Two lost souls running in a fish bowl… @OurSayAust, social media, and democracy

Today, I received an unexpected tweet from OurSay:

@clothedvillainy: Have you heard of our project? [Source]

Beyond something about Q&A and something involving Malcolm Fraser, I hadn’t.  So I had an interesting afternoon reading about OurSay.

Although lots of people tell me regularly how awesome social media is for democracy, I’m yet to see a radical shift in how we interact with government.  A few politicians have Twitter feeds, but they don’t tend to engage with it much.  There’s no ‘new media’ conversation with them.

In one sense, this is strange and sad.  Given how disappointed most people appear to be with journalism and the media in Australia, new media provides an opportunity for politicians to engage directly with the public.

In this respect, OurSay is doing something interesting.  It takes the online aspect of social media and bridges the gap to engage with politicians and media personalities offline.  With the slogan, ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport’, OurSay invites the public to propose questions.  OurSay’s community of registered users vote on which questions are the best.  The OurSay crew pursue the winning questions and seek answers.

It gives you the sort of warm and fuzzy feeling most of us get about participatory media activities.  For the community involved, it’s a great way to participate in the political process.  It emulates lobby groups, really; except an online community is the interested party, not a wealthy industry.

So hat tip for that.

At the same time, there are a few things which worry me about it.  The first is that the questions asked and voted upon seem to reflect and echo the vacuity of the public debate.  During  a public presentation on renewing democracy, former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was asked the following three questions by the OurSay crew:

1. If we know CO2 emissions are warming the planet, if that warming could have catastrophic impacts on our planet, if we don’t act quickly enough to stop these impacts, whose fault is that?

2. Are ‘transfer payments’ and other middle class welfare – particularly those able to be received by the upper income brackets – driving a sense of welfare entitlement in Australia? Are they simply unsustainable masks over the inherent inequalities in our economic system?

3. Knowing that BP have estimated that all fossil fuels will run out in 130 years and that the Australian government has been estimated to provide 32 times more funding towards the fossil fuel industry than the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries combined, why do you think the government invests in the past when they could invest in the future and what do you think is the most effective use of young Australian’s time and efforts to help speed up the transition to a future Australia powered entirely by renewable energy?

Two questions about fuel consumption and a question about Australia’s welfare system.  Really?  That’s what people want to ask a former prime minister at a talk on renewing democracy?

The questions aren’t even provocative or challenging.  They’re basically asking: ‘Here’s my opinion.  Could you please confirm that I’m correct?’

The problem appears to be that there’s not a huge amount of diversity within the OurSay community.  Then again, there’s not a huge amount of diversity within the new media community (as noted by Lindsay Tanner in Sideshow).

On the other hand, is that really a problem?  So long as people realise the limitations of the site (that is, it’s not really representative of the people at large, but a small, engaged, left wing group), there is no fundamental problem with a particular section of the community getting privileged access to politicians and commentators.  As noted earlier, it’s giving to a group of ordinary people what lobby groups already get.

The puzzle for OurSay will be how it evolves.  Will it get to the point where people asking the questions will get challenged by the answers they receive?  That will be a matter of finding politicians and commentators with contrary views willing to engage with OurSay’s audience.  I’m not sure how likely that will be, although — given my post in New Matilda — it would be a creative way for young conservatives to get back into constructive political debate.

Further, will it spawn a neo-con copy, with an online audience asking their libertarian/xenophobic questions about how climate change couldn’t possibly be caused by humans and how asylum seekers are here to collect Centrelink?

Finally, could the OurSay model be used in other ways for political engagement?  In my last post, I said that GetUp-style activities promoted slacktivism.  OurSay, on the other hand, could be used to foster a conversation between party members and their parliamentary representatives.  The onus, of course, would be on the parliamentary representatives to engage with the discussion.

So although it’s not without problems, it’s rather nice that lobby groups are being denied their almost exclusive access to the ears of politicians through new media.

It’s not time to make a change, just relax… unless you have a telephone

Telephones are the appendix of electronic gizmos.

Why do we continue to invest time, money, and resources into this cul-de-sac of technology?  It makes no sense.  It’s almost as if nobody has looked at a telephone and asked themselves: ‘What is this?  Why do I continue to mangle otherwise useful technology into conforming with past designs?  Why would I want to push this computer up against my face?’

For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to work out what modifications would need to be done to a touch screen telephone in order to turn it into a touch screen watch capable of communicating with other people’s telephones.  In time, other people would realise the folly of telephones and convert to touch screen watches.

It’s damn hard.  The puzzling part is the position of the camera lens.  Most ‘smart phones’ have a camera which is on the ‘back’ of the phone.  When strapped to a wrist, the camera can take nothing but pictures of the wrist.

And that’s lame.

The other part is to allow airflow beneath the device.  Smart phones produce a surprising amount of heat.

But while fiddling around with all of this (to no great output), it’s becoming more shocking that we care at all about telephone signals.  Three years ago, I bought a phone thinking that I would use it most for making calls and sending text messages.  Now, I spend most of my time on my phone accessing the internet.  From my rather non-representative sample of friends, it seems the same thing is happening with them as well.  Hell, I even use Facesbook to find out where somebody is before messaging them (yay for compulsive updaters).

So why do we put increasing effort into using radio signals for telephony when we could be diverting those resources into improving data services?

Also — and this is a really, really petty gripe — but why can’t my glorious touch screen watch communicate with other ‘smart’ devices in the area without bouncing off a relay tower first?  Device-to-device communication is the other thing we should improve.