Saturday, April 07, 2007

Introducing the International Working Group on Online Consultation and Public Policy Making

Last year, I was part of an international group of researchers who won a grant from the National Science Foundation. In short, the funding allows us to assemble as a group five times over the next two years, coming from places as distant as Australia, Slovenia, and Israel. Some of our meetings are here in the US--Harvard's Kennedy School (last week), Ohio State, and Washington, DC. And two of our meetings are abroad--Leeds in the UK and the Sorbonne in Paris. It sounds great, like a boondoggle, doesn't it? But we actually have some work to do, a lot of work in fact (see the accompanying picture for a bit of proof). Our main deliverables are twofold: (1) a book that we each have responsibility for specific sections of and (2) a special edition of I/S, a journal on law, politics, and technology.

So what's the topic? What is "online consultation"? In short, online consultation is the idea that information and communication technologies have the potential to revitalize democratic practices, such as deliberative decision making. The Athenian city-state and New England town hall meeting can now, in theory, exist on a much larger scale, with technology bringing citizens together from disparate parts of the county (and the world).

As for my part, I am a bit of a skeptic. We tend to use the Internet to do the things we do in our everyday lives--shopping, hobbies, work, entertaintment, sports...whatever we find enjoyable and essential. Anything but politics, at least for most of us. On top of this, existing political actors and institutions are pretty good at putting the web to uses that benefit current power arrangements, rather than to open up new channels of democratic engagement.

Anyways, for me, these issues are ultimately open to empirical adjudication. So show me the data! I'm always willing to be proven wrong. Thanks to the International Working Group, I'll have ample opportunity to put my intuitions to the test...

~Steve

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