Friday, 15 June 2012

Distributed Participation vs Incumbent Power Structures

A nine-year-old Scottish girl who attracted two million readers to a blog documenting her school lunches, consisting of unappealing and unhealthy dishes served up to pupils, has been forced to end the project after the council banned her from taking pictures of the food in school.
Girl banned from blogging about school lunches The Internet, as we all know, is an unrivalled technology for enabling mass participative communication. Sometimes this is put to major, world-changing uses, as in the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Sometimes it is a little more prosaic. Personally, I find the prosaic uses as interesting as the revolutionary ones. The small, incremental ways that communication technology enables people to affect the social organisation of the world seem to indicate major new possibilities. In my own small project, the Bike Accident Reporting site, the technical side has only been one element, the easiest of all. The wider picture - getting city planning to be more responsive to cyclist needs is much harder, impossible without the integration of the system into municipal decision-making, itself requiring the support of people inside. This means that we have, on the one hand, a participative mechanism for people to indicate issues of concern and, on the other, a hierarchical structure that has its own concerns. How does the hierarchical structure respond? This basic point is also found in the above case. A young girl starts a blog to talk about the quality of food served in canteens. She gets popular and is told to shut up. The council has no interest in public participation or scrutiny. Perhaps they could be challenged in a court (freedom of speech?) but it doesn't seem that that's on the cards. Either way, for partisans of participative democracy, this raises some questions (in no particular order): 1) How can we push for incorporation of public participation into extant governmental structures? 2) Should we do this at all? Is it better to focus solely on building participative democracy outside of the established institutions? 3) If we do get some levels of public participation in governmental structures, how do ensure that this is not merely window-dressing? 4) What are the advantages of public participation for ordinary people? What are the disadvantages?

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