Friday, February 18, 2011

(Information) Revolutionizing Politics

Presenting his very own TED talk a year ago, now-British Prime Minister David Cameron talks about a rapidly-changing world; one in which the role of government will never again be the same.

The driving force behind this change? Simply put, information.

Never before have citizens had as much information at their disposal -- at their bare fingertips -- as they do today. In Cameron's estimation, this is because of the continuous evolution of human society.

Cameron begins with the pre-bureaucratic age, a time when communication and travel was so costly and time-consuming that it was impossible for governments to organize and centralize across vast territories. This was followed by the industrial revolution and the bureaucratic era, in which emerging transportation and communication technology made that organization and centralization possible. Cameron's explanation ends with the rise of the information revolution, and the post-bureaucratic era.

Previously, Cameron explains, only government had access to the kind of information necessary to truly manage society. But with the continuous advent of public information technology, that power is coming more and more to rest in the hands of ordinary people.

Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams coined a phrase for this, and they made it the title of a best-selling book: wikinomics.

In short, the book argues that the electronic commons has enabled people to share more information and ideas than ever before, and that institutions that fail to adapt are bound to suffer and eventually fail.

In examining the record of the Tony Blair government it becomes clear that the greatest failure of that government was to take advantage of the emerging information commons, and to delegate the requisite power back to where it can be used best: in the hands of the citizenry.

For some within government, it's a harrowing prospect: a necessary step is that government data-keepers will need, to a certain extent, to let go. In other words, they'll need to stop trying to decide themselves which information is important, and instead let the people decide.

For those who live and die by the fantasy that the government will solve every problem they can imagine, and that they could play the role of the civic hero if only they had the resources and power of the government at their disposal, will need to find new delusions with which to comfort their egos.

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