Big Brother and the ballot box

Text voting won't resuscitate the body politic.

James Harkin

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Topics Science & Tech

The claustrophobia of sharing the house is taking its toll, and strains are beginning to show. First to bow out was the diminutive Robin, never well-liked but whose dignified departure brought him a dash of retrospective glory. A couple of weeks later the atmosphere darkened when Clare, the outspoken Brummie, flounced off in a huff, and claimed that she had been tricked into taking part.

Now there are only two. Gordon seems a solid enough character, but he’s been a little tight in doling out the weekly allowance, and has even been rumoured to be hoarding toilet rolls. Tony, on the other hand, has been the life and soul: always playing around on his guitar and chivvying everyone else into singing along. In his darker moments, however, he’s prone to mawkishness: blubbing on camera and repeatedly reminding us of his honesty and decency. He is – we’ve begun to suspect – a bit of a bullshitter.

Which one would you evict? Choose carefully before you fire off that text message, because the fate of your country may soon hang on it.

The success of interactive text voting in TV series like Popstars, Pop Idol and Big Brother is being watched closely by the political class. As our faith in the institutions of representative democracy continues to wane, young people’s engagement with reality TV seems to become ever more intense. The last series of Big Brother chalked up a full 22million votes delivered by text message. In one hour of one day in November 2002, more than 200,000 text votes were cast for the show Popstars.

For the past couple of years, as a response to the successes of various experiments in voting by text-message, the UK government has been running a series of pilots in interactive voting – via email and text message – during local authority by-elections. In the May 2003 local elections, the government conducted the biggest experiment in ‘electronic democracy’ ever seen in Western Europe, one involving 1.5million voters in 18 council areas.

At the beginning of June, text democracy took a step closer to reality. The Hansard Society published a study which claimed that the world of politics has much to learn from reality TV. ‘Politics’, Stephen Coleman, professor of e-democracy at Oxford University, complained, ‘is too closed and obscure for most people. They literally do not understand what is going on’. By contrast, he argues, the success of Big Brother is based ‘on its capacity to involve the viewer in an interactive process’:

‘The viewer becomes a player in the game, forming judgements about and determining the fate of the contestants. Interactivity is political; it shifts control towards the receivers of messages and makes all representations of reality vulnerable to public challenge and disbelief.’

There is, however, good reason to doubt Professor Coleman’s programme for an ‘interactive democracy’. Dismissing a dismal contestant on a reality game show with a single text can be great fun, but voting via text is no more ‘interactive’ an experience than trying to get through to a call centre. Real democracy develops organically around a set of shared interests, out of which emerge differences of opinion that need to be aired democratically. Experiments in ‘interactive democracy’, by contrast, can offer our political system the trappings of legitimacy without any real political engagement.

In a climate of political apathy, narrowly defined initiatives based around voting via text message might even work to further alienate people from politics, enabling them to outsource political activity that they can’t be bothered to do themselves. Argentineans are so jaded with politicians that they queued up to watch 16 political hopefuls fight it out for the chance to contest the March 2003 congressional elections on a reality TV game show. Far from rejuvenating our democracy, introducing the methods of reality TV can help turn the rump of politics into a farce.

There is, in any case, no evidence that a technological fix can resuscitate the body politic. An evaluation carried out by the Electoral Commission in 2002 concluded that technology-based voting schemes appeared to have ‘no significant impact’ on turnout. In the local elections of May 2003, electronic voting failed to halt declining voter turnouts: estimates suggest that only about 30 percent of those eligible to cast a vote did so.

Tempting though they might be, attempts to supplement democratic institutions with ‘interactive democracy’ betray an extremely patronising approach to the democratic process among the political class. They are also unlikely to succeed in their objectives. If the young people who revere Big Brother are estranged from politics, it is not because they are ignorant of what is going on in the House of Commons but because politicians have failed to inspire them with a vision of what politics can achieve.

For all its talk of ‘interactive democracy’, the UK government has been slow to grasp how the distinctive attributes of mobile devices might help to improve the texture of our lives. Put into the hands of government workers, the new generation of mobile devices have the potential to ease the delivery of public services: to improve the quality of our interaction with doctors and teachers, for example. In the absence of any more substantive investment in fomenting a mobile-friendly environment, experiments in ‘electronic democracy’ look like a cheap gimmick.

Playing at politics using technology does both a disservice. Mobiles can do much to improve the texture of our lives, but fixing democracy is – thankfully – outside of their reach.

James Harkin is the author of Mobilisation: the growing public interest in mobile technology, published by Demos.

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