Could we use open-source tools to improