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e-DREAM SERIES - Instalment 2: What factors are major driving forces for e-Democracy?

Quo Vadis?

In Instalment 1 of this series, I wrote that the time is ripe for some advanced nations to move on to the leader-less state of society at least in theory, without specifying who they can be, and for what reasons. Now I will try to be a little more specific about what countries are the best poised for the era of cyber democracy, and what countries are the farthest from it.

And yet I don't want to play a tipster about who will be the first to reach there because the issue of e-governance is a little more serious matter than horse racing. I have tentatively concluded that Singapore, or any other country with a similar set of national attributes, is the closest to electronicizing its government. But there is a catch: the one who is the closest to the goal will not necessarily be the first to reach there. They often refer to this paradox as the irony of history.

In modern history we have seen this happen time and again. The Russian Revolution could transform overnight a state of peasantry into the world's first communist regime. And Japan could rise from reclusive feudalism to the world's second largest economy. So who knows which horse will be the first to cross the goal? The only thing we can tell is that whenever the most backward country overtakes advanced nations in leaps and bounds, it is doomed to suffer an acute setback sooner or later as was proven by Vladimir Putin's Russia or the post-bubble Japan.

To begin with, the order of arrival, as such, doesn't matter that much. In fact it's an inevitable, not just an advisable, course of action for every nation to go for the Internet because as we already know, not a single democracy has been doing well since the turn of the century. The democracy in the U.S. is a far cry from the Japan's political system. Unlike in Japan, the self-purification mechanism, the essential element of any type of democracy, still seems to be at work there, albeit falteringly. And yet, there's no denying that the United States is ailing at this moment and it looks to be suffering something more than a spell of hiccups.

For one thing, with the Democrats now dominating both the Senate and the House of Representatives, politicians, the media, political pundits, and the vast majority of the general public are all acting like Monday Morning Quarterbacks as if they didn't approve George W. Bush's preemptive war on terror which spilled over to Iraq in 2003, and as if they didn't reelect Bush in 2004. I think the proliferation of professional second-guessers and demagogues like Michael Moore is an unmistakable sign of the erosion of the democratic ideal in the nation which has spearheaded its dissemination all over the world for most of the last century.

Under the circumstances, it now seems that everyone should get prepared, if ever he wants to survive the ongoing sea change in socio-political undercurrent, for the unavoidable course eventually leading to an entirely new form of democracy where the network replaces the leadership in one way or the other. Apes cannot live without their boss sitting at the top of the hill. Even human beings would feel uneasy in the absence of their leaders because they have been too much used to the idea of being represented by someone else. But I think that during the transition period, we will find our way to contain the sense of uncertainty. You might put your favorite avatar on the PC, for instance, and make believe it's the leader. Over time, however, humans should be able to get rid of their base of coccyx, the vestigial structure they have inherited from monkeys.

In gauging how close or how far each country is to/from the leaderless state of society, I picked the following factors as the major driving forces behind the next stage of evolution, or the things that can constitute impediments:

1) Type of current polity,
2) Use of Internet,
3) Degree of diversity,
4) Size of population.

In order to test my assumption that the challenge level for each country hinges mainly on these factors, I have selected the U.S., Japan, Singapore, France and Switzerland as my cases in point. I thought by doing so, big and small countries in Europe and Asia, along with the U.S., can be evenly represented. This piece will deal with the first two facets of the issue, leaving the other two to be discussed in the third instalment of the series.

Type of Current Polity

Theoretically speaking, countries who have already implemented direct democracy in one way or the other such as Switzerland are considered the closest to e-Democracy. At least the Swiss are traditionally used to the idea of the participatory democracy. But it's a different issue whether or not their democracy really deserves to be called that. For one thing, while Japanese women were given suffrage in 1946, their Swiss counterparts were granted voting rights as late as in 1971. Even in the referendum of that year, 34% of the Swiss citizens still voted against it. As an ex-businessman who frequented that country, I can guarantee that you will feel betrayed when you visit Switzerland for the first time if you have fantasized about the quality life these folks are supposedly leading, surrounded by the picturesque postcard stuff.

To me it's more important than that whether or not it's a parliamentary republic type of democracy, or a presidential system that is in place in a country in question. e-Democracy certainly favors a presidential system such as America's, or even a semi-presidential system such as in France, over the Swiss type of quasi-direct democracy, which is centered around a disguised parliamentary system, in that you can sometimes change the ancient regime just by decapitating it. In that sense even a dictatorship is easier to bring to an end than a rotten parliamentary system.

