A democracy of, by, and for the people should probably hear from the people as well.
The sheer size of a country like the United States or a city like Chicago makes it inherently difficult to conduct any meaningful dialogue between a government and its citizens, outside of the opinion polls that spring up during every election cycle. In a way, democracy is bound into its current form: Parties and representatives take a broad agenda to an election every four years or so and are then left to govern by themselves. Size makes micro debates unfeasible.
But technology can change that. Video conferencing can change that. We’ve already seen how the rise of social media has altered the way we talk among ourselves. It could also alter the way we talk to our governments. Video conferencing in government could give more people a literal voice.
It’s already happening in India.
India’s Prime Minister Loves Video Conferencing
India’s increasing use of video conferencing to bridge distances and empower individuals within its huge population has won it several mentions in the pages of VC Daily. India is using video-conferencing technology to aid in disaster relief, to bring online legal advice to remote areas, to provide online treatment for addiction, and to transform the lives of women in small rural towns.
It’s also having an impact on politics. The country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has put video conferencing to use on an enormous scale to get his message out to the 1.3 billion citizens who inhabit a landmass a third the size of the continental U.S. During his initial election campaign, Prime Minister Modi set a world record for simultaneous appearances via video conference when he appeared at 88 different political rallies at once. He has since gone on to use video conferencing as a form of travel, appearing at religious festivals, rock concerts, anniversary celebrations, and, of course, more political rallies across the country.
In August, he made another great leap. In combination with the country’s Independence Day celebrations, Modi appeared via video conference at 600 different farming towns in a week to address the agricultural concerns of the nation’s rural population.
Virtual Town Hall Politics
The active ingredient in Modi’s VC spree is the two-way nature of video calling technology. Modi’s government has been criticized for its welfare support of farming communities, and the series of video conferences, which were recorded and replayed 5,000 times around the nation, offered the Prime Minister an opportunity to both address and hear from those directly affected. In turn, the farmers, their families, and the broader society that supports and relies upon them were given the chance to ask the Prime Minister questions and hear him respond in real-time, straight to their faces.
I’m not privy to the political outcome of the mass virtual commune, but I can tell you the technical side of things was relayed through a network of community centers. We’ve seen this kind of interconnected town hall meeting staged in the U.S. through a partnership between video-conferencing platform BlueJeans Primetime and Facebook. In that example, Facebook’s ability to handle thousands of simultaneous live streams was coupled with in-room web cameras to link up large meetings at several different venues.
The technology, however, isn’t the key here, nor is Modi’s specific dialogue. The vital fact is that this kind of direct, micro-level engagement between a national political figure and his constituents was staged in the first place, which means it can be repeated—perhaps to the point where it becomes commonplace.
Using Video Conferencing in Government Can Change Democracy
Barack Obama famously tapped into a new generation of American voters by embracing Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook, earning himself the title of the first social-media president along the way. President Trump has since gone even further down the social-media rabbit hole, using Twitter as a direct conduit between himself and the public and avoiding the traditional news media altogether.
Video calling is the next logical extension of that evolution. The technology has become a standard feature on all the social media platforms offered by the industry’s biggest players, from Facebook to Apple to Amazon to Google.
When used in large-scale politics, however, those video calls need to be on a scale of ambition akin to that demonstrated by Prime Minister Modi. To be most effective, they should be regularly scheduled events. While California Governor Jerry Brown obviously can’t have a conversation with 39 million people at once, he could speak to two or three linked town hall gatherings every week or month of his term. Organizing the live Q&A section of those conversations is a matter for a more clerical mind, but if a gifted moderator could also incorporate live interaction from an online audience—or at least make the conversation watchable in real-time—the viewership could easily build to thousands.
Chicago’s population of 2.7 million is probably a more manageable number, so maybe the process of hearing directly from the people should begin at the mayoral level.
If Prime Minister Modi can manage it, though, there’s no reason why it can’t become a feature of U.S. politics in the near future. It doesn’t have to be an adversarial process, either, but rather a tangible way to keep elected officials in touch with, and aware of, the citizens they represent and lead.