The internet has disrupted everything. From relationships to mass media and practically every industry in between. Is democracy next?
If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, there’s one fairly easy way to come up with an idea. Take any industry, service or product, and find a way to make it better using the internet. If you manage that, you’re probably on the right track.
As Uber and AirBnb clearly demonstrated, the world is full of old business models waiting to crumble under the weight of new entrants that make better use of today’s opportunities. To survive, old models that may have thrived in the past need to be rethought from scratch as if they were being built today.
So, what about democracy? How can a concept that originated 2,416 years before the car was invented still be the most valid form of government? Isn’t it just a matter of time before we come up with a smarter way of doing things that capitalises on connectivity? And wouldn’t this be the best way to channel any anger we have towards the results (Trump, Brexit etc) that democracy is giving us today?
"Nowadays you could be busy finding yourself in India and still receive an Awguri għal għeluq sninek (Happy Birthday) text message from your village idiot politician."
To envisage the future of democracy, it’s good to analyse how it is expressed today. Here in Malta, we use a concept called representative democracy, electing Members of Parliament to represent us. We elect them from our own villages (or districts) because this made logical sense when the system was invented. Physical proximity to your representative used to be crucial for people to stay in touch.
But nowadays you could be busy finding yourself in India and still receive an Awguri għal għeluq sninek (Happy Birthday) text message from your village idiot politician. And if you ever wanted to make contact in reverse, you could just hit them up on Facebook, Whatsapp or Instagram without much hesitation.
More importantly, you don’t need to make your voice heard through a gate-keeping representative anymore. You could just register your disgruntlement on your social media platform of choice.
The morning-after pill debate in Malta was a great example of how representative democracy has become obsolete. Our representatives never bothered to bring up the subject in the first place for fear of losing votes. Then, when it was thrust onto the agenda by 100 or so women in a press release, our politicians began weeks of discussions with various self-proclaimed experts. When they finally reached a verdict - that it should not be available over the counter - social media outrage quickly took over until the Medicine’s Authority decided that it should in fact be made as widely available as possible, including over the counter.
So why do we need MPs to act as middlemen when we can effectively represent our own ideas with more clarity and efficacy than they can?
"The morning-after pill debate in Malta was a great example of how representative democracy has become obsolete."
The obvious answer is that our MPs do more than just represent us. Their main function is legislative. They dissect laws before they’re passed. And that’s a function we’re happy to outsource to them. But are we? Are we really convinced that the best people for this job are the ones willing to subject themselves to most house visits during an election campaign? The Luciano Busuttils and Silvio Parnises of this world?
The truth is, laws are actually drafted and dissected by employed civil servants within various ministries. Our parliamentarians just make conversation about them to raise their personal profiles and promote their party agendas.
But how can the country function without Parliament? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. It doesn’t make sense to just remove Parliament or any other one function within our representative democracy. The real question is: If we had to rethink democracy today, what would it look like?
Would we still elect representatives? And if so, would we still elect so many of them?
Would we elect popular candidates who have the gift of the gab or normal people who know how to get things done?
Would our representatives be the ones voting on important laws? Or would we do that ourselves through some clever online polling system?
Would we need an opposition to hold our government to account? Or would we create the tools to crowdsource accountability instead?
Would we wait for our politicians to put laws on the agenda or would we have a more effective way of proposing changes ourselves through mass online referenda?
And most importantly, would we be better off?
"Democracy, like all previous forms of government, will not last forever. It will most likely be disrupted the way all big things are being disrupted today: by the power of the internet."
One major fear is that an online system of democracy would be more open to abuse and would give us even more dangerous results. We’ll soon be voting to ethnically cleanse some minority or other, you could argue. That’s a fair point, but democracy doesn’t really protect us from ourselves either.
In reality, this isn’t so much a choice as much as it is an inevitability. Democracy, like all previous forms of government, will not last forever. It will most likely be disrupted the way all big things are being disrupted today: by the power of the internet.
So maybe it’s about time we start thinking about it ourselves rather than be caught off guard when it happens.