive.” In fact, the only word not mentioned in the first paragraph was the word “electronic.” What was all these nonspecific words plus phrases with acronyms DO?
The program is named after an expression for those who believe with all their heart — created to describe supporters of the Roman Catholic pope during his visit to England. Exactly.
One may say it is a revolution — but only if the gains outweigh the losses. This is a given- that in principle, it can take at least a decade for either the flow of ideas or human contact to materialize. There is much potential. It has the potential to be profound. But the first day or two of voting were rocky. Besides its “seamless” technology, the program is a reality TV show, so there was too much photo shooting for the cameras and not enough playful interplay with the watchers. There wasn’t enough video time, so people who wished to communicate actually had to use their phones — and, really, I have been using my smartphone every day for ages. Yes, it would be nice to be in the same room and have both a big-screen TV and voice-talking direct-to-screen function, but we’re still just scratching the surface.
One spectator, Roger Tilton, professor of politics at Hampton University in Virginia, said he had signed up to vote and held his handset up to the TV. He said he had to hold it “1 foot above the TV.” It was hard to say if that kind of contortion was a test or a calibration. We learned today that we were somehow blocked from the video broadcast, but not all the political junkies that have been in this business for a long time talked much about that.
Getting people from England to care about politics is not a challenge unique to the United Kingdom. The American experiment in modern participatory democracy has produced much of the tech necessary for virtual Parliament, as we have recent elections, and potential American models of technology are available. But the point of virtual Parliament is that it is real. It is hard to believe some of the so-called skeptics are very serious. When John Kerry said he took “good old-fashioned American democracy” seriously, he said more than that.
Doing his homework before the election, Kerry had already worked out that a digital democracy was in the offing, and the U.S. election showed what can be achieved. He put it this way: “We have an opportunity to fix the world before we fix this planet.”