On the other hand, wherever there is a parliamentary system put in place, lawmakers, including cabinet members, have huge vested interests in the current polity, and so do the interest groups in their electoral, industrial, and sometimes religious, constituencies. It's more than natural that those people are always poised to defend the current system at any cost.

Without doubt, Japan is the worst parliamentary system around. Each one of these pork-barrel operators, 727 of them, is receiving an average 60 million yen every year. So their salaries and "bonuses" alone total 43.6 billion yen, or US$ 376 million at the current exchange rate. This is part of the price Japan's taxpayers have to foot for politicians' efforts to represent a handful of interest groups. If you include the money being set aside for their retirement allowances and overhead costs on top of that, perhaps we are being robbed of an annual US$ 1 billion. Besides, every time a parliamentary election is held, they waste an extra billions of yen. The 2005 snap elections, where the ruling Liberal Democratic Party won a landslide victory as if in a prearranged ritual, cost us taxpayers another US$ 647 million. Hence you can never expect them to abnegate their vested interests as long as we use nonviolent tactics to that end.

Moreover, the empirical rule tells us it's more likely than not that these figures are largely understated. And believe it or not, they are still the tip of the iceberg when compared to the total amount being wasted to support the overblown bureaucracy and the cartels formed among government contractors. Former Forbes journalist Benjamin Fulford was damned right when he called this system a downright kleptocracy.

What about the Emperor? On the surface he is not the boss of the 727 thieves. But in fact the "symbol of national unity", along with its family members and servants, who also snatches a modest US$ 151 million plus as much overhead from us annually, is an integral part of the mechanism of exploitation. Without the myth of homogeneity incarnated by the Emperor, these bandits in the diet would have been unable to eternalize the system in which to rake in tons of our hard-earned money even though we are the world's most credulous and obedient people.

It's more and more obvious that there's absolutely nothing Japan's politicians can do for us. Domestically, these prolific lawmakers are producing one law after another which most of us could live without, and externally all they can do is to churn out legislative measures such as the one with which to restrict the consumption of pricey cigars by Kim Jong Il and make him feel some cognac crunch, as well, as the North Korean leader increasingly runs amok creating artificial tensions in the Far East.

These are why I wrote in the first instalment that the Far Eastern pseudo-democracy is an eternity away from ushering in a new socio-political model. Even so the opportunity for cost savings I have identified there is too huge for us to say, "Let's forget it. It can't be helped." That's why I make believe for now that there still is a hope of ridding us of the gang of highly-paid legislators in the central government. Actually even though the Japanese people's mindset won't change anytime soon in the direction of what I term the "networked anarchy," still it's worth doing to exterminate these parasites. The sooner, the better.

The local governments and the entire bureaucracy should also be stripped of their authority and vested interests, but this should come in Phase 2 of the insecticidal operation. Perhaps the similar thing can be said of other parliamentary systems to varying degrees. But unlike in Japan, their systems can deliver, at least to a certain extent, on people's sovereignty guaranteed by the constitution.

Singapore comes somewhere between the parliamentary system and the presidential system. Although I must admit my observation about Singapore's political climate might be on the shallow side, there seem to be much less corruption going on in the parliament. Back in 1991, the Singaporeans went through a major change in the system, where a semi-presidential system was introduced with a constitutional amendment. Now the president elected by popular vote is in the position to nominate the prime minister. Before that, their system was so inflexible and political climate so stagnant that the paternal figure Lee Kuan Yew could stay in power for 31 years (1959-1990). Maybe Lee blushed when leaving office because in Japan, the dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had started under the 1955 System before he took office, was still there. But it seems that since he stepped down, things have been invigorated in this island city-state.

By comparison, Confoederatio Helvetica, as the Swiss people fondly call their country, has long been in the doldrums, if only politics-wise. It fatally lacks dynamism, which is what it takes to initiate a drastic change in the system. In the 1949 film classic "The Third Man", Orson Welles played the role of Harry Lime, a cynic racketeer profiting from the ongoing war. His most famous line goes like this: "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had 500 years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Use of Internet

Internet penetration rates for the countries and regions I picked in this piece compare like this:

Country/Region Penetration % Population
U.S. 69.3
EU 77.7
France 48.4
Switzerland 68.1
Russia 15.5
Asia 10.3
Singapore 67.2
Japan 67.2
World Total 16.6

Source: Internet World Stats (As of varying dates from 2005 to 2006)

Note 1: While IPR wildly swings in a short period of time, Internet World Stats relies on a couple of different research institutes which update these figures at different timings. Therefore, a real apple-to-apple comparison among these nations is next to impossible.
Note 2: Another survey estimates that Japanese having Internet access only through mobile phones roughly account for 20% of the Internet users.

