Back in the early 1980s my then senior school, Bushey Hall, was faced with closure. The local education authority had proposed that the place should be shut, merged into another school a mile or so up the road.
Parents and pupils fought the proposal. We organised. We created a petition, and got many thousands of people from the town to sign it in support. Boxes and boxes of signed sheets of A4 paper were presented to the Education Secretary in Westminster. He ultimately overturned the decision of the LEA. A victory for the pupils and parents of Bushey Hall. A victory for democracy.
I’m often reminded of this when yet another digital petition hits the headlines. Back in the eighties the physical effort involved in gathering names on a petition was enormous. The act meant something in the way that a couple of clicks on a screen simply don’t. It might not back then have meant that those that signed the petition cared necessarily any more than they do today, but sure as heck the petitioners had to put in a lot more work.
Today with change.org providing a friction-free democracy experience the game has changed significantly. Are 10,000 electronic signatures worth the same as 10,000 physical signatures? I’d argue not. Petitions were never purely about the numbers – it was the effort that was represented.
And then if you’ve got, say, an app that has been installed by millions of people and you want them to sign a petition to try to agitate to protect your business model. An app that means that you can plop a message onto the screens of that oh-so-personal computer that most of us carry around at all times these days. A seamless democracy experience that maximises click-through rates and bolsters your lobbying position at a stroke.
Our democratic processes are being hijacked by the financial might of Silicon Valley. Faced with rejection by the due political process, Uber doesn’t use the petition engine established in the UK to do things by the book – oh no, it uses its Valley compatriots who are trying to monetise the political process. And it uses its huge installed user base to drive “signatures” there. How meaningful are those signatures? Well, 3/4 of a million people is politically significant. It has huge media value. It is a powerful lever.
But it’s also fairly meaningless. I would imagine that most of those signatures are from Uber customers, and I imagine that they’ll know exactly what they’ve signed up to in the same way that they know exactly the terms and conditions they are signed up to in using the Uber service, or exactly why it is that TFL have taken action. (On that latter point, if you’re interested, this is a cracking explainer.)
Democracy shouldn’t be frictionless. It should involve thought and effort. Otherwise it will become the sole preserve of the rich and powerful.