The crisis of legitimacy and representation

Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo
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The ongoing spat between the cyber community and the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reveals a much larger crisis that the world is increasingly facing – the crisis of the legitimacy of representation.

The UN and the Internet are arguably two of humanity’s greatest accomplishments of the 20th century: both bring the world closer by facilitating dialogue and though each has its flaws most would agree that the world is a better place because of their creation.

With so much in common then, why do the two communities find themselves embroiled in conflict?

The underlying issue, I would argue, is that in the same way the United Nations changed the world’s expectations around how problems are solved, so too is the Internet in bringing about a sea change in how citizens expect to be represented in both government and markets.

The UN was designed based on the principle of representative government. As citizens, our voices are represented via a proxy delegate appointed by the proxy government charged with representing our will.

This system, when implemented well, has succeeded in reducing violent conflict, increasing qualities of life and reducing civil strife by empowering citizens with the means to provide an input into their governance.

The digital revolution and direct popular representation

The conflict we’re beginning to see comes from the fact that the tools of the Internet are enabling individuals to represent themselves in conversations previously managed by proxy representatives.

With physical distance no longer a barrier to citizen’s participation in their governance and interconnectedness enabling the formation of interest-based communities that supersede geographical limitations, the system of representation via proxy is continually clashing with individuals who insist on representing themselves and in doing so demand far more transparency than was required in the past.

Read more: Are governments trying to take over the internet?

Aside from government, the conflict of legitimacy of representation is evident in other areas of society where proxies are used to represent citizens. The news media, for example, the cornerstone of any vibrant democracy, finds itself under increasing commercial and political pressure as bloggers, tweeters and other low-cost alternatives challenge traditional media’s claim to act as the sole legitimate dispenser of the public good of information.

The conflict here is getting ugly. In some cases, such as in France and Germany, media companies are fighting back by working together with parliamentarians to try to cement their incumbency by placing barriers to innovation through legislating the use of technologies and imposing new and targeted taxes on the forces disrupting their hold on citizens’ attention.

Markets are also feeling the effects of citizen self-representation. In the past, investors such as venture capitalists were meant to act as filters to determine what products and ideas were worthy of the market’s attention. Nowadays, crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter are letting the market speak for itself.

Entrepreneurs are thus empowered to find alternative feedback loops that are far more representative of consumer appetite than the intuition of even the most seasoned investors. Investors, for their part, will have to become faster, more data-driven and more accessible to compete with their crowdsourced competition.

What will change?

In foreshadowing a conflict between bodies and organizations that represent and the individuals they are charged with representing, we should not assume one will necessarily overcome the other. As the prophetic godfather of media Marshall McLuhan once wrote, new forms of media rarely entirely overtake the incumbents. TV did not, in the end, kill the radio star, but it did fundamentally alter the supply and demand for music before the two eventually learned to accommodate each other.

At this point it’s difficult to tell what accommodation between the Internet and proxies of representation will look like, but what we can see is that the intermediary period will bring with it conflicts large and small. The conflict is inevitable because the individuals, organizations and industries that have accumulated power and influence during the age of representation via proxy will not hand over their control without first putting up a fight.

The fundamental question that faces the UN, the news media and markets is whether or not the systems that govern their domain contain within them enough vulnerability to accommodate a world in which individuals represent themselves.

Regardless of how one sees these conflicts playing out in the long term, what is undeniable is that we rely less on others to represent our voices and disintermediate our relationships than in the past. As a result, our capacity to express complexity is increasing while our satisfaction with expressing that complexity through limited binary choices or reductionist proxies is decreasing.

The solution for organizations like the UN that find their legitimacy called into question may be to get ahead of their critics by becoming more radically inclusive, transparent and democratic than even the governments that form its membership. By doing so the UN can once again alter the expectations we citizens have for how our world should operate for the better.

Author: Matthew Carpenter Arevalo is a Community Manager for the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community.

Image: Customers use computers at an internet cafe in Taiyuan REUTERS/Stringer Shanghai

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