Why Iceland’s new draft constitution was not written by crowdsourcing and why this is a good thing, too

Thingvellir, the ancient site of the Icelandic parliament. For the first several hundreds of years the Parliament met in the open air, for two weeks each year. Image via Wikipedia

Iceland surprised the world when it announced that it will include in the draft of its new constitution suggestions made by the citizenry via social media. A website and a special Facebook page were used as main means for collecting public input.  The government, in turn, kept the public abreast via YouTube.

Many digerati voices cheered this first brave attempt at “crowdsourcing.” I beg to differ, for these four reasons.

  1. The draft of the constitution is not collectively edited, in the open, Wikipedia style. Public feedback was solicited, is true, but the comments were not directly incorporated in the draft in the “adhocratic” style so dear to the mash-it-all-up community.
  2. There is a clear filtering mechanism in the Icelandic constitutional drafting process. The Constitutional Assembly was elected by national vote (not without some complications, but elected) and was tasked with collecting and selecting the suggestions deemed worthwhile the committee’s time and the national attention. The drafting process involved deliberations among the members of the Constitutional Assembly, who voted on most of the decisions, including which public comments should be retained and which not.
  3. This is a typical example of direct democracy moderated by a good deal of representative procedures, not of crowdsourcing. Iceland is one of the oldest direct democracies in Europe, yet its institutions have always been representative just as much. Its Althing was founded in 930, soon after the first Norsemen landed on the shores of this barren volcanic island. For a while, the proceedings consisted of civil trials whose sentence was to be executed by the winning party. Judicial duels, in which the one with the sharpest sword won the case, were also widely practiced. Yet, above them all there were chieftains, community elders, and “law-speakers” that had the power to give and change the laws. We can call it Norse justice and direct democracy, if you want, but the origin of crowdsourcing was not.
  4. Finally, and this needs to be remembered each time Iceland is given as an example of… whatever you want (healthcare, Nordic  social solidarity, Bjork-style socially conscious music, judicious use of geothermal energy), that a certain kind of moderated direct democracy was and is still possible in Iceland because of it’s the size. Although its (mostly arctic desert) surface is the size of Kentucky, Iceland’s population of 280,000 is about the same as that of Lexington, KY, Toledo, OH, Buffalo, NY, or Newark, NJ.

Aristotle once said that direct democracies (as Athens once was) cannot function well past a specific size, probably not greater than a

Map of the Delian League ("Athenian Empir...
The Delian League Image via Wikipedia

few thousand individuals (see Nagle’s book about the household metaphor in Greek politics). And he was right, as far as the Ancient world is concerned, and can still be right today, if to account for the role of better communication we raise the number to several hundred thousand. The minute Athens grew into a hegemon of a quasi-confederal creature, the Delian League, it ceased to work effectively. The same went for Rome, whose direct democracy was destroyed by the expansion of the Republic far beyond the confines of  its hinterland, Latium. When both polities persisted in using direct democracy as an instrument of statecraft, the size of their empires, popular factionalism, and the power of its richest citizens turned the process into a sham. The ancients had a special word for it, too: ohlocracy. Translated: rule of the mob. (If it sounds like “crowdsourcing,” don’t blame it on me. Blame Polybios, who came up with it in his Histories).

Most modern, large democracies are representative precisely because direct democracies cannot work well in states of millions, tens or hundreds of millions of citizens spread across hundreds of thousands or millions of square miles. When millions of individuals think that they are just as entitled as their neighbor to sway public opinion or the political process in a direct way we get political polarization, uncivil discourse, and general social gridlock. Inequality of voice that passes for “equality” leads to factionalism and proliferation of special interests that pass for “popular movements” turns political parties into loudspeakers for interested ideological, political, or social minorities. Under these circumstances the political regime will soon be democratic (rule of the people) in name only. Uncertainty, followed by an increasingly acrimonious public discourse typically lead to increasing dis-accord in the public affairs and to civic paralysis. Often, demagogues take advantage of the situation, turning a bad predicament into one that is even worse. Most overgrown direct democracies end up as soft (or hard) tyrannies.

So, I said it. I remain suspicious of claims that political or major social processes are or could be run on the basis of a radical egalitarian, unmanaged, “my voice counts as much as your voice” “crowdsourcing.” I am really glad that Icelanders did not, in fact, crowdsource their constitution.

PS: My suspicion of spurious claims made for the virtues of “crowdsourcing” is rooted not only in my dimming memory of my classics college classes. There is ample evidence that most social media projects, including that often cited example of pure crowdsourcing,  Wikipedia, are themselves far from the ideals of radical equality, pure collaboration, lack of hierarchical control and command, and so on. They are not “crowdsourced,” or at least not in the simplistic sense of the word. Wikipedia is dominated by small groups of functional or self-nominated elites that filter, shape, and strategically direct the site and its content. More specifically, Wikipedia is controlled by a group of about 2000 admins and several thousand more power contributors, who are responsible for most of the editorial work and policy decisions. There, as in many other situations, including everyday life distributions of group input / output per member, the 80/20 (or 99/1) rule still applies: 80 (99) percent of the work is done and controlled by 20 (1) percent of the members.

Sorin Adam Matei

Sorin Adam Matei – Professor of Communication at Purdue University – studies the relationship between information technology and social groups. He published papers and articles in Journal of Communication, Communication Research, Information Society, and Foreign Policy. He is the author or co-editor of several books. The most recent is Structural differentation in social media. He also co-edited Ethical Reasoning in Big Data,Transparency in social media and Roles, Trust, and Reputation in Social Media Knowledge Markets: Theory and Methods (Computational Social Sciences) , all three the product of the NSF funded KredibleNet project. Dr. Matei’s teaching portfolio includes online interaction, and online community analytics and development classes. His teaching makes use of a number of software platforms he has codeveloped, such as Visible Effort . Dr. Matei is also known for his media work. He is a former BBC World Service journalist whose contributions have been published in Esquire and several leading Romanian newspapers. In Romania, he is known for his books Boierii Mintii (The Mind Boyars), Idolii forului (Idols of the forum), and Idei de schimb (Spare ideas).

One thought on “Why Iceland’s new draft constitution was not written by crowdsourcing and why this is a good thing, too

  • July 30, 2011 at 2:00 am

    Very much agree. At the core, this has been a carefully designed exercise in public participation, not crowdsourcing (defined as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent […] and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”).

    Will be intersting to see what emerges as the final outcome.


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