Mobile tech + democracy = awesomeness

So I’m in this class called mobile journalism, and we’re doing a lot of cool stuff.

Liveblogging Arianna Huffington was only the beginning—we’ve Skype’d with people in Africa and Japan on the same day about how they use their phones, Skype’d with Kevin Thau, a VP of Twitter about (what else?) the future of Twitter, and now we’re designing the mobile presence of Chicago News Cooperative, the new nonprofit heavy-duty reporting outfit that covers the city for the New York Times.

Also my fridge project is for this class. Orion Magazine, whose photo project was inspiration for mine, has tweeted about me TWICE THREE TIMES. They’re my favorite mag and have been called the most important environmental magazine, so you should know I’m psyched. Feel free to follow my prof, Dan Sinker, on Twitter.

But interestingly enough, today I felt compelled to post because of the textbook for this class—Mobile Design and Development by Brian Fling. An excerpt:

The Estonian government will be putting the concept of media context to the test in their 2011 parliamentary elections, allowing citizens to vote for their leaders using SMS. In this case, the government can tabulate results instantly. But imagine a day when citizens can vote on local or national issues in real time, eschewing having to wait for traditional media to report on the effect of their vote, instead seeing the results in real time, as it happens.

There are already many opting to use the mobile media context in order to be heard. On the immensely popular television show American Idol, more votes were cast using a mobile phone in 2009 (178 million total text message votes) than votes cast in the 2008 presidential election (131 million ballots cast).

If that doesn’t deserve an “OMG,” I don’t know what does.

My idea: direct democracy. I think it’s possible with saturation of mobile.

Ever since my childhood, when I learned about what our republic is really like, I’ve wanted to try to change things. The electoral college is whack. (Even people who don’t care much about politics or fairness or logic think it should be abolished!) Representative democracy is not representative. I’m the first generation to grow up, more or less, with the world’s information at my fingertips, and my response? Why the hell aren’t we using our technology to advance the concept of democracy?

Direct democracy should be our goal. The technology is here, now, to inform us all about the biggest issues and allow us all to weigh in.

It’s possible issues involving hundreds of minutia might require a certain group of people to analyze this stuff for us, but it could be a lot more representative than it is now:

  • allow anyone who wants to, to be on a committee to analyze tough legislation. That would probably ensure a mixed bag of people from different ideological camps. Pay them an average working-person’s sum, maybe, so that all social classes could be involved.
  • require that all legislation be only about a single concept. No more of these hundreds of pork riders.
  • Maybe, even, one could sign up to work on certain types of legislation, like foreign policy, environment, war, social policy, etc. You’d only be queued in to review policy you’re interested in, which would likely be the policy about which you know the most.
  • You could maybe designate “I have five hours a week to devote to this,” or 10, or 15. Since we’re allowing everyone to do this, we probably shouldn’t offer full-time positions. Maybe more hours would be offered to those deemed to be very good at doing it… but in that case we’d have to have some standards of what “good” is, and people to enforce the standards. So maybe that wouldn’t work.
  • A word about partisanship. I don’t think everyone should attempt to be neutral with these jobs; we should acknowledge the bias people have. So when they sign up, they can take a survey about their political leanings, a la the one at That way, stats about how a certain committee is leaning, in terms of the previous biases of its members but not how they might vote now, could be broadcast to the nation. Then, additional people on the weaker side could join in if they so chose. Would that create mass chaos? Probably not once we’re used to it. And I’d trade chaos for apathy and a lack of representation any day.

But still, the vast majority of votes can and should be made simple enough so that they could be put to the public for a mass vote. Maybe that becomes a government job different from the committees—simplifying complex issues down into forms that can be voted-on by the general public.

Voting would most likely occur via SMS, but also possibly secure internet portal, in addition to a few physical polling places. Heck, I don’t know why people are so scared about online polling. It would seem that other systems that prop up our nation—social security, the decisions leading to war—are incredibly insecure compared to our current election tabulation. If you have thoughts to the contrary, I’d love to hear them.

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