Monthly Archives: December 2012

“DemoMax”: looking at Scottish democracy.

The Electoral Reform Society Scotland has been running “an inquiry” (I’d call it a series of meetings!) into looking for a better model for politics, or what politics should look like – what it calls “Democracy Max” – or DemoMax. (A nod to the third, unexplored (and unanswerable) question in 2014’s Scottish referendum on independence, “DevoMax“.)

I came late to the DemoMax party, attending a public meeting last week. It felt like I was coming in half way through a conversation.

There were three speakers, who varied in their passion and direction, discussing three themes (already set by “the people’s gathering” and some roundtable discussions): participation in politics; sovereignty of the people; and the mechanism of engagement. After each speaker, there was a bit of open discussion and then a show of hands vote on a specific question set. These were different, but related, to the three questions set out on the ERSS website, namely

  1. Sovereignty of the people – How do we return more power to the people?
  2. Defending our democracy – How do we stop vested interests having too much influence?
  3. How do we write the rules – How do we get the checks and balances our democracy needs?

(I didn’t write down the questions we were asked to vote on, and I can’t find them on the website.)

A bit about the process. Despite the efforts of facilitators, I didn’t feel it worked very well. The setting – a university lecture theatre – didn’t really engender debate. We were constrained to speaking to our neighbours, followed by a “feedback” session after each speaker. The votes seemed a particular waste of time, since we didn’t know the detail of what might be proposed: I abstained in them all, being assured that would be taken as a need for more information. (Though the lead facilitator’s omission to count abstentions to the first question didn’t bode well – he had to be prompted by a member of the audience to do so.)

The evening was held under the Chatham House rule. I’m not sure if that extends to the three main speakers or not, but in case it does, I’ll respect it and not say who said what.

The evening opened by postulating that there was something wrong with the state of political parties in the UK. The Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement [pdf] shows decreasing levels of engagement with the political process (p18), which the speaker blamed on parties: he reckoned people were disillusioned and detached, that parties were suffering a crisis of their elites, and that they were hierarchical, bureaucratic, tribal and adversarial. I agree. But he also though parties were essential – indeed, he believed that if political parties didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them.

On that, I really don’t agree. The subtitle to “Democracy Max” is “Politics is too important to be left to politicians.” Politicians are what you get with political parties. They want power. (I hope they want to change things for the better too, but power is their tool.) The speaker didn’t believe non-hierarchical systems could work, but there was no (public) discussion of the role social media might play, nor on the distributed power demonstrated by the Occupy movement (despite ERSS listing OccupyEdinburgh as one of the bodies involved in the process). The National Council for Voluntary Organisations reckons

…[p]eople are now increasingly drawn towards single issue campaigns and organisations providing opportunities for involvement that cut across traditional lines of division between political parties. This allows people to engage in a less structured and less formal way [pdf] (p2)

I don’t think we need hierarchical, bureaucratic, adversarial political parties. But then I’m a strange beast who believes that coalition is a viable way to run a country…

The second section of the evening looked at the democratic deficit. Interestingly, despite the previous discussion, the proposed solution was to have more politicians: or at least, more elected officials. Whilst France has 125 local councillors (or equivalent) to every member of the population, Spain about 700 and Norway 800 (figures quoted during the evening – I haven’t tried to verify them), in Scotland that ratio is 1:4,270. European countries generally have many more councillors than the UK, and it was suggested that by devolving power as low as possible locally people would have more direct interest in political decision making. I was sitting next to a Spanish (Catalonian) national who disputed this – he reckoned that whilst political issues are gripping Spain and more than a million march in favour of Catalan independence (against the meagre 5,000 who turned out in favour of Scottish independence two weeks later), people were no more engaged in Spain than Scotland. This is only anecdotal, but salutary.

The UK has long had centralisation, both in Westminster and Holyrood. It makes sense to me that decisions are made as close to the issue as possible – as the speaker pointed out, the frequency of rubbish collection shouldn’t really be the concern of Westminster politicians. But how local is local? My street, my neighbourhood, my town? Who knows. And I am not certain that increased localisation will increase respect for politicians and the political process.

I did however like the idea that rather than central Government(s) pushing power down to local institutions, it should work the other way: a kind of zero-based political process, the default should be local decision making, and power only then passed to larger, more central organisations. Someone also talked about the myth of economies of scale – whilst economically big may be better, that isn’t the only answer: there are other issues to be taken into account.

The last speaker looked at how we might hold politicians to account. It was a fiery, heart-felt speech, proposing a “people’s chamber” for Holyrood to balance the power of MSPs – a “citizen’s assembly”. (Albeit that without a formal constitution, Britons are subjects, not citizens…!) This assembly would need to be representative of the population (neither Westminster nor Holyrood is, in terms of gender or race; or probably, age and wealth…), perhaps chosen by lot rather than elected (to remove the need for parties?).

Part of me thinks this is a great idea; part of me thinks it would be a disaster and unworkable. In a country as sparsely populated as Scotland, representatives would need to be based where the assembly was – even if it moved between cities and towns, that would mean the central belt most of the time (where 70% of the population is based) and those far away islands would feel as isolated as ever.

Would business people want to spend their time on the assembly rather than running their businesses (or making money, or paying taxes…)? Would there be opt outs?

Lots of questions, as the proponent of this idea pointed out, but no answers.

The idea of representativeness was interesting. Because the meeting to discuss DemoMax was anything but representative. It was pretty well balanced in terms of gender, but it was 100% white and, I would guess, uniformly middle class. I would also guess that there were few there who represented the political right. And everyone there was engaged politically. It felt ironic that the politically engaged should be spending their time discussing how to involve the politically unengaged – because of course, they weren’t there to talk for themselves. (I do expect and hope that ERSS will have other ways to reach out to those not happy spending an evening in a university lecture theatre.)

