By 2020, at least one American city will have elected an anonymous mayor based on a virtual identity. Our online personas – like those we create on Facebook, Amazon, or as avatars in Second Life – will become more important than who we are as actual, biological people. At least so says Adam Sarner, a principal analyst at tech research company Gartner, Inc.
The idea is that if you look at who we’ve elected in the past here in the U.S., they’re selectable as someone I want to have a beer with or because he was a professional wrestler in our state or a movie star called “The Terminator, and this isn’t much of a leap,” said Sarner.
With similar ideas already in progress, the leap actually seems like a tiny, tiny hop.
As a less ethereal and more immediate example, Ebbsfleet United, a mid-level British football club, is on the verge of being bought and managed by 20,000 fans at a contribution of £35 a piece. If the deal passes due diligence, MyFootballClub will own a 51% controlling share in the team and will be able to make all the big-picture decisions – from hiring down to starting formations – through Internet-based consensus.
Moving back to politics, the newly founded Australian Senator On-line Party – “Australia’s only Internet based democratic political party” – is organized around the notion of electing a senator contractually bound to vote based on Internet polling of the Australian electorate.
“That just shows the connectivity of the channel,” commented Sarner. “The Internet’s online environment is the most communicative tool that man has ever developed. Every invention that man has managed to create to communicate is bundled up on the Internet. You get TV, newspapers, radio, everything. And when you combine that with the imagination of virtual worlds, that’s where this power comes in. We can say, ‘let’s really understand what we’d like to see in a senator.’ You get fuller information and probably better picks for how society will be shaped.”
It’s not quite the same idea, which Sarner admits. In fact, the unfortunately acronymed Australian SOL party moves beyond even electing a virtual personality to simply crowd-sourcing politics. Instead of the electorate voting for an online persona, the human senator becomes an avatar in the most traditional, Sanskritian sense. He or she becomes the human form of an abstract idea.
I’m not sure which is the more radical approach to politics. The SOL party changes the basic nature of a representative democracy, though some would argue that it’s just an advanced form of polling. But Sarner’s proposal would require a level of trust in online personas that the average voter just doesn’t possess right now. That trust and how to promote it, though, is a matter of great concern for Web gurus.
When eBay and Amazon hit it big, the world began to revel in its ability to sit around in global-sized underwear and buy a used bicycle. But the real revolution was in the system of trust-creating measures the online shopping systems put into place. Without knowing anything about what a persona, say User ID: Cheezburger, does in real life, you can get an accurate representation of who they are on Amazon. You know exactly how many transactions they’ve completed and how trustworthy they were in following through on their bargains.
Comparable information—voting records, policy declarations, etc. – is available for politicians, but when was the last time you checked out your senator as thoroughly and quickly as the guy who sold you a vintage lunchbox?
Granted, I’m pretty content to vote for novelty value since most elections in my district and state are pretty much always going to slip away from me, but given the opportunity to text in a command to a senator or vote for a thoroughly vetted online persona, I’m there. Hell, I’d quit my job and campaign for the avatar.
“Because of the interactive social nature of this virtual environment we’re creating for ourselves, the amount of information you can get will trump the physical information,” said Sarner. “I’ve never met a president before, only seen them on TV or online. I think that expression of ideas through this medium will get us to know more about a person than we know now, which is a sound bite or a debate with 17k people on stage and a 2-minute synopsis.”
Sounds like a better politician, football club, and avatar to me.