Don Tapscott is chairman of the think tank nGenera Insight and the author of 13 books on the impact of the Internet on society. His latest book, Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing your World, discusses the Obama campaign and its implications for democracy. The views expressed are his own.
When President Obama announced last month that he’ll ask ordinary Americans to help him change America, it didn’t take long for the influencers inside the Washington beltway to ring the alarm: What happens if ordinary Americans actually come up with some new ideas to run government? Will things get out of control? Will they become bullies who will force Obama and Congressional lawmakers to bend to their will?
To me, they sound a lot like the traditional marketers who are worried that they’re losing control over their brand. Both marketers and lawmakers are struggling to adjust to a digital world where consumers and voters now have powerful tools to talk back, and even influence the brand or the policy. So let me give the Washington lawmakers the same message I have delivered to the marketers: Let go. You can’t control everything. The genie has slipped out of the bottle and she’s not coming back. And I think this is a really good thing.
For far too long, we’ve been living in what I’ve called a broadcast democracy. Voters only count during election time. They have little or no influence in between elections, when the lawmakers and influencers are in charge and citizenry is inert. The “you vote, I rule” model was all that was possible, until recently.
What the system has lacked until now are mechanisms enabling government to benefit from the wisdom and insight that a nation can collectively offer — on an ongoing basis. I’m not proposing some kind of direct democracy, where citizens can vote every night on the evening news or Web sites. That would be tantamount to a digital mob.