Demos: yes an abbreviation for demonstration versions of software but, when combined with “kratia”, ancient Greek meaning democracy. Even today, it is a word that can mean all things to all men and ancient Greece was no exception. A literal translation would be “people power” but who defines “people”? Like the supposed democracy following the French revolution and American Revolution, “people” were readily understood to mean basically white, freeborn males and franchise might still be restricted by a financial qualification.
Show of hand voting might work for an ancient Greek elite standing on a hillside and even for several hundred trade unionists at a factory gate (those were the days!) but is not very practical for a country-wide franchise, or even a city-wide franchise…until now, that is. Technology has enabled us to exercise an electronic version of a show of hands via online voting that could make “democracy” in its purest sense a reality. Online petitions have been available for some time now and the UK government, ever mindful of activating support, has promised that e-petitions of more than 100,000 signatories channelled through its website with receive automatic attention in parliament.
Whilst this sounds fine in principal, it raises many questions. What if the response in parliament is a cursory debate in the small hours of the morning? According to the government’s own statistics, the resident population of the UK was estimated to be 61,792,000 in mid-2009. 100,000 people can hardly be called representative. They will be pretty annoyed if they feel that the government has only paid lip service to taking their views into account, making it likely that this sort of attempt at active democracy will backfire on the government and generate more resentment and passivity. Should responses be restricted to UK voters only and how will this be administered? When an MP agreed to sponsor a parliamentary bill chosen by Radio 4’s Today programme listeners, he was unhappy with the most popular subject (the “right” of homeowners to defend their property with a defined use of force) which he felt had been hijacked by the American pro-gun lobby. He suggested that this dis-empowered him as an MP. There is also a potential problem of the collection of personal data by the government; fine if one considers the government to be largely benevolent but nevertheless making statistics on individuals’ opinions readily available in much the same way that CCTV has been used to monitor individuals participating in street demonstrations.
How should such petitions be handled? Are they worth signing? Can technology really be harnessed to democratic good or is a pacifier for the masses that leaves individuals vulnerable to political interference?