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Playing at democracy

Reality TV is no model for voting reform.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

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This is an edited version of a column published in IT Week on 8 November 2002.

Fox TV’s cable channel, FX, plans to broadcast a new kind of gameshow.

Starting early in 2004 and broadcasting live from Mount Rushmore, Gettysburg and the Statue of Liberty, American Candidate will be a mix of Pop Idol with ‘anyone can be president’ politics. Viewers will vote by phone and online. According to one report, FX ‘has no idea whether the winner will then actually run for president’.

This news throws a new light on British discussions of electronic voting at elections. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, New Labour Leader of the House Robin Cook’s national consultation exercise on e-democracy has just ended. A little before that, local government minister Nick Raynsford said that he plans a big trial of voting by mobile, interactive TV, text and the internet in May 2003.

American Candidate highlights how trendy moves to introduce electronic politics merge with what I would call the politics of play. The chance continually to vote on issues – to respond fast, to tick boxes, to select political partners and to move on to the next thing – seems to me playful, in the sense of chatrooms and electronic dating. The chance is there, true; but it will not make politics as grown-up as it needs to be.

E-voting can never be as secret as a secret ballot. But my main worry is that, through no intrinsic fault of its own, IT could be coopted by New Labour to trivialise politics and dumb it down. That process will also trivialise IT in the public mind.

You don’t believe that e-democracy turns politics into a reality TV show? Well, that is the format that the government has in mind. ‘The success of interactive TV shows such as Big Brother or Pop Idol’, said Robin Cook’s document, ‘is largely due to the technology in allowing a greater number of people to be directly involved. The technology provides a means for mass participation. This is the same principle that lies behind the government’s strategy for e-democracy’.

That sounds incontrovertible. But the success of Big Brother and Pop Idol is not just due to IT, but also to the fact that no absorbing political visions are on offer today. By making these shows the model for initiatives in IT, the government will make content-free politics even more pervasive.

Democracy, we should remind ourselves, is not about communication, but about economic and political power. It has suited the government to use electronic channels to play peek-a-boo with unelected pressure groups about domestic violence or biodiversity. But homeless nurses in London, for instance, might prefer to see the government use IT to speed up housebuilding in this country.

And if a party came out and really worked for that, nurses and others might be quite happy to vote for it using their feet and an old-fashioned polling station, rather than the click of a mouse.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is coauthor of Why is Construction so Backward?, Wiley-Academy, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA))

This is an edited version of a column published in IT Week on 8 November 2002. Read the full version.

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Topics Politics

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