This table indicates that there is no significant "digital divide" going on among these countries with the exception of France. But since you wouldn't cast your ballot using a PC sitting on the desktop in your workplace, what really counts is the number of individual Internet users. By rule of thumb, Japan is still lagging behind the U.S., Switzerland or Singapore in that respect. According to a recent survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which puts Japan's IPR at the household level at a fishy 87.0% as of December 2005, only 47.6% of the households went online for personal purposes.

Penetration is only part of this factor, though. More importantly, as I have already pointed out in the previous piece, just having the infrastructure that allows people an ubiquitous access to the Net is far from enough. What is really at issue here is how many Internet users know how to exploit the Net to the fullest.

Apparently it's a universal phenomenon that a myriad of Netizens, especially those classified into Generation Y, flock to websites that provide for online gaming, online dating, online chat and Internet auctions. But it's a Japan-particular thing that even "well-educated" adults are acting like their kids, if they have a certain amount of computer literacy, that is. You will think this adds up if you know most grownups in this nation, including university professors and company executives, have been really hooked on manga, or comic books, since the pre-Internet era.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Japan's Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 7.16 million people were hooked up to SNS (Social Networking Services), the most commonly used blogosphere, as of March. But if you take a peek at their websites, it won't take you more than a matter of minutes to learn that they are just wasting their time and the precious Internet resources. They might as well stay with the conventional technologies if these SNS participants just want to be part of the buddy-buddy club.

In the first instalment of this series, I wrote that from the MOT (Management of Technology) point of view, the last thing you should do is to get the "disruptive technology" to emulate the "as-is" model as if it were an "adaptive technology" and by doing so you would end up in a vast waste of human and financial resources. I added there: "That would be something like driving George Stephenson's steam locomotive, another epochal invention, through the unpaved pasture of the early-19th century's England." That's exactly what the Japan's SNS population is up to. The Internet technologies are essential enablers when you move on to an entirely new socio-political system. But it now looks as though the Japanese people have opted to become disabled, instead of enabled, to change their way of life.

I can't tell anything about the behavioral patterns of French Netizens because I am not good at their language. But it's hard to imagine that literate citizenry in any other nation than Japan claim to be benefiting from the Net while actually doing online what can be done off-line. When it comes to the U.S., I have known quite a few American websites which make a lot of Internet sense.

You may think the cellphone can be an alternative platform for e-Government. But I opine that the cellphone, or any other type of handheld device, doesn't help its user take part in the participatory democracy. For one thing, it would be practically impossible on the tiny screen to scrutinize comparatively legislative bills which have been proposed by two or more independent think tanks. The mobile phone can only help you answer simple yes-or-no questions these pollsters ask you from time to time.

I have the impression that the portable phone is an invention meant solely for the Japanese. As of March 2006, more than 91 million Japanese, or 71.8% of the population, from Generation Y to Generation O, were using mobile phones. They are very good at exchanging the briefest text messages and extraordinarily fast in typing Japanese and Chinese characters. A recent study has revealed that the thumbs of kids keep growing unusually long year after year. But fortunately or unfortunately for these handset users, I suspect the functions of their brains keep degenerating as their thumbs grow longer.

In this context it's now obvious that the Japanese at large don't know how to benefit from the Internet connection in an innovative way. That's one of the reasons I think Japan is the farthest from getting into the era of new political models and the new way of life. Other peoples, except the Swiss, seem to be better poised to create something really new leveraging the Internet. I think what makes the Swiss unfit for the e-era is their lack in innovativeness. The single most formidable challenge facing them, therefore, is how to close the gap between the technologies of the 21st century and the inert culture resulting from the ultra-conservative national trait, certainly not how to narrow the digital divide.

This brings us to the third factor, diversity, because those who don't value differences can't be innovative. I will discuss racial/cultural diversity from that perspective, along with the sizes of population, in the next instalment of this e-Dream series.


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