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15 December 2003

My big conversation with the PM

Helen McCarthy suggests citizens may use mobile technology to create their own forms of democracy

By Helen McCarthy

The other day, Tony Blair asked me for my top priority for Britain. So I texted him, thumbing in “better childcare”, and pressed “send”. Within seconds the handset buzzed with a response: “Thanks for your participation.” I suppose this must mean I am part of Labour’s Big Conversation.

Labour’s listening exercise is just the latest in a stream of efforts by politicians, parties, local authorities and seemingly every last outpost of the state to reach out to that elusive audience – the British public. We’ve moved from consultation to participation, and now to conversation, albeit via a mouse or keypad. But if electronic interactivity fails to become democracy’s saviour, it will be because politicians fail to understand how technology and people combine. Rather than creating a big conversation, mobiles have created a series of small conversations that have become part of our everyday lives.

Television has capitalised on this sense of intimacy and immediacy. To reach mobile users, politicians have to compete with the likes of Big Brother, Pop Idol and I’m a Celebrity . . . for our hovering thumbs.

Now that more than 75 per cent of Britons own mobile phones, the political text message could well be the most direct line to the people. Think of the numbers of those with access to the internet. In comparison, mobiles are a democratic technology – though to most users, it’s more like a love affair. We carry these objects of desire close to our bodies at all times, personalising them with covers, screensavers and favourite ring-tones. We use them to store contact details for our nearest and dearest, and express feelings of loss and disorientation when they are taken from us. If politicians want to get up close and personal with voters, mobiles are the way to do it.

So will it be like classical Athens with mobiles? Not necessarily. The mobile connection between citizen and state may do no more than make the banal routine of using basic public services a bit easier – like the Tokyo bus that sends a message to your handset when it’s your stop, or the Austrian parking meter that sends you a reminder via text when your time is almost up. Parts of the public sector in the UK are moving along these lines. Transport for London, for example, offers travel text alerts for free, and researchers from Oxford University are piloting a mobile monitoring system for asthma sufferers.

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The potential for such services is immense, especially with the promise of “third generation” (3G) networks reaching the mass market over the next decade. These will bring broadband internet access, location-sensitive services and videotelephony to mobile users. They could lead to a wide range of new services, from smart wireless CCTV cameras or mobile systems for directing drivers to available parking spaces to virtual parents’ evenings or town hall meetings conducted entirely via videophone. The public sector could thus move from using mobiles for delivery to using them for interactivity.

But some people are sceptical about this vision of a mobile-enabled, responsive government. The reason lies in the record of the wider “e-government” strategy, talked up by new Labour as a central plank of the modernisation agenda. Three years ago, Blair pledged to put all services online by 2005, assuming – incorrectly, as it turned out – that British citizens would want everything available electronically. They didn’t. Government champions of all things “e” had to accept that the day of the friendly voice at the end of the telephone or the low-tech face-to-face interaction in a council building was not yet over. Predicting exactly which mobile applications will be relevant in the future is difficult, and those who got their fingers burned the first time round are unlikely to take expensive risks.

The same scepticism extends to the idea that new technology can rejuvenate the body politic. E-voting has far less chance of significantly raising electoral turnout than core constitutional reforms such as the introduction of proportional representation. Technology has never been a substitute for dialogue, as my somewhat hollow experience of the Big Conversation illustrated. If citizens are bored by politics, you could give each and every one of them a live video-link to No 10 and you still wouldn’t have the enlightened public realm that progressives dream about.

One of the toughest challenges is breaking down public cynicism about politicians’ willingness not only to listen, but to act on what they have heard.

What may prove more significant for our democracy is a different sort of mobile-enabled participation, involving interactions between citizens rather than between citizen and state. “Smart mobs” is the term coined by the sociologist Howard Rheingold to describe what you get when you mix social networks with advanced mobile technology.

Think of the role played by mobiles in co-ordinating the fuel protests in 2000 or how anti-globalisation protesters exploit mobile networks to evade police at demos.

In the future, the increasingly popular web-logging will go mobile and multi-media. We could see a new breed of amateur journalists, broadcasting live footage from videophone to the internet, or peer-to-peer networks of mobile users without central editorial controls. In other words, mobiles can connect people, but not necessarily in ways policy-makers assume when they launch their consultations, e-forums and citizens’ portals.

Helen McCarthy is a researcher with the think-tank Demos and co-author of London Calling: how mobile technologies can transform a city (Demos)

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