Pirate Party in Germany, January 2012. Photo by Joachim S. Müller.
This ought to be more self-evident than it is, but I find I have to point out time and again that direct democracy is not democracy.
Indeed, first the lure of the fad and then the coercive demand for "direct democracy" as "the modern way" is the way in which totalitarianism will be ushered in the door.
The people flogging the "direct democracy" meme are the "Internet freedom" gang -- here you see the The New York Times writing lovingly about the victorious Pirate Party in Germany and their notion of "direct democracy" and how wonderful that is.
The seductive argument the nihilists and anarchists makes goes like this:
Though the Pirates are mostly known as a one-issue party advocating Internet freedom, Mr. Höfinghoff explained their online decision-making system, Liquid Feedback. Every subject could be debated, drafted, amended and voted on by members over the Internet. The process was the platform.
The idea of electing someone as your proxy for two, four or even six long years may have been a necessity in the days of the American Constitutional Convention, when representatives rode to the capital by horseback. Some people who vote dozens of times a day on their favorite videos, articles and songs say it’s outdated.
There are quite a few things wrong with these notions.
The process was the platform, you say? Well, who gets to decide what the platform is? Who codes it? Who gets to have oversight over the coders? Do the coders bake in their ethics-free notions? Do they remove the ability to vote "no" under the pretext that it will be "gamed" -- by which they mean people will vote against them and their ideology? Or do they have a system that is simply aggregating pluses applied to various candidates rather than a straight up and down yes/no vote?
Liquid Feedback looks like the usual open-source culty horror. There is "Structured feedback" instead of normal political debate by Roberts Rules of Order. There is "guidance" and then "feedback" by those unseen moderators or the automatic system itself. Didn't collect enough "likes"? You lose! Hey, who gets to do the structuring?
The Pirate Party's lovely Liquid Feedback uses the Schulze Method -- "if there is a candidate who is preferred over every other candidate in pairwise comparisons, then this candidate will be the winner when the Schulze method is applied." The Wikipedia article will usher you into the world of geeky and nerdy voter reform notions with their mathematical labyrinth meant to discourage the timid non-specialist.
I wrote about the "7 Deadly Flaws of Online Democracy" here, and it's mainly about just this ethics-free culture of hackers which pervades all the "democracy" experiments, which we first began to see in Second Life eight years ago with Haney Linden's free gift of a sim to the socialists of Neualtenberg -- the only participants and therefore the only winners of a "contest" for governance (well, actually, to make a community on a winter-themed sim.)
The first problem is always the constituency. Who gets to be in that direct democracy group? How do you decide? How is identity decided and validated? How will the alts and sock puppets be removed?
How will the propositions be drafted? By whom? How will they be decided? Will there be gangs of "community managers" who shape everyone, telling them to be "constructive" or leave?
Then there's the problem of the thin-skinned geeks that devise all sorts of ways of muting, banning, deleting people or comments or content they don't like, by overbroad notions of "trolling" or "flaming".
But that inability to vote "no" is really a killer, and the first sign of profound trouble and lack of real democracy. Whenever you see it appear, fight it like mad. It's utterly fake and serving only of the group in power (the coders) to claim that it is "gamed" -- it's no more gamed than the "yes" vote.
Time and again we've seen that when you wrest the voting process and tools away from the platform providers and programmers, you get astounding results that utterly undo their power. I'm recalling a story I was told about a famous vote in There.com ages ago -- there were certain people who believed they were the leaders, and the most popular, and they would appear so by the usual "leaderboard" methods of game worlds with their collection of points awarded by their friends, but as soon as an actual vote could be cast on these persons, with the ability to have a confidential and hidden ballot, their notions were upset (one per avatar key, which of course still left the problem of alts, but there were limits to accounts).
In Second Life, people flocked to the JIRA bug tracker/feature suggester to weigh in on privacy-busting Red Zone, a security gadget which was scraping IP addresses and matching and outing outs. People demanded that the loopholes that left this open for media be fixed. And of course, that harmed the usual advertising model of all these platforms. But thousands of people kept voting, until the developers began to complain that they wouldn't make the security change, and began threatening people for continuing to keep the issue open and continuing to vote on it. (In the end, they put in a policy change to the TOS rather than a code change.)