But I guess that is politics.

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“I Am Seeing Things”. Or not.

I have had many conversations over the past few years about “the internet of things” – giving any object an ability to communicate, a specific URL and putting it online – particularly with Tony Hall and Martha LaGess; their interest lay in particular in what the internet of things might mean for cities and society – a kind of “quantified self” for buildings and social structures.

I don’t get it. (Actually, I get neither the internet of things nor the quantified self!) But that makes it interesting. So when I learned about I Am Seeing Things a few weeks ago, I signed up.

It was an interesting day, though in some ways it didn’t live up to expectations: the papers were not as focused on the internet of things as I had expected, and there was a fair bit of academic dissociation from reality. (But hey, it was a symposium held in a university – clearly my expectations were off-kilter!) There was a lovely moment when one of the organisers described playing with augmented reality apps on his phone in the park; he turned to his companion, expecting her to react like ecstatic characters in a Vodafone ad – but instead she said, “You’re a sad little man!”, demonstrating the gap between virtual and physical reality!

I think that gap is crucial. There are some neat tricks one can do – or experience – by connecting everything to the internet: the ToTEM project allows people to record their stories about objects, linked by a QR code, for instance – every object could have a narrative, adding to the way one experiences the object. But fundamentally I think most people respond with a huge “so what”, and get on with their lives.

There is also something a bit too exclusive about it all – a bit too “clever-clever”: partly this is down to the use of QR codes, which I feel is currently limiting – users have to be pretty interested already to use QR codes, and you are excluding anyone who frankly can’t be bothered to download an app or find out what the pretty chessboard patterns actually mean. (As an example of how bizarrely dissociated from reality people that use this stuff – mainly marketeers, I guess – can be, I saw an advert in last week’s “The Economist” for IMD. It contained a QR code – and they want you to download an IMD-specific app to your phone, then scan the code and see what happens. Because that is so much easier than just, say, providing a URL. I mean, FFS! It’s not just me that thinks so, either.)

You are also adding to the work people have to do to get at your object, story, information or other experience – in effect pushing them away, rather than bringing them in. (As you probably noticed, I don’t really get QR codes…)

There were several interesting presentations, though some seemed only tangentally connected to the internet of things.

My reaction to Mark Shepard‘s vision for the Sentient City veered from “so what” to out and out paranoia as the ability to track things through the physical world (the internet of things apparently started up as a way to better manage logistics, using items tagged with RFID transmitters) turns into a Orwellian surveillance nightmare. The smart city could seem more like a prison than we would care to admit.

Mike Philips talked about using sensors or “ecoids” – Arduino-like systems – within the environment, detecting and managing dynamic systems: pollution, for instance, or the internal environment within a building. Such systems interact with people already – the nature of a building depends on the people using it – and tying in active monitors allows greater control and management. Including biological data from personal sensors – an extension of the “quantified self” extends the person into the environment: we are already part of the environment, not separate from it (and as Philips pointed out, we are ourselves environments for significant number of organisms – we contain more cells of bacterial than human origin!), and becoming part of the internet itself is perhaps the next step. Perhaps…

“Things” can take on a different meaning when they are connected. Chris Speed discussed how attaching stories to objects changes them. Using QR codes and the internet so that any object has its own URL, meaning can be stored in a readable database: objects can be tagged with meaning, and they can tell their own stories. (But they don’t: the stories are stored in a database; we put them there, we retrieve them; the objects are and always will be inanimate. It is our stories and our meaning we associate with them.) He reckoned this changes the value in objects – though of course this has been the case for valuable objects forever: a painting with known provenance is more valuable than one without. Most things don’t have stories attached to them – they are purely utility – and I’ll admit to remaining pretty sceptical of this.

Maria Burke and Irene Ng both took a business-view of value (a broad term!) and the internet of things: what it means for the value chain. This was a fascinating, hard-headed take on TIoT: what difference it could actually make in the way people do business. Value depends on context (as Speed had pointed out): connecting things to the internet changes both the value proposition and the relationship to the object. Value becomes more of the moment – an digitised object may have no intrinsic value until it is used, pushing value down the value chain. With the proliferation of mobile services, value becomes “on demand”.

Mike Crang took this one step further by following objects through their life to destruction and salvage. This was fascinating – the way objects become incorporated into others, attract meaning and stories (“social biographies”), and change and are destroyed. The meaning remains – “ghost stories” (or as Craig put it, “the afterlife of things”). Despite being the most functional of processes, there was real poetry here. Some people don’t want their objects to have stories or history – in the market for second hand clothes, one doesn’t normally want to know the history of the bra you’re wearing (unless it was worn by Madonna or Monroe!). But at the end of their lives, even waste materials can attract value from thoses who have been part of their history: naval vessels being scrapped attract souvenir hunters, often those who have sailed in them. Almost any removeable part can have value.

Throughout the day, inanimate objects on the internet of things seemed to develop their own identities and personalities: we anthropomorphise our objects in relation to ourselves. When discussing the internet of things, people talk about the objects tweeting, for instance. They’re not: a computer sensor, programmed to respond (still anthropomorhising…) in specific ways to particular conditions or data is doing just that. It is possible to have “Death” of an object is part of an natural (re-)cycle. But on the internet of things, the dead objects survive as digital ghosts.

Addendum: Tony Hall has directed me to this download on the internet of things: a critique [pdf] – which looks interesting!

(I also liked the artworks demonstrated by Torsten Lauschmann and Geoff Mann – but it was hard to see how they fitted into the internet of things: rather, they struck me as being digital art. I missed the connection. But here are a couple of works I enjoyed: