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Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

This week, I was lucky enough to see American social media evangelist Clay Shirky talking about his latest book, ‘The Cognitive Surplus’. Shirky argued that the new creative and collaborative possibilities unlocked by the internet will allow us to unleash this surplus – the vast reserves of time, skills and enthusiasm that we currently fritter away in front of the television – to solve some of society’s biggest problems. But, while I liked much of what he had to say, it struck me that Shirky is being both too too ambitious and too cautious. Too ambitious, that is, about technology, and too cautious about human potential.

To begin with, I have a problem with Shirky’s idea of an untapped ‘cognitive surplus’. Although many of us may spend a large amount of time passively consuming media right now, this has hardly been the case througout human history. The so-called cognitive surplus is a product of the hollowing out of social life through increasing atomisation. The decline in social networks chronicled by observers like Robert Putnam, and rooted in a labour market which demands increased flexibility, mass migration (both domestic and international) and the erosion of traditional class identities, is what has robbed us of ways to use our energies in ways which are both productive and social. And just as, once upon a time, we had institutions which offered us outlets for our time, enthusiasm and creativity – from evening classes, to amateur sports, to churches – there’s no reason why we can’t do so again. The internet is one place where we can spend our ‘cognitive surplus’ but it’s by no means the only place.

And there are reasons why it might not be the best place. In his first book, Shirky talked about how ‘ridiculously easy group formation’ enabled by the internet let us find people who shared our interests and collaborate with them. But this is not the only way to find people. The most vibrant cities and towns create spaces – parks, libraries, cafes, even pavements – where we can mix with people who are very different to us, and yet who we share something important with: that they are our neighbours. By keeping us away from what Jane Jacobs called the ‘serendipity’ of sidewalk contacts, online spaces filter our social networks to people just like us, potentially making us less tolerant and more extreme in our views.

There are other problems too. Online collaboration is very good at certain kinds of tasks. Shirky drew on three different examples. The first, Liftshare is an American site which lets people find others to share long roadtrips with. The second, Patients Like Me, lets patients log their condition, symptoms and medication and then aggregates and anonymises that information to share it with researchers. And the third, Wikipedia, needs no introduction. But all of these sites have something in common: they are about bringing together information and presenting it in a useful way. And all three approach that task by crowdsourcing – getting lots of people to make small, easy contributions which by virtue of their sheer number add up to something very big. That’s a powerful tool, but it’s only one sort of tool. That’s a powerful tool, but it’s only one sort of tool. If crowdsourcing is a hammer, it doesn’t mean that all the problems we face are nails.

What’s more, crowdsourcing, by reducing the work of individuals to bitesize, contextless contributions, offers a hollowed out idea of what it means to create things. In essence, it’s a new form of assembly line which transforms intellectual work into deskilled, mechanical processes. It may be extremely effective, but maybe that’s not the only criteria by which we should judge it.

Creation is important, not just because of the things that we create but also, and perhaps more importantly, because of the way that it effects the creator. Making art, music, software code, or even blog posts, has value not just because of it’s capacity to change the world but also because of its capacity to make us feel inspired, valuable and powerful. Working with other people in close collaboration at a human scale creates a sense of community which can’t be reproduced by making tiny contributions to a project that’s vast beyond our capacity to imagine. The inconvenient friction of working together with sometimes difficult other people in a shared space is not just an obstacle to creating wonderful things, it’s also a way in which creating them makes us better people.

Shirky, then, is too ambitious in that he argues that online collaboration is the tool which will allow us to solve the problems of the 21st century. It’s powerful, true, but it’s only one of the tools that we need. But he’s also too cautious in that he asks too little of people. He offers them easy participation, without perhaps, reflecting that there might be a value to doing difficult things.

Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

I’m hardly the first to observe that more and more of the things that we do are made easier by being online. From reading the news, to paying our taxes, to political campaigning, to keeping in touch with friends, we all benefit from the power of the internet.

Actually, I should probably qualify that ‘we’ a bit. I benefit, and since you’re reading this on a blog you probably do. But nearly one in three British adults don’t use the internet, and as more and more opportunities become available online, they are increasingly disadvantaged. Tackling so-called ‘digital exclusion’  is a real concern for government – though an increasingly they understand that it’s inseparable from broader issues of inequality.

Still, with all the efforts being made to adsress digital exclusion, it’s a little perverse that this week the government is attempting to rush through legislation which could throw tens of thousands of people off the web.