BTW, this is how I was banned from the JIRA issue tracker in SL, although not banned from the forums or the world, because I insisted on re-opening a bug in the group tools that enabled group members to return property put in "share" which could damage or destroy it -- a concern for landlords with group rentals. This "feature" was a bug because it defeated the group powers setting which stipulated that group members only with the check-off power to return group-set objects could do so. This was a problem that even the original Linden coder conceded; various IBM and other geeks I brought in to render independent opinions definitely conceded it, and we all replicated it step by step.
But Soft Linden, who combines the zeal of the open-source cultist with Randian libertarianism insisted that the JIRA be closed and the bug turned into a "feature" because he thought it was great that participants in a group build could come around and "edit" pieces by returning things they didn't like. This was part of the fiction of collectivism and collective building that the Lindens nurtured (combined with that Roark-like architectural imperative) but which was a completely isolated use case usually of their own people and a few insider geeks -- most people didn't like working in collective builds and having their work returned by some other person without their consent.
The first thing that "direct democracy" goons want to get rid of is the idea of representative voting, and of proxy voting, because then the coders don't have control. People elect representatives like lawyers or business people with reputations who can win ballots because they want them to be able to decide some issues on their own judgement, regardless of whether the masses of their constituency are "for" an issue or not. The "direct democracy" cultists don't appreciate this, of course, unless it works their way. For example, in New York State, one of my two elected representatives opposed SOPA, and wrote me instructing me that it was "breaking the Internet" because she was copying and pasting what her geeky staff read out of TechDirt -- that's how this was decided, by mob rule. But my other representative said he would support SOPA and understood the issue of business loss from IP theft simply because he grasped the legal issues. Other days, either of these representatives might be for or against some issue of importance to me, for example on the alternative to the HHS decision which dangerously eroded the separation of church and state.
But the sophisticated voter realizes that the representative is not a robot merely voting as the aggregate of all his constituents want, but what is possible in the politics of the situation. And that's ok.
You can see in the notion that this is "outdated" the slippery slope of how it will play to many people, and we will find ourselves losing our freedoms faster than we ever dreamed possible. That's why I jump up and down and shout about this problem of coders and "no no vote" all the time. Because I see how they will do it -- playing the "civility" card and urging that people be "constructive". Bleh.
In Germany, you can see that the Pirates are made up of the same mix of hard leftists and Ron Paul style libertarians -- or worse -- as in the United States. There are some that have aptly noted that another party grew as fast in its day -- the National Socialist Party or the Nazis.
What the "direct democracy" nerds insist on is that "the Internet" will make it "easier" and "empower" people.
But it won't, because the Internet first and foremost empowers coders; secondly it empowers platform owners and providers; and only thirdly, in a very distant third, does it empower users, who are by now utterly at the mercy of the coders and their corporate or nonprofit managers. The intermediaries in "direct democracy" aren't visible because the coders -- the first intermediary in between you and the expression of your will -- pretend they don't exist. They pretend they are "working for a better world". They may be anonymous, cynical, nihilist, ethics-free, as coders often are.
The second intermediaries are various platform owners like Facebook, also hiding behind the "betterworld" claims and claiming to be "facilitating". A LOT of public political debate now is on Twitter, Facebook and Google+, where the platform owners are busy deleting accounts that have pseudonyms, or deleting accounts that have a mob-rush of abuse reports that could be specious, or deleting them just because they seem to be spamming.
Then there's how speech is handled on all these corporate platforms, where again, malicious abuse reports from extremists or authoritarian states can get people banned, or just thin-skinned jerks. And of course there is all the rich and robust set of tools to mute, ban, unfriend, make invisible, etc. the individual comment on an individual thread or the whole account of someone you don't like.
These goons don't need more than 10 percent of the vote as they are now in parliament and can now undermine democracy by eroding the very bedrock of democracy which has been the "one man, one vote" that nevertheless leads to a representative. Under the guise of "directness" of deciding issues and "removing the middlemen," of course the hackers will put themselves in as the intermediaries. That's what we have to worry about enormously. And they will push for removal of up-and-down yes/no votes, and get others into "structured debates" that "move consensus" as the coders want it.
Typically, no comments are open on The New York Times for such a devastating story that is setting the stage to remove representative democracy and celebrate "process as platform" (sigh).