Wikicracy

31May07

I was ruminating over what sort of project I hoped to pursue for my Ph.D., I was beset by a kind of despair because explaining my project to lay people elucidated the same sort of quizzical how-does-this-affect-me blank stares as one might get trying to explain postmodern art. Gold farming and virtual property rights? “They’re just games!” Transnational and online identity among gamers? “They don’t sleep and eat online.” Celebrity, governance, and recognition in social networks like wikipedia and MySpace? “Like superlatives in a yearbook?” Consumption and value in post-scarcity economies? “Huh?”

A common thread wove through each: how authority & deviance are constructed, (de)legitimized, and re-appropriated within online (virtual, synthetic, disembodied — take your pick) collaborative spaces. Or, who gets to make the rules, why are they made, and how are they enforced? This line of thinking had been ruminating in my head for weeks and three major pieces of legislation have caused substantial consternation on all sides of the political sphere during that time: H.R.1591 (Iraq funding supplemental with troop withdrawal), H.R.2206 (Iraq funding supplemental without withdrawal), and H.R.2230 (Comprehensive immigration reform). In each of these examples, small but specific differences between these huge legislative tomes create very real implications. And who put all these stupid pork barrel funding items in? Gosh, I wish I had something like Media Wiki‘s history tool to track all of this! Then I got to thinking, well who actually writes legislation?

Certainly senators and congressmen have neither the time nor the mental stamina necessary to personally write all of this, they have staffers who write, review, vet, and negotiate and so forth. Since Attorneygate has proved that huge pieces of legislation (ie, USA PATRIOT Act) generally go unread by the legislators voting for them, and certainly the staffers writing this legislation are not directly elected by the legislator’s constituents, why not just have the people write the legislation directly and submit it to the representative body for deliberation? For that matter, why have all the debates about it spread out all over the blogosophere/internet when they could be hosted in one place? It seemed like a really good idea to use Media Wiki to draft legislation.

So thinking myself cleverer than I am, I search for wikicracy — sure enough, people are already on to the idea: Wikocracy.com, Wikitution.org, Openlaw. Ok, but there seems to be some fundamental disconnect between our ideas as I never thought that a wiki constantly in transition could be a reliable basis for law and justice. Rather, the wiki could be used as a collaborative tool by various ideological sects to draft and coalesce around specific pieces of legislation, changes could be tracked, consensus achieved, and debate centered. At some later time, the wiki-legislation (wikilation?) could be submitted by means of a vote, consensus, or administrator for consideration and a vote by the deliberative body. I think of it as a reverse referenda as the people set the agenda and issues to be voted on by the legislative body.

Obviously there are a host of problems that would have to be overcome. Implementation questions about accessibility, security, and usability would have to be addressed firstly: how do you address spammers, sock-puppeteers, and other users acting in bad faith? How do you ensure that only citizens or constituents can contribute or should such restrictions not apply? How do you overcome systemic bias, the “digital divide,” and questions of representation? How would highly contentious or partisan issues like abortion and immigration be effectively addressed without massive revert-wars? Who would own or control this legislative interface? How are issues selected to be submitted to the body? What elites would have to be assuaged or overcome to implement this? How would this change the social-political discourse? What other problems does this model introduce?

Questions I hope to begin to address.

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