While I do not always agree with Clay Shirky I find his ideas and arguments highly engaging and find myself thinking wouldn't it be great if he was right. In a recent TED talk he talks about the potential for open source democracy and crowd-powered social change (a feature of much of his writing). His idea is that governments would be willing to provide a social, communal space where political decisions can be developed and taken by the combined thinking of politicians (possibly civil servants) but importantly also the ordinary citizen - that the space becomes co-created and reliant on the sum of all parts to reach sensible solutions. It works on the same principle as open source software - co-operation without co-ordination. The formation of communities that come together to reach common goals. Watch his video, think about his argument, but also think about the ramifications.
The advantages are clear; what we are talking about here is electronically-enabled, non-representative direct, democracy. But what of disadvantages? One of the major problems with direct democracy is how to gain the right representative composition of participation - in other words will direct democracy create better laws, laws which are the benefit of all or just a small, non-representative minority. Where would be the checks and balances to prevent racist, homophobic, sexist and prejudiced voices predominating. Of course there can be checks and balances but is it possible, organically, to get a sufficient number of average people to participate in direct democracy initiatives even when the initiative has a direct link to a legislature. Even if you can gain a critical mass to participate at one point, can such a critical mass be maintained? Will that critical mass both be deliberative as well as anarchic or just plain satirical? (Downing Street petitions in the UK have gained signatures against mandatory car tracking but also for electing Jeremy Clarkson as prime minister). So there are challenges. But could it work, is there real potential or is this just a cyber optimist's pipe dream?