The Economist magazine dedicated a special section of their March 1st issue to democracy. That essay observed that two decades after the triumphant 1990s, the political ideology is facing challenges. China’s rise has shown the economic efficiency of centralized power, and Russia, Venezuela, Ukraine, and Argentina are “perpetuating a simulacrum of democracy” rather than doing away with it altogether.
Amid this challenging landscape, the Economist saw hope in the uses of new technology to revitalize democracy, arguing that “the internet makes it easier to organize and agitate; in a world where people can participate in reality TV votes every week, or support a petition with the click of a mouse the machinery and institutions of parliamentary democracy, where elections happen only every few years, look increasingly anachronistic.” The solution to democratic malaise, the Economist argued, may lie in clever applications that make government more transparent and responsive to the electorate. Closer to home, many new participatory websites are seeking to tackle the perceived gap between how responsive cities currently are to citizen demands, and how responsive they should be.
This group of new websites and prototypes claim to help groups of people come together, make decisions, and realize change. Civic crowdfunding sites like Ioby (for “In Our Back Yard”) and Neighbor.ly collect donations for community gardens and neighborhood events. The website Neighborland invites users to fill in the blank “I want ____ in my city.” Recent posts in New Orleans, where the site originated, include high speed rail, a dog park, park improvements, and a Trader Joe’s. Less place-oriented sites hope to spark collective action with creative apps, websites, and other tools. The much-heralded Loomio, for example, hopes to perfect a tool with the grandiose goal of helping “anyone, anywhere, to participate in decisions that affect them.”
However the fate of a couple high-profile projects to link citizens with neighborhood change through the web from a few years ago raise concerns about the prospects for this new crop. John Geraci’s DIYcity project, which sought to make cities as interactive as the web, has sputtered out since launching in 2008 (he now works for the New York Times). Ben Berkowtiz said at many events he hoped to make pothole reporting the “gateway drug” of civic participation with SeeClickFix, a website that invites citizens to post reports and relays them to journalists and city officials. For the most part the project has remained focused on the prosaic. In many cities, a smattering of reports languish unsolved where municipalities can’t or won’t respond. Meanwhile, the website has begun marketing itself as an inexpensive municipal 311 system, in effect doubling down on a pothole-focused strategy.
How are we to make sense of the new projects following in the footsteps of DIYcity or SeeClickFix? On the one hand, they fall in the long tradition of grassroots organizing and bottom-up initiative that has doubtlessly shaped cities. However, there is also cause for concern. On many crowdfunding websites and Neighborland, public services and utilities (like transit) are seamlessly blended with fundamentally private sector amenities (such as Trader Joe’s), suggesting a disturbing blurring of the public and private spheres. Often conspicuously absent from these websites is any mention of formal institutions of government, as either a source of funds or legitimate manager of the urban environment.
Even an action-oriented project lacks any sophisticated engagement with governments. Neighborland claims that “action matters,” and prompts users with several possible options after they enter an idea: fundraiser, event, resource, or petition. However it’s unclear how these steps would lead to action. Fundraising is useless where ideas require public collective action – changes to infrastructure, or government permits. Petitioning is also a curious path to “action.” Who would you send the petition to, and why should they care in a city with many competing interests pushing pet projects?
One theorist who can provide a useful perspective on these issues is the philosopher John Dewey. At the start of the 20th Century, the advent of industrialization, mass media, and the rise of fascism in Europe sparked a crisis of confidence in the idea of democracy. In his classic The Public and Its Problems, Dewey acknowledged that new technology “create means which alter the modes of associated behavior which radically change the quality, character, and place of impact of their individual consequences” (Dewey 1985 , p. 30). Unlike pessimistic intellectuals like Walter Lippmann (1927), who believed the mass public could only be governed by a technocratic elite, Dewey was more hopeful. He saw a public attempting to “form itself,” and during this transition argued there would be “increasing disparagement and disregard.” Together with growing contempt for government he predicted these tectonic changes would result in “various short-cuts of direct action” (Dewey, 1985 , p. 31).
These online projects share the impatient ethos of adherents of “tactical urbanism,” a movement frustrated by the often-glacial pace of officialdom, who suggest installing temporary parks or amenities (sometimes without permission) to spark change. Dewey viewed democracy as a dynamic and culturally rooted practice, whose resilience and success lay in its ability to respond to changing social conditions.
While websites like Neighborland and Loomio might not replace representative democracy — nor should we necessarily want it to — they may take some of the pressure off our democratic institutions by giving people the ability to make some decisions for themselves, and come together around common concerns. They may also provide a proving ground for new forms of democracy that may filter into public institutions. However another path is also possible. If these “short-cuts” to action remain isolated and disconnected, the result will be increasing conflict in cities. This scenario results in a political life where collective action is smoothed for some, but where government remains a frustrating stumbling-block to improved neighborhoods and cities.
Dewey, John. 1985 . The public and its problems. Chicago: Swallow Press.
The Economist. “What’s Gone Wrong With Democracy?” 1 March 2014..
Lippmann, Walter. 1927. The phantom public. New York: Macmillan.