Rethinking democracy

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On Sept. 22, the White House introduced the “We the People” online petition service to be used with the powers granted to citizens by the first amendment of the United States constitution. It is described as “a new way for Americans to create and sign petitions calling on the Obama administration to take action on a range of important issues.”

The service is available to any US citizen of 13 years of age or older and promises an official response after 30 days if the signature quota is reached. In the few weeks that the service has been available, it has accumulated tens of thousands of signatures for a multitude of requests. Many petitions have already reached their quotas and are still gaining support from the online community.
In recent years, we have witnessed the rise of viral media and the intensification of online networks around the world. The effect of this has been that more people have more access to knowledge that would otherwise have been largely unavailable to them without the extensive internet infrastructure that we have in place in modern society. It cannot be denied that the generations who are raised in this environment will experience unprecedented amounts of cultural dissonance from the exceptional circumstances of their lifestyle.

Taking into account the exponential growth of audience that viral media undertakes it is very easy to understand how values and beliefs can be produced and marketed on a supermassive scale. Amplify this by the exponential growth seen in technological advancements since the Industrial Revolution and questions begin to arise as to what extent traditional values can be deemed irrelevant by the youthful, Internet-savvy pioneers of the new age.
It is evident that world governments have noticed this emerging revolutionary movement and the momentum it has garnered with the outpour of both mainstream and viral media attention towards the Arab Spring last December. It is also not coincidental that the increasing momentum of global awareness runs parallel to rising tensions between various interests worldwide, for example intensifying border conflicts between Israel-Palestine in May 2011.

President Obama’s “We the People” service can be seen as a reaction to the still relatively untapped power of Internet politics. From a business perspective, it is foolish to ignore the demands of such a rapidly expanding market. There must be a greater supply of official institutions providing forums for free speech so that viral political momentum can be transmitted into accurate policy responses instead of tensions boiling over into radical ideology on either side of the spectrum. However, there is the worry that the outlet provided by the “We the People” service may only mitigate tensions in situations where business as usual should be seen as the truly radical ideology relative to political realities.

For these reasons, the Internet-savvy community is set to be one of the largest permanently mobilized political interests in history. In just the past year ,the mainstream use of petitions has risen noticeably. From Israeli intellectuals and artists (some of whom were winners of the country’s highest civilian honour, the Israel Prize) who support returning to 1967 borders with Palestine and the end of occupation, to the 16 French billionaires (including Liliane Bettencourt of L’Oreal) who are pushing for a “special contribution” tax that would target the wealthy, it could be easily argued that a service like this is incredibly relevant to Canada’s present and expectable future political environment. President Obama is already due to address a petition for the pardon of Marc Emery, a Canadian citizen who was extradited to the United States by the Harper administration to face charges for providing cheap marijuana seeds to U.S. citizens.

With the highest rate of adult recreational marijuana use worldwide, Canada’s drug enforcement policy is still largely modeled in conjunction with the United States. The “We the People” petition to regulate and tax marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol was introduced on Sept. 22 when the service was first made available. With about a week left before the deadline, viral support from sites like Facebook and Reddit have provided the petition with over ten times more signatures than the quota asked.

Whether you decide to be optimistic or cynical about this, it is impossible to ignore the novelty of suggestions like “Forgive Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy and Usher in a New Era of Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Prosperity,” “Reallocate Defense funds to NASA,” “Edit the Pledge of Allegiance to remove the phrase ‘Under God’,” or “Free PFC Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeaks whistleblower,” all of which have already reached their signature quota.

Ideas like these imply drastic differences in value judgments between the government and the people. Normally these ideas are restricted to various elites or fringe culture movements but we are now witnessing the viral integration of all ideas that have stimulated conflict and dissonance in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The result of this has been mainstream acceptance of viral ideas that have broken the threshold of support and are now considered relevant. Future developments in this direction can almost guarantee that more ideas will break this threshold as more up-to-date information is circulated to challenge conclusions reached by traditional reasoning.


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