Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“Smart Initiatives” might fit the bill in the Middle East, too.

As Nebraskans start discussing “Smart Initiatives” and Europeans move steadily forward towards implementing them throughout the EU , the time may have arrived to consider this approach to direct democracy, which allows citizens to propose legislation using online electronic signature gathering, as part of the evolving transition to democracy in North Africa and the Middle East.

Much discussion has already taken place about possible paths towards democracy for previously-authoritarian states. One approach (“invasion and nation-building”) was that applied by the Bush Administration to transition Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship to an American-compliant form of “democracy.” A similar effort is still underway in Afghanistan, and, obviously, still faces a lot of problems.

American democracy grew out of centuries of previous evolution towards the rule of law and representative government in England and in the colonies. It’s not surprising that countries and cultures with radically-different histories don’t easily slip into their own versions of the Jeffersonian democratic ideal.

Tunisia, and now Egypt, represent a different path from dictatorship to democracy. Two fundamental aspects of these two revolutions are their decentralized, leaderless form and their mediation by electronic social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and related technologies.

The “law of uneven development” argues that societies can often transition directly from a less-developed form to a more-developed one without having to go through the transitional states characteristic of societies that have evolved further, but more slowly, to a certain state.

Phone technology is a prime example of this law. Cellular telephony is now more ubiquitous in Africa than landlines, which never really penetrated deeply into the society. Farmers and others in Africa, in some cases skipping ahead even of their counterparts in more developed countries, can now use their cell phones to manage their businesses in real time. Money can be transferred directly using cell phone networks from village to village and from village to city. The law of uneven development has allowed Africans to go from “no phones” to “advanced digital cellular networks” in much less time than it took the West to deploy its landline networks, without going through that part of the development process themselves.

Similarly, the largely-leaderless and Internet-mediated revolts in Tunisia and Egypt point to the possibility that governance there could also skip transitional democratic structures and go directly to an Internet-centric, directly-democratic form, employing, at a minimum, some form of Smart Initiatives, as are now being implemented in the European Union under terms of the Lisbon Treaty.

These rebellions have been powered by Internet-savvy social networkers much of whose organizing has been done online. They are looking for new ways of governing themselves that allow for collaboration and cooperation. They have already demonstrated to themselves and the world that they can use these digital tools to achieve great things through collaboration and cooperation.

Maybe it’s time for them and us to think about the possibility of continuing their explorations into new forms of democracy by letting them use the Internet to formulate policy and aggregate popular demands for specific legislation through a form of Smart Initiatives similar to the one now being implemented in Europe and starting to be considered in Nebraska.

Of course, universal broadband Internet access for everyone in these society is necessary for Smart Initiatives to be implemented fairly and for reasons of justice and equity. That’s another goal worth vigorously pursuing, not least for its ability to enable Smart Initiatives (and someday, Internet voting), but also for its economic, social, cultural, and ecological benefits.

Finally, implementing Smart Initiatives in the new democracies of North Africa and the Middle East could serve as an inspiration for our own adoption of this method as a way of strengthening and broadening democracy back here in the United States. Then we can benefit from the law of uneven development ourselves.

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