Personal Democracy Forum and TechPresident recently sponsored an essay contest:

When the Framers met in Philadelphia in 1787, they bravely conjured a new form of self-government. But they couldn’t have imagined a mass society with instantaneous, many-to-many communications or many of the other innovations of modernity. So, replacing that quill pen with a mouse, imagine that you have to power to redesign American democracy for the Internet Age. What would you do?

Below is my blue sky response, which was selected for publication. You can order the whole book from Amazon.

NOTE: The first three paragraphs below were inserted post-publication and do not appear in the printed version.

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Richard Feyman—possibly the most brilliant physicist of his generation—once said that “nobody really understands quantum physics.”

We’ve had the Web for 16 years, and I think I can safely say that nobody really understands it, either. Sometimes we think we do, but then it surprises us with something new. We know a lot about what it’s done so far, but none of us know what lies ahead.

In spite of this, here we are, proposing Constitutional changes based on our elementary knowledge of the Web. Such changes would become obsolescent as quickly as the Web churns out new surprises. So let’s not get too eager to cure our net anxieties. Instead, let’s prepare our government to face all tech revolutions, not just the current one.

The House of Representatives should expand to make room for a new at-large delegation: the Delegation for Future Interests (DFI). These seats will be restricted to scientists and people under 35. The representatives will be elected by a nation-wide vote with no geographic apportionment (afterall, the candidates for these jobs will be familiar with the decreasing relevance of geography). The members of this delegation will have equal status with all other members of the House, including voting rights and committee membership.

The DFI will bring something new to Congress: ample representation of future concerns. Congress has always been a reactive body, responding to what happened yesterday instead of foreseeing tomorrow’s problems. Its members are unfamiliar with new technologies and the problems they present. It shows in the demographics: Of our 100 senators, 56 are lawyers. Nineteen are lifelong politicians with little other professional or research experience. Zero senators have science doctorates; only four congressmen do. And according to the Congressional Research Service, the current Congress might be the oldest ever: of 537 members, eight are under 35. We trust this body to keep our democracy up-to-date. We shouldn’t.

Our population includes people much better suited than your average politician to keep democracy in touch with the future: scientists engaged with emerging technologies that will define how we communicate and work in the future, and the young people eager to embrace, understand, and challenge these technologies. Just as seasoned lawyers bring historical perspective to our legal code, scientists and young people could bring foresight. Just as our armed forces are run by military experts, and our economy is regulated by economists, so should our science policies be guided at the highest levels by those with expertise.

Creating the DFI is a low-tech response to an essay prompt that is laden with high-tech overtones. Opportunities abound for Web-based citizen engagement platforms and crowdsourced government corruption discovery wizards. But no matter what widget we create, and no matter how we customize the Constitution for today’s Internet, three things will certainly happen in the next 100 years:

  • Both the widget and the Constitutional changes will become obsolete;
  • One or two more technological revolutions will pass us by; and
  • Those revolutions will pose new challenges to our democracy, challenges that our generation will never foresee. Challenges that will require their own essay contests.

In short, no Net-centric solution to our problems will last long. Even if such a solution is an extraordinary success, the chances are good that it will be short-lived: our understanding of the Internet undergoes a radical shift at least once every election cycle. High-tech solutions may sound sophisticated, but they are ultimately limited by their focus on the Internet. My DFI proposal may not make for the most exciting reading. But it is adaptable beyond the current definition of the Internet. When today’s problems are long gone, the DFI will still be relevant.

That is what we must seek when changing our democracy: staying power. Major changes to a democratic system take decades to root themselves into the public consciousness. By then, the nation may have forgotten what inspired the changes in the first place. Our job is to make sure that when that day comes, our changes are still relevant.

“How would you redesign American democracy for the Internet age?” My solution may not be custom-built FOR the Internet, but it is certainly inspired by it. The Internet has taught me a lesson: when challenged by a new technology, our democracy convulses for a few years. (It hasn’t yet taught me what happens after that.) If given one redesign opportunity, we should heed that lesson and try to solve the root of the problem: a lack of foresight by our leaders. Technical solutions can certainly help; that’s why I spend most days trying to hack American politics. But the DFI will help us not only through today’s challenges (Task #1: fund the projects proposed by other Reboot essayists), but tomorrow’s as well. Let’s reboot for the future, not just for the Internet.