e-DREAM SERIES - Instalment 1: Is e-Democracy too wild an anticipation?

Sunday, November 19 2006 @ 07:02 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. (Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963)

According to the pedestrian interpretation of the word "Anarchy", it just means chaos. Etymologically, though, it denotes a ruler-less state of society. In this original sense of the word, I think the time is ripe for some advanced nations to move on to that state, at least in theory.

Experts in the history of social thought say anarchism branches out into a variety of schools ranging from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon's Mutualism to Mikhail Bakunin's Collective Anarchism. Admittedly, I owe the basic idea to these thinkers and activists. But if there is something that differentiates me from them, it's an anarchic political system which is viable only on the Internet. In that sense, what I'm advocating here is something to be called a "Networked Anarchy" that should be synonymous to the futuristic polity generically called e-Democracy, or e-Government.

I don't have any specific countries in mind. However, since any nation where the conventional democracy isn't at work can't move on to an e-Democracy, Japan, China and Koreas are precluded from the scope of my proposition. In Japan, for instance, the education system has collapsed, the election system has collapsed, diplomacy has collapsed, the pension plans have collapsed, and there's practically nothing that hasn't. For such a nation, there's no place to head for but hell.

As Dai Morita, one of the few Japanese friends of mine, told me the other day, Doraemon, the cartoon character, would become the Japanese leader if our nation went for a popular vote on the Net. In short Japan is an eternity away from e-Democracy. To some, I've been known to be a negativist, but this is why I seldom wrote a "constructive" piece such as this one until I became really sick and tired of disparaging my home country.

Another prerequisite to be met when launching a presumably mind-boggling project for e-Democracy is the infrastructure which allows you a ubiquitous access to the Net as the essential enabler. But more importantly, you should define your ultimate goal in a way you can make the most of the enabling technology.

There are two types of innovative technologies: Adaptive and Disruptive. Business consultant Grant Norris once wrote in E-Business and ERP he coauthored with his colleagues before their employer PriceWaterhouseCoopers was merged into IBM that these Web-based technologies are of disruptive nature whereas most of others (e.g., the cellphone) are adaptive because they just "move earlier technologies forward incrementally." According to his definition, disruptive technologies "change the way people live their lives, or the way businesses operate [in a disruptive fashion]." In my interpretation, Norris' description leads to one important thing: the last thing you should do is to get a disruptive technology to emulate the "as-is" model as if it were an adaptive technology. That would be something like driving George Stephenson's steam locomotive, another epochal invention in history, through the unpaved pasture of the early-19th century's England.

In fact some countries, such as the U.K., have already implemented what they consider the first steps toward e-Government. But they are mistaken because they are working primarily on streamlining of the administration part of the government's functions with the Net in use, while leaving out judiciary and legislature. They shouldn't have started it off with the "downstream" thing just because administration is the easiest part. Worse, as a result, they attempt to get the Net to emulate the as-is models which are based on the conventional formula of representative democracy.

I have nothing against seeking an improved efficiency by streamlining the "legacy" system. In recent years IBM and many other "solution providers" have been meticulously working on what they think can serve as the platform for a new political model. But when it comes to launching a project to that end in a big way, I am quite skeptical about the trade-off between the costs to be entailed and the benefits expected there. If you think the combination between a disruptive technology and the outdated ways of governing the nation is the most realistic approach for an e-Government, it's fairly likely that you end up in a vast waste of human and financial resources. But that is a different issue here.

So, once again, it is crucially important that you address the question about how best to leverage the enabling technology that is already there. That's where the burgeoning discipline called MOT (Management of Technology, or Technology Management) comes into play.

If you take a look at the curricula of the MBA courses at business schools, you will realize quite a few MOT classes are going on there in recent years. Unfortunately, though, these professors tend to marginalize the significance of the socio-political implications of the Web-based technologies by confining their studies to microeconomics such as how to model an e-Business to make it fit into the new environment. But the fact remains that political reform should be dealt with before addressing the issue with innovation of business because politics is always in the upstream.

Why have they turned the whole flow upside down? Is that simply because they are business administration professors? My assumption is that they are not enthusiastic about new political models primarily because any government won't subsidize a project, or a class, which is devoted to abolishing, or revolutionizing, the current polity. Politicians and bureaucrats have too much vested interests in it. The headache for these people is, therefore, how to mislead or localize the fledgling studies of e-Government.

Moreover professors and researchers seem to be misguided to believe the vested interests are not the only thing that thwarts projects aimed at a leader-less nation. Now it's their turn to play the role of negativists. They have tons of excuses for not taking the e-Government proposition seriously. For one thing, they argue that any e-voting system would inherently be prone to irregularities, as if vote-rigging and intentional miscount of ballots weren't commonplace today, not only in Japan but in the rest of the world, albeit to a lesser degree.

They also argue that if and when some countries went leaderless ahead of others, they would be totally at a loss over how to handle foreign affairs. This argument would, however, be convincing only if the existing international frameworks such as the United Nations, APEC (photo) or the Nonproliferation Treaty, just to mention a few, were functioning. In fact anyone with a minimal amount of learning ability knows that is not the case judging from the way things have unfolded in the last couple of decades. For one thing the U.N., which was founded when Chiang Kaishek still ruled over mainland China, has long proved dysfunctional and will never be revived by haphazard measures Kofi Annan or his Korean successor can think of. The same is more or less true with other multilateral frameworks.

In short there is no reason at all to rule out the viability of an e-Government as a sheer pipedream. It's just that where there is a will, there is a way. You may still say that you just can't visualize a society without leaders. But unfortunately for negativists, unimaginable does not always mean unrealistic, let alone unnecessary.

I'll leave it there for now. But admittedly, my proposition remains too sketchy here and needs a lot of elaboration on the nitty-gritty to be involved in it. In my future pieces I will discuss these issues more in detail, including those concerning how to manage the transition, which will take a tremendous amount of time as well as a lot of learning ability.

But in the meantime, I'm reasonably sure that once someone gives it an initial thrust, the 2500-year-old wildest dream of mankind will be coming true with a relative ease. Athenians' direct democracy ended up in mobocracy in the 5th century before Christ. But today, we have what they didn't have - the Internet as the enabler, and MOT that tells us how best to capitalize on it so the yawning gap between technologies and socio-political systems can be bridged, instead of further widening.

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