Twenty-five hundred years of Government 2.0

This article is the second in a series leading up to the

Personal Democracy Forum
first article
was posted on June 16.

There’s been a lot of excitement lately about the term “Government 2.0.” Strip away the RESTful interfaces and you see that the new practices in government
transparency are just intensifications of things democracies have done
for a long time: public comment periods, expert consultation,
archiving deliberations, and so forth. So let’s look back a bit at
what democracy has brought to government so far.

Like any telescoped presentation of history, this one reduces the
swirling forces that extend and retract their way through the
centuries into a couple near-mythological categories. I do this in the
service of evaluating the concepts we toss around when discussing
government participation.

Government 1.0: empire

Last year, Boston residents and visitors got the chance to see an
of sculptures preserved from the culture that earned a special role in
history as the first major power to exert ruthless control over many
peoples: the Assyrians. Other dynasties–Egyptian, Chinese,
Babylonian, and Akkadian–were around before the Assyrian empire, but
the Assyrians were the ones that set a new standard for cruelty. The
fearful image assigned to them in biblical texts also assures them a
special fascination for Westerners.

Most visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts were thrilled by the artistic
quality of the wall reliefs, human figures, and everyday objects.
Personally, I was depressed by the unrelenting scenes of war and

Assyria refined a strategy of subjecting cities just outside their
borders and using the resulting booty to raise soldiers and provisions
to attack the next frontier. Any populations whose subjugation was in
doubt would be uprooted and forced to move closer to the center of the
empire, replaced in their old homelands by more compliant subjects.

When the court entertained local dignitaries or foreigners (the
lobbyists of the day), they walked through “lobbies” adorned with the
scenes of carnage that ended up last year at the center of the Boston
exhibit. The depictions of chariots crushing helpless civilians and
soldiers impaled on stakes gave visitors a clear message: submit or
end up the same way. Thus the Assyrians promulgated a “shock and awe”
doctrine four thousand years before US troops brought their own
version to the same geography.

This went on, with interruptions, for 1,300 years, and established a
practice that guided other empires for thousands of years to come.

Some empires were more humane, of course. Empires could provide their
inhabitants with protection and stability through currencies,
constables, and courts (remember Hammurabi’s Code). But all these
policies remained subject to the whim of the supreme ruler.

And that is the distinguishing trait of Government 1.0: unchecked
power centered in one individual. The reason emperors could stay in
power was that they exploited their hierarchies to delegate both power
and wealth. As long as governors maintained loyalty to the emperor,
they could exert broad powers in the regions under their control and
use those powers to accumulate great amounts of money. They in turn
delegated power to those beneath them, and so on down through the

What could be more successful than this carrot-and-stick methodology
combining vast rewards with threats of terror?

Government 2.0: democracy

There must be something persnickety about the character of ancient
Athens. They couldn’t tolerate strong leaders. Almost anyone who ever
pulled off a major military victory, proved to be a persuasive orator,
or got a corner on political power eventually found himself executed
or exiled. (The Athenians invented the idea of “ostracism”–a fiercely
democratic institution in their implementation, ironically.) Socrates
was just one of the later examples of the propensity Greeks showed for
bringing down anyone who was widely admired.

So this seems to be a natural setting for a system that grants a voice
to a wide range of citizens. The decisions they reach may not be the
best, but they’re decisions that the political body can follow through
on, having been reached democratically. The losers (if they weren’t
powerful enough to scare the winners) can stick around and try again
at the next gathering in the agora.

Greeks recognized from the beginning the problems of democracy with
which we are so familiar today. They knew that many votes were bought
outright, and that others could be pulled in by smooth-tongued
sophists. They also knew their democracy rested precariously on the
labor of the slaves and other disenfranchised residents. And that a
democracy could become an oppressive empire, using behavior against
people next door that it would never tolerate within the walls of its
own city.

I like this disturbing contradiction. That’s why my
web site, account, and Twitter account are named after
a character in an ancient Greek play that shows both the flaws and the
immense power of democratic systems. The name Praxagora combines
“action” with “public forum.”

Right or wrong, a democratically reached decision–which if properly
done, comes into focus as an emergent property of the assembled masses
rather than being imposed by one party or individual–has an
irreproachable authority. Socrates didn’t like democracy, but if we
are to believe Plato (who also didn’t like democracy), Socrates
insisted on obeying the popular will, even at the cost of his life.

We shouldn’t hang a halo around direct democracy. In fact, the trend
in technology-driven government transparency is not Athenian direct
democracy–despite its idealization by some activists–but a tighter
agency/public partnership. Today’s experiments in public participation
go far beyond electing representatives. But even the traditional
American political culture consists of more than bills and vote
counts. For instance, the executive branch tends to consult regularly
with the public, a topic I’ll take up in the next article in this

As we don digital media and communications–those somewhat ungainly
garments we try to mold to human forms–in order to improve on
twenty-five hundred years of flawed Government 2.0, we can learn some
lessons from those millennia:

  • No individual can be allowed to gather too much power, but every
    individual needs to be heard and to be protected from arbitrary

  • Those who are excluded from the benefits of society will eventually
    rise up to wreck it.

  • The majority is often wrong, and any political system can be abused.

  • Good decisions take time, and a willingness to subject the decisions
    to constant re-examination.

  • We need to rise above rhetoric and pursue the ultimate (if ultimately
    elusive) truth.

Like any useful technology, digital media and communications can help
us realize a vision. Government 2.0 is a very old vision. A
recognition of what has been achieved and what still challenges us can
guide the development of the proper technology.

For instance, we can learn from history to bring the technology of
participation to every member of the population and give them the
opportunity to learn it, to subject the results of electronic
deliberation to review by authorities governed by outside checks and
balances, to highlight experts’ reputations so they can wield more
influence, and to give participants on electronic forums a few cycles
of decision-making to work out processes that make effective use of
the technology.

Deploying Government 2.0 technology will teach us more about that
technology, and about ourselves.

Next article (Wednesday, June 24):

adaptive legislation can respond to action in the agora.

tags: , , , ,