User:Eastwood/research writing/Essay

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The Silver Bullet's 2016 word of the year is xenophobia[1]. This is damning statement of our current social environment. We find ourselves in a turbulent time, where answers seem hard to find, and society more unpredictable than ever. Technology often gets positioned within these discourses as either a problem or the solution. Those attributing technology as the cause of various social and environmental problems are fast becoming the minority, but they are being replaced with equally matched enthusiasm by technology evangelists who consider it as the solution to our problems.

For this generation and the ones to follow, technology takes a central role in our everyday lives. Thus the promise of an egalitarian future through technology is one that we are enthusiastic to embrace. And, as an early technology adopter, I also have a keen interest in how technology could empower the down trodden, open up new forms of democracy, movement, social interaction and understanding.

This lead me to explore how our technological geography might hope to improve our environmental and social environment. During the course of my investigation, I was drawn to a wide range of different issues in which technology played, or is proposed to play an important role. The following protagonist was picked as it is an ever relevant issue, but one that should be intensively questioned particularly in light of our current political climate. Interestingly, it is not the central theme of democracy that piqued my interest, but the one of cross cultural understanding and how technology may not be the tool to bridge that divide.

In this essay I hope to outline the jumping off point that will further inform my research and my work in the future.

It is widely agreed among researches, politicians and citizens alike, that our current democratic systems are not sufficiently meeting their promise of accurate representation. No better example can be used than that of the most recent US election where multi-million dollar businessman Donald Trump was elected the 45th president, despite a majority of the population voting otherwise.

Initial research brought me to the book Citizen Lobby by Leif Olsen[2]. In Leif Olsen's book Citizen Lobby, a new system for democratic policy making and citizen representation is proposed to better approach our technologically interconnected world in times of capitalistic society.

In 2013 the UN held the 128th Annual Assembly in which it covered "The use of media, including social media, to enhance citizen engagement and democracy" and in particular the qualities social media has in bridging the gap between citizens and their representatives. They concluded that citizens would not only have a closer relationship with their representative government, but also be able to monitor and contribute directly to the decision making process.

In Leif's research he identifies in which ways our current democratic system falls short in representing the wider populace. One of which is the imbalance between institutional lobbies and grass roots movements formed by (often special interest) groups of citizens. In our current democratic model, and Leif makes reference to Colin Crouch's book Post-Democracy, current policy development favours economic stability rather than the considerations of its citizens. An institutional lobby has far more power in comparison to citizen based movements, as businesses have hard quantifiable gains and losses which are closely recorded and monitored, and furthermore can be accurately predicted.

Most interestingly, Leif identifies some of the difficulties in representing vastly diverse communities. Racially, religious or tribally diverse often find themselves within the grasps of segregating cluster politics. Cluster politics favour policies in which calculations of risk in regards to loyalty, over political criteria take precedent. It is also evermore obvious that parties are promoting themselves around negatively geared segregating criteria, as demonstrated in the rise of anti-immigration parties throughout the west.

Our social structure gets ever more complex, where social groups span beyond cultural, or racial communities. Meta-Local communities such as diaspora, urban poor and the LGBTQIA community. They share local cultural belonging, or a national identity but lifestyles and/or core values that may differ from those of their neighbours but fall in line with other peoples across the globe.

In this we start to see that the plight of democracy itself, one of inclusion, is becoming a harder promise to fulfill. It has been widely acknowledged that efforts to develop multicultural societies within our current systems have failed. Both Angela Merkel[3] and David Cameron[4] have gone on record acknowledging this very fact. This then forever fuels the fire for segregation politics, political rhetoric that encourages exclusion, and thus an ever growing need for a participative democracy.

It would appear that the internet then provides us with the perfect platform for us to easily engage with our democratic system, affect policy change more directly and thus be better represented. Although, to the same end, the institutional lobby wields even greater power in this area too. As the UN had hoped between representative and citizen, in the same fashion business is directly influencing an already well established customer base in regards to policy to improve their political position. Even though it may seem that this is balanced by independent online news organisations, political movements, independent journalists and bloggers, their powers of persuasion cannot compete with a corporate entity. Often serious discussion is quickly replaced by general opinion sharing, and fail to ever materialise in the political spectrum.

Where successes are gained in online debate, it is often again local to a specific cause that resonates particularly with the online cluster. Leif gives the example of the SOPA-PIPA debate in the US in where the online community came together in regards to the intellectual rights guiding the use of the internet. In this case you see that the local pertains to the internet community, the concern was specialist and thus the debate was sustained long enough to make it into the political sphere.

Leif chooses to remodel the democratic system, on the basis that the primary failing point is the balance between the institutional lobby and the citizens collective voice. He suggests the implementation of a mandatory, yearly, month long series of meetings, in which (much like that of jury duty) citizens are randomly selected and required to meet at their local university, school, or public hall, to discuss the current state of policy. It is noted that the citizen lobby (as Leif coins it) is not a decision making body, but a advisory one in that it opens direct dialogue between citizens as a whole and their local representative, who in turn will have a voice to propose, alter, argue policy ideas. Furthermore the analysis of policy suggestions is aided by "educated" advisers and moderators who are required to have a Master's level in their respective field. Physical attendance is mandatory for a designated minimum of time, which can be supplemented by online engagement.

On entering into this new idea of democracy with an enforced participatory model, one is enthusiastic on the claims that this will balance the voice of citizens, to that of the institutional lobby, returning an equilibrium of representation to the people. It is fair to say that Leif realises the limitations of technology and suggests that the only way to have invested participation is to have a balance of physical and virtual engagement. However it is in his earlier chapters that interesting points were made in regards to cross cultural identity.

Rather than addressing the difficulty and proposing a solution to include diverse cultural, meta-local dialogue, he chooses to remove this debate in favour of solely local democratic debate. Despite criticising the political theorist Habermas's claims that it is possible to create consensus based on universally accepted morals, and that segregation politics is to be avoided, he fails to suggest any possibilities to address the wide cultural variance of people in local communities. Furthermore, despite identifying a new online elite class emerging, he chooses to re-enforce a standard of the academic elite as fonts of knowledge in which society should rely.

Often claims of solving cultural and socioeconomic problems manifest in the removal of their existence from the debate, the new top-down approach from an educated elite, an acceptance of an ever present, seemingly equally powerful institutional lobby, yet the claims that politicians would be held accountable for their time in power, rather than the hollow promises made for their re-election.

The Rub

So where does this leave us. Well it begs many more questions that deserve further research. Questions about the idea of culture, identity, national identity, nation, mobility, and how technology could, or has been a player in these fields. Are there ways we can cross the cultural divide? Are the institutional lobbies going to forever have political power over us? Can democracy work in our new hyper mobile age? How do Meta-Local communities get a local and global voice? Many solutions have been proposed to us, but none of which, I am convinced is our magical silver bullet.