As the article “Consent of the Networked” demonstrates, the issue of digital governance is, importantly, surfacing with more recent regularity in public discussion. Perhaps people are finally paying attention because in the past year we’ve been aware of international governments blatantly disregarding what democracies consider acceptable rules of internet censorship and surveillance. That is to say, when news breaks that Chinese or Egyptian governments are using digital power for surveillance, United States citizens express concern, if not outrage.
But my 26 years of observing human behavior suggest most of us probably won’t actively respond until seriously provoked. Many like author Rebecca MacKinnon wonder what it will take to be provoked and what kind of securities will have to be sacrificed in the meantime.
This conversation, in my mind, can’t be had without Google as the centerpiece. Currently, Google feels more powerful in creating change and influence in society than the U.S. government. For example, when Google unrolls a new set of software or programs they let users shape what happens to it next. The company is known for its hyper-awareness of user experience. Users react and shape how the programs are tweaked. If people don’t respond well (Google Wave, Buzz) they aren’t ashamed to scrap the idea and move on to the next. They appear to understand that the desires of the people using the product are what matters to success.
We live in a democracy. This shouldn’t be a new idea, but I think maybe it is. At least in such a widespread, everyone weighs in first-hand sense. Our current system was built in a different time and it hasn’t kept up with changes. Even votes for presidential candidates still go through the electoral college. People are rarely in direct communication with the government. How can the government most accurately know what they want?
Maybe the discussion shouldn’t only be asking whether or not we need open-sourced or closed technology. Maybe we shouldn’t just be asking whether the internet needs governing. Maybe we should also (first?) be asking whether our government can’t learn a thing or two from the organization toward progress and social change happening on the internet. Maybe the self-governing or Google-governing can inform a desperately-needed revamp of democratic governance made in a non-internet age. And from that, maybe a governing of the internet will naturally materialize.
I didn’t mean to digress quite in that direction. But now that I have, I’ll stand by it. I will dial it back a bit by saying that the risk in exalting Google as better-than-government is that because there are no rules in place something could change, the leaders could get tired of working with whiny citizens, one person in a very powerful position could snap suddenly, and essentially this endless and potentially world-altering information Google has gathered about everything could be used for evil. If we tell them not to do that, if we put the old democratic checks and balances into place so that we know when it starts to happen, we can prevent dictatorship.
Update: Today (2/5/12) there were like five articles about this on NYTimes.com. It is the topic of the moment.