McGuinty and Web 2.0

♬ Singing power to the people
Power to the people
Power to the people
Power to the people, right on.. ♬

Written and recorded by John Lennon.

The Toronto Star reported today on how Premier Dalton McGuinty backed down on a proposed regulation that would have prohibited teen drivers 16-19 years old with a G2 licence from having more than one other teen passenger in their vehicle in Ontario.

“Transportation Minister Jim Bradley said the 150,000 people who had joined a Facebook protest against the teen driving restrictions clearly had an impact on the government’s thinking, as did people in rural and northern Ontario, where public transit is scarce.”

Barack Obama’s victory in the recent US Presidential election is largely credited with his ability to raise funds via his use of the internet – particularly email. Closer to home, while Gregor Robertson recently debated Peter Ladner, his opponent for the Mayor of Vancouver position, CBC conducted a simultaneous Twitter conversation. reported:

“While Twitter and other internet social networking technologies have yet to have a significant impact on mainstream politics in Canada, it may just be a matter of time. In the recent U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama’s victory was credited in part to his campaign’s ability to mobilize youth voters by using a number of online social networking sites.”

It seems that John Lennon was just ahead of his time. Web 2.0 – Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, email – have given democracy a huge boost and mobilized the young voter (answering the question, “Why Young People Don’t Vote” – the answer being that no one took the effort to talk to them on their terms.) It seems that there is a huge lesson here for politicians – and lawmakers – and that is speak to the people using the tools that their audience is using. In the process, not only have they engaged and given power to the people, the people may just – if the message is right on – give power back to them.


  1. I believe the idea behind representative democracy was that it wasn’t feasible for everyone to be involved in government. Perhaps the advent of all these Web 2.0 technologies and the spread of mobile devices is challenging that assumption. I guess the first step will be to have an MP or MLA (or city councillor, etc.) send out a question to his/her constituents (perhaps via Twitter) and wait for their responses (perhaps a quick vote on a website or via text messaging) and then decide accordingly. Once a large enough cross-section of the constituency is represented by those with access to such technologies and the willingness to use them for this purpose, this seems like the next step in the (d)evolution of representative democracy.

    Or maybe the corporate world will be the first place this change takes hold, helping boards more accurately represent the wishes of shareholders. I’m sure this is already happening somewhere…now whether or not it is a step in the right direction is an entirely different matter.

  2. Many questions of public policy do not lend themselves readily to Yes/No answers, or even to options expressed concisely enough to appear on an MP3-player screen. And one may need some backgrond information to understand the questions and answer them responsibly. Democracy by electronic survey will not answer those challenges.

    I agree that the web can give people a lot more of the background needed for the understanding, but of course there is no guarantee that those who respond to the surveys have read it. (There is no guarantee that Cabinet Ministers who make decisions have read the submissions either, but there are better safeguards….)

  3. John:

    Some interesting research is coming out of Cornell University by Thomas Seeley, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell, working with University of California-Riverside entomologist Kirk Visscher and Ohio State University engineer Kevin Passino. They have been observing, devising experiments and mathematically modeling honeybee swarms.

    I have blogged about this at:

    “The idea is that even in complex decision-making processes, people can form smart groups. The requirements for a ’smart group’ are that the members are diverse, independent minded and use a mechanism such as voting, auctioning or averaging to reach a collective decision (James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds).”

    There is more on the actual blog post – but this gives you an glimpse of the thinking in this area.

    I think it is fascinating that web 2.0 technologies are allowing people to form ‘smart groups’. A diverse group of independently minded people coming together with Twitter or FaceBook can help reach a great, not just good, decision. This is democracy in action!

    And it leaves me with a great buzz!



  4. Thanks, Dave, for the reference to the Seeley et al. article, which I’ve just read. It’s interesting. But I worry that the slide from insect to human being has been made too easily and too frequently, in the article itself and in the work that is derived from it. This is not the place to go into great detail, I guess, but perhaps I can suggest a couple of ways in which the parallels have been drawn too hastily.

    For one thing, the article talks about the behaviour of scout bees, which make up a small proportion of the total: these are the units that are independent and competitive; and they, in effect, control the whole process. This is a far cry from the “crowd” and may be closer to a system where “senators” or “guardians” tell the mass what to do. The point is that there are any number of parallels that might be drawn, because the bees can’t talk to us and so we’re free to project on to them and their behaviour.

    For another thing, the decision that the scouts make is one that they’re uniquely equipped to make, having no trouble, evidently, in identifying the good from mediocre from the bad when it comes to nests. And, their values are evidently shared by all of the members of the hive. But the decisions that people are called on to make most of the time are less clear and our values are anything but uniform.

    Anyhow, we can all agree that free access to full information is one important factor, whether for bees on the move or for citizens. And the internet seems to hold the promise that more information will reach more people than it ever has before.

  5. I had forgotten about the thesis of the Wisdom of Crowds, which has a good deal of persuasiveness (and it’s a stimulating book all round). But how broad a question can such a crowd handle, assuming one has the right composition – and how many subsets and if x then y decisions, both within the main decision topic and in the broader political context, e.g. if we do x for group A, then will we have to do it, or something else, for group B? Legitimate questions but not decided on the same logic basis as the main decision. How do you get the smart crowd to that understanding of context?

    I suspect that the theory will be that a big enough suitable crowd will have that expertise in sufficient number to influence the decision.

    I also suspect that we won’t soon see howsoever smart crowds making decisions without political backstop (i.e. power to do something else) by elected folks.