Author Clay Shirky has made a name for himself by championing the internet as a source of new ideas and creative collaboration, so it's no surprise that he thinks it will also transform government as we know it... eventually. In a recently published TED video, Shirky draws from the rise of the scientific journal and the open source movement — the first made possible by the printing press, the second by computers — to argue that new technology could let us preserve the benefits of central governance while letting people collaborate on better laws and policy.
"A new form of arguing has been invented in our lifetime."Shirky's talk gives a very clear and entertaining explanation of how a hierarchical system like software version control can become more egalitarian without sacrificing the structures that make it work, and a high-level discussion of what this could mean for government. At this point, the bigger question is not whether new technology will change government or whether the principles of open source create a tempting framework for democracy, but what this framework might actually look like. Crowdsourced legislation is interesting but largely untested, and governments still struggle with making information more transparent.
Shirky gives some hints, but even he acknowledges that change can take decades or even centuries. Memes and YouTube comments, he says, are part of the natural evolution of tech: while the printing press disseminated scientific ideas and philosophy, it did so well after people had started printing erotic novels en masse. If "a new form of arguing has been invented in our lifetime," how long will we have to wait to see the results in policy?