The Digital Economy bill will set up a ‘three strikes’ system where any person, family, or organisation accused of downloading copyrighted material three times will be disconnected from the internet. No trial, no judge, no jury: just a simple administrative procedure to take away something which 80% of the world’s population believe is a fundamental human right. The provisions have attracted criticisms from organisations as diverse as Liberty, The British Library, The Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights and the British Computer Society, but are strongly backed by the music industry which is concerned by the effects of piracy on record sales.

The disconnection provisions are so controversial that a leaked memo from the British Phonographic Institute says they are unlikely to survive a full parliamentary debate. Unfortunately, the government is insisting that the bill is forced through before the Election, even though this will mean that MPs are not given time to debate the new powers. There’s still time, however, to write to your MP and ask them to fight for the time to subject this bill to the scrutiny that it deserves.

While the disconnection provisions are a real threat to human rights, there’s a bigger issue at stake here: the power of parliament to act as a check on the executive. MPs are, in theory, our representatives in the legislative process. It is their role to scrutinise government legislation and ensure that is both well designed and in the public interest. By steamrolling bills through parliament, we will inevitably end up with more and more legislation which is neither.

Our current system has given us a parliament which is willing to vote through controversial legislation, without demanding the chance to subject it to scrutiny. That’s yet another sign that we need to look again at the first past the post electoral system which almost always delivers an unchallengeable commons majority for the government of the day.

Fixing the Digital Economy bill is just the start. Making sure that more bad bills can’t be pushed through parliament in the future is a much bigger task.

You can take part in the Write to the your MP campaign organised by 38 Degrees and the Open Rights Group at

Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

This week’s National Digital Inclusion Conference was a relatively upbeat affair – a thousand techies and bureaucrats itching to do something – anything – to take the digital revolution to the rump of luddites who remain stubbornly offline. The solutions proposed were many and varied – from paying the unemployed to lay fibre-optics up people’s driveways, to teaching your neighbour how to email. But lurking amidst all these juicy carrots was a worrying undercurrent of stick. Several times across the last couple of days, I’ve heard people have talking openly about using the withdrawal of offline services to force people online.

To be fair, these were all reasonable proposals by reasonable people: laden with humanising caveats about support, education and showing people the benefits of online services. But still, they sent a little shiver up my spine. The idea of withdrawing service to drive people across the digital divide is, in my view, dangerous and short-sighted.

Firstly, and most obviously, there is the danger of excluding people from vital services. In a time of huge financial pressures on all parts of government it will be easy for those comforting caveats to slip away, as agencies rush to withdraw but skimp on support. This is especially troubling where the responsibility (and the budget) for service delivery is held by an agency with little or no direct responsibility for digital inclusion. It will be easy for them to withdraw offline services to save money (indeed, cost saving was explicitly cited as a motivation by some) and assume that support with going online will happen elsewhere. Inevitably, the effect of withdrawing offline services will be most keenly felt by the already excluded who will have to use cumbersome work-arounds or simply miss out.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, this idea reflects an impoverished view of what digital inclusion could mean. Just accessing the same services as before, albeit with quicker turn-around times or less hassle, is hardly the transformative prospect that we might aspire to. Real digital inclusion means much more than being a more able consumer of public services, or for that matter, a more able consumer of cheap flights and cheap DVDs.

Inclusion means being a part of something – a family, a community, a workplace, a network of friends. And digital inclusion means being a part of something online. Making people digitally included means giving them the tools and skills to build relationships online.

Rather than forcing people online to do the things that they already do, we should be thinking about what digital public services can offer which will make us want to be a part of them – and how to connect them up to people’s valued real-world networks.

Forcing people online, if it works at all, will create a class of digital refugees, isolated and disempowered. But by supporting people to come online and form meaningful, effective relationships, perhaps we can create a nation of digital citizens – confident in their power to work together for their common good.

Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

Over at the Power2010 blog, Andrea Cornwall, one of the UK’s leading researchers on international experiences of democracy, paints a compelling picture of Brazil’s vibrant culture of public forums:

“Picture these scenes. A bus, a mode of transport used only by the poor, rolls through the countryside in northeast Brazil. We are surrounded by sugar cane plantations, scenes of some of the most brutal exploitation and inspiring activism in this region. The man in front of me reaches into his bag and pulls out a book. I glance over his shoulder at what he is reading. It is a highly technical account of the obligations of his government to involve the public, a handbook on what the Brazilians call controle social.

He is probably, I think, one of the many thousands of ordinary citizens who serve as conselheiros – members of the participatory sectoral councils that the Brazilian government created in the 1990s as a way of channelling good ideas, concerns and desires for improvement into the way public services are run…”

“…Picture this last scene, from the Brazilian national health conference. I am standing in a huge queue for lunch. The woman in front turns to ask why I – so obviously a foreigner – am there. She’s travelled two days by bus from a remote rural area in the north of the country to be here: nothing, she said, would have kept her away. She effuses “it’s marvellous, the whole of Brazil is here”.

My eyes scan the room and linger on the sign that reads “Here, it is permitted to dream”. By giving people permission to dream, space to debate, chances to learn, opportunities to contribute to righting deep-rooted wrongs, Brazil is creating a nation of informed, politically engaged citizens.”

As Cornwall’s Brazilian experiences demonstrate, democracy can and should mean citizens doing much more than simply selecting our leaders from a very short list. By giving citizens the opportunity to take part in making and implementing government policy, we can ensure that the state really delivers the things people most value, rebuild the disintegrating trust between the people and the government and help build the capacity of all citizens to play an active part in political decision making.

The Brazilian example also offers a powerful rebuttal to those who say that the public cannot be trusted with direct access to political power. By providing deliberative spaces where people can come together to learn, to exchange ideas and to take collective decisions, Brazil has helped its citizens make considered, wise and sensible decisions.

Cornwall goes on to discuss one of the most high profile deliberative and democratic projects in the UK today – Power2010. Power2010 is offering people across the UK the chance to vote on a shortlist of reforms that was chosen by a representative panel of British Citizens in our own deliberative event.

“Power 2010 offers UK citizens opportunities to vote for the solution they feel is most needed to correct our glaring democratic deficit. It’s a difficult choice. Much is wrong with our political system and our society. Electoral reform seems a priority – but unless citizens are politically engaged, they won’t bother to vote under proportional representation any more than they do at the moment.

A written constitution would be excellent – but who is going to write it, and how are they going to ensure that citizens or the state pays any attention to what is in it? Stronger local government – all very well, but what are the prospects for this translating into local democracy? A precondition for most of these solutions, if they are to really bring about the kind of change that our moribund political society needs, is an active, informed, engaged citizenry

My vote goes for public consultation through a deliberative process.

New Labour has given public consultation a bad name, despite a wealth of really innovative experiments in deepening democracy through public engagement. It has come to stand for something that’s fake, that’s boring, that’s for ‘usual suspects’ rather than the ordinary person – and even that’s it about giving the extreme left or the extreme right airspace.

But from what I’ve seen in Brazil, ordinary people have a lot of good sense to bring to discussions about how government can work best to do what it is there to do. They don’t always agree; lively debate is what keeps democracy vibrant, and by listening to very different views, people shift their own opinions.

Most of all, democratic spaces are places where people learn what it means to be a citizen. The word ‘democracy’ has for centuries been associated with the idea that the people have the right to have a say about what their government does for them. Let’s make that word have some meaning again. Otherwise, for all the reforms to the architecture of elections and governance, we will not be able to get the government we deserve.”

Read the whole thing

Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

One of the most enduring myths about the decline in British democracy is that of the apathetic voter, too lazy to take part. But it’s nonsense. All over the UK, people care passionately about the community, the country and the world in which they live. They volunteer, they campaign, they sign up to initiatives like 10:10 to help look after the environment.

But for many engaged, passionate people, politics seems like a dead end. The individualistic,  impotent tools that we are offered to hold government to account – intermittent elections where most votes are wasted and the choice is between parties competing to represent the same narrow set of floating voters – simply doesn’t seem worth the time it takes. But we shouldn’t let that fool us into thinking that people don’t care.

I was reminded of this again last month when I attended the Power 2010 deliberative poll which brought 130 ordinary Britons together to discuss ways to improve British democracy. Many of the participants were cynical about the politicians who claim to represent us. But all of them were passionate about making our government more democratic.

Together, by talking through the issues and cross-examining experts from across the spectrum of opinion, these citizens assembled a shortlist of reforms which they think will bring democracy back to the people.

From proportional representation to a written constitution, from stronger local government to a bill of rights, these ideas represent many long-fought arguments about what’s wrong with the British state. But there are also some ideas which break new ground. My particular favourite is the call for more events just like the one I attended – deliberative public consultations on all of the major decisions facing local and national governments. These events give people a chance to really get their hands on the business of government, and the quality of the debates and decisions offers a sharp rebuke to those who say that the public are too lazy, stupid or reactionary to be trusted with power.

The next stage of the Power 2010 project is a public vote on which of the final five ideas will form the basis of the reform campaign that will kick in to high gear in the run up to the general election. This is a once in a generation chance for us to force the issues we care about on to the agenda. So please take the time to vote for deliberation and take a step toward putting political power back into the hands of the people best qualified to use it – all of us.

Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

For many people in Britain today, consultation has become a dirty word. And it’s easy to see why. When the idea of more consultations was discussed at a public meeting I attended last week, one of the participants told me that he’d been involved in  a consultation about closing his local hospital. “Two hundred people said they didn’t want it kept it open. And they shut it anyway. Next time I don’t think I’ll bother.”

Using consultations to add a veneer of legitimacy to a decision that’s already been makes a mockery of the whole exercise. But this doesn’t mean the answer is getting rid of consultations. On the contrary the answer is stronger, better and above all more meaningful consultations. And that’s why I’m supporting the Power 2010 proposal to create a duty for local authorities to use meaningful deliberative consultation.

Power 2010, for those not aware of it, is a campaign to create a manifesto for democratic change in the UK in a way which is from beginning to end controlled by the public. The project kicked off last Autumn with an invitation for members of the public to submit their ideas for how to make Britain democratic. They did so in their thousands, and over Christmas a team of experts distilled the entries into 58 distinctive proposals for reforms. Last weekend, a random panel of more than 100 citizens from across the UK met in London to look over the proposals and give their opinions. And this week, an online vote was launched letting everyone in the UK have their say. At the end of the vote they five leading ideas will become the Power 2010 pledge and politician from all parties will be challenged to put their name to it.

So there’s still plenty of time for you to have your say on what proposals you’d like to see in the final five. As for me, I’m back “public consultation through a deliberative process’ It may sound innocuous, but it’s hiding a revolution in UK government behind its unassuming name. This proposal calls for government to be legally bound to give citizens a real say in decision-making through a process of ‘deliberative democracy’ and to listen to the outcome. Deliberation – getting together and talking about issues – is a powerful tool to produce wise, well-informed decisions. Whilst critics of citizen involvement worry that the public will produce reactionary, conservative or discriminatory decisions, evidence suggests that talking through issues with people from different backgrounds moves people which are generous, tolerant and sometimes even imaginative – and produces fair, inclusive outcomes.

Deliberation offers an alternative to the tiresome tug-of-war between proponents of representative and direct democracy. Rather than trusting in political elites to make decisions on our behalf on the basis of a tenuous mandate, or investing power in populist schemes like referenda which can be vulnerable to kneejerk reactions, deliberative democracy aims to create the conditions where the public can bring their wisdom, experience and empathy to decision-making. And who could argue with that?

You can vote for deliberative consultation on the Power 2010 website

Bookmark and ShareStephen Whitehead is a project manager in the Democracy and Participation team at nef

Barbara Ehrenrich calls us away from glib individualistic notions of happiness, towards real well-being.

American author Barbara Ehrenreich has been all over the British media this week as she pays a flying visit to the UK to promote her latest book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. And aside from a slight concern about her carbon footprint, I’m happy that she made it. My enthusiasm for Ehrenreich’s attack on positivity might seem odd given nef’s long-standing interest in well-being, but, in fact, Smile or Die does a lot to illustrate the problems with shallow, individualistic conceptions of happiness.

In her book, Ehrenreich argues that the ideology of positive thinking peddled by self-help gurus like Deepak Chopra or Steven Covey tells people that negative feelings ought to be suppressed and that remaining positive will inevitably bring success. This she argues, is a pernicious con trick– all our lives include problems and it’s natural and healthy to respond to these with sadness and anger.

In a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts earlier this week, Ehrenreich went further, looking at the relationship between positive thinking and inequality. By telling us that success comes from psychological strength, not from privilege, inherited wealth or even pure luck, positive thinking encourages us to blame ourselves, rather than social factors, for the problems that we experience. By telling us that we all get what we deserve, these ideas serve a profound role in convincing us to accept the huge, destructive inequalities that we see in modern, western societies.

In fact, in nef’s work to identify what real well-being means, we are keenly aware of the impact of society on individuals. While the social roots of material factors like the place where you work, to the community where you live, or your physical health are clear, even the more ‘internal’ factors, such as resilience and individual aspirations and expectations, which also shape our experience, are ultimately formed by societal factors such as schooling and the influence of media. Achieving greater well-being for all means creating a society where we all have access to the things we need. Strong communities, meaningful jobs, freedom from material poverty, a culture which supports genuine psychological health, not empty positivity: these are the factors that build real well-being.

And if we’re going to achieve these things, negative emotions might be just what we need. After all, if we really want to build a fairer, better society, free from the spectres of poverty, despair and social isolation, I can’t think of a better way to start than getting angry.

An extract from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die is available from the Guardian website.

A recording of the RSA talk can be downloaded from the RSA Events podcast stream.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.