Virtual democracy, by Blackberry

Rumours abound that Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion Ltd. has commissioned a study of democracy’s future based on the premise of a Blackberry for all Canadians. (Well, in actual fact, this column may or may not be the first such rumour, but surely such a prospect resonates in the esprit of RIM strategists!)

Such a scenario, perhaps not so entirely farfetched when considering wireless penetration rates now in excess of 90 per cent across much of Northern Europe, would galvanize the emergence of a truly virtual democracy. Yet it’s worthwhile asking: Would the result be positive?

The word “virtual” has many connotations, two of which are particularly relevant for the speculation at hand. On the one hand, virtual is meant to denote a non-physical form, one we now readily associate with the Internet. On the other hand, virtual also conveys a sense of not quite being true, as in a virtual reality.

Would, then, ubiquitous Blackberries yield a newly digitized democratic order constituting an improvement over what we have today? Alternatively, would such virtual connectedness merely parallel, or even marginalize, existing political institutions and collective citizenship? The answer to this fundamental question rests on two competing and not entirely separate dynamics: firstly, media messaging and visibility; and secondly, deliberation and learning.

With respect to the media and visibility, the impact of wireless communications is often displayed: CTV’s Mike Duffy, for instance, frequently boasts on air of having just received, via his Blackberry, the latest-breaking rumour of policy or political intrigue. More broadly, anyone can receive updates from media outlets or special interest groups seeking to convey information.

The benefit of instant communication is real. The citizenry is empowered through exchanges of ideas and viewpoints that, in turn, force governments to take note and respond. Witness the Canadian government’s difficulties with inconsistencies in Afghanistan. Such exposure and scrutiny would have been unthinkable in any previous era. And while some might lament the fishbowl environment, a more accountable military is likely the best form of protection for our brave soldiers on the ground.

Parliament, too, is empowered, at least in terms of frontline visibility. Cabinet ministers face a daily grilling from an Opposition determined to leverage public concern into a winning sound-byte, first and foremost for the media that provide a conduit to the public at large. The unfolding of the climate change agenda, with its recent ascendancy to the front page, is not so different in this regard.

Indeed, over the spring parliamentary session, a routine scanning of the media (which is all most people with Blackberries have time to do) revealed an understandable frenzy of debate around both sets of issues, providing little relief for Prime Minister Harper and his entourage. Election plans were shelved accordingly, and many no doubt applauded as government was held to account.

What should also not be overlooked, however, is the manner by which the House of Commons becomes less and less deliberative in both purpose and function. Conflict and competition fuel visibility, not thoughtful conversation.

It may well be that Afghanistan and climate change merit outrage, but the broader challenges for virtual democracy are twofold: firstly, whether the system can accommodate conversing and compromising on a broader range of issues and priorities than those most visible through the lens of digitized media coverage; and secondly, whether media visibility lessens the capacity for consensus on these most contentious of issues.

Consider the U.S. political arena recently, and the media’s fixation with the high-stakes standoff between the President and Congress over Iraq. This dispute fuelled media headlines and online blogs and it continues to underwrite 2008 presidential campaigns, raising record amounts of money by leveraging, increasingly online, the polarized energies of both sides.

If legislators can find a way to undertake more reasoned debate and generate the sorts of compromise necessary for political action to take hold, then an absence of visibility may not necessarily be negative.

Al Gore has seemingly been able to achieve more on the climate change front by galvanizing visibility outside of the political system than he was able to do within it. On this same issue, our own government seems paralyzed by partisanship and polarized opinions (with Blackberries firing missives each way).

The crux of the virtual democracy challenge is thus apparent: how to leverage the benefits of a more knowledgeable and inquisitional society, while also replicating the sorts of dialogue that have historically taken place in legislative chambers. Put more succinctly, can virtual democracy be both visible and deliberative?

Jeffrey Roy is associate professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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