I went to see Us Now at the RSA last night… a documentary by Ivo Gormley and Banyak film that looks at web collaboration type stuff through some real stories about online/offline communities, and a few interviews. It got me thinking:
People right across the world are connecting in all kinds of ways on the web right now without any great institution or medium to support this in a traditional top-down sense. What is more, they are then getting things done – whether that’s about big online projects that use collective wisdom like Wikipedia or Linux, or whether its facilitating personal meetings and connections like mumsnet coffee mornings or couchsurfing.
This is useful, and interaction with a larger whole means something to individuals who take part. Big-little, global-local, public-personal. This is an important landscape feature of online collaboration.
Wikipedia is now my first point of reference when I want to know something, its part of my personal web toolkit, and through it I’m tapping into the thoughts and knowledge of people from across the world who feel confident enough and who have time to contribute to building that vast resource for free. A wise collective.
The couchsurfer‘s story in UsNow illustrated a more personal side of connectedness – for the surfer, the experience served to put a friendly face onto a blank and unknown cityscape, a way of providing a connection through shared affirmation and a sense of trust induced in part through online reputational systems. Basically, a guy he’d never met cooked him dinner and let him sleep on the couch – and this was all OK.
We know this right? But then, the film takes us to the story of Ebbsfleet football club, and into the world of Ed Miliband and this is where it gets interesting. At Ebbsfleet we see the story of players being picked online by fans, photos are dropped into position online by various enthusiastic supporters. The manager, the expert, then has to pick the team that the fans choose for him. In the film – Ebbsfleet wins the match – they’re all going to Wembley – and fans speak of being part of that victory – ‘we’ did it, ‘we’re going to Wembley etc. But Ebbsfleet don’t do this anymore – they’ve gone back to being expert-controlled with the manager, the expert, taking the decisions for the good of the team and the fans.
Then we see an image of Ed Miliband’s head being gently dropped onto a ‘pick your cabinet’ webpage…hmmmm. Not a great way to construct a cabinet I think… This is followed by a wicked moment of confusion captured on the film that shows a much more human side of an MP – for once, the ‘answers’ aren’t all there… but of course, this was then followed up with an official statement of ‘solution’. I’d much rather it wasn’t.*
When those with traditional expertise don’t know what to do, when a public mandate for change is required, when decisions are at stake that can be based on the real, lived experience of people who know the area, service, attitudes best – those kind of situations are crying out for a more participatory approach. This is going to happen with or without government going along with it – but it would be so much better to have radical system change happen willingly and with optimism rather than reluctantly, through backlash and disenchantment, cynicism, loss of trust in decision makers etc.
Ed’s head in hands moment of bewilderment illustrates the institutional tensions and personal, inner conflict that go to work when we start transposing user generated participatory ideas onto existing, top down ‘representative’ (failing) democratic systems. Yes, there will be leading participatory disruptors that impact on the way government takes decisions, but the question is whether it would be better to transform and decentralise current systems of governance to enable a more equitable distribution of power. I reckon that more votes were made on disgruntled feelings, hairstyle and humour in the London mayoral elections than on policy issues. There’s potential to make a bad system worse…
In Us Now Paul Miller points that there is a misconception that decision makers and those with power make – that people are thick, therefore they shouldn’t be involved in making decision on important things. This problem of perception works at a number levels – decision makers don’t give enough credit to public wisdom and intelligence, the press consistently portray the public as being respondent, passive and powerless rather than active and influential, and people themselves do not feel able to influence decisions in their communities. These three have worked together to ensure that many citizens remain as passive consumers. Now, take the mass media image out of the picture, and instead put in place a new kind of reflection of a citizen - that seen through web 2.0 collaboration and connectedness – a far more attractive and empowering form of citizenship emerges, and its one that does not fit with current outmoded democratic systems.
It is clear that there is a place for two broad based kinds of expertise in this participatory future and for Ebbsfleet as much as Parliament. One form of which taps into public wisdom, one which uses the skills of learned specialist individuals. We need to work out how the two interconnect – where the system needs to change, (pretty much everywhere, especially in terms of repersentative politics), where power ought to lie, and what people everywhere will do for themselves next.
Now, I’m not sure how that’ll all pan out – so might go and ask someone else what they think…
*see comment below
**Update: Check out what someone else thought at confusedofcalcutta where JP Rangaswami, who chaired the event writes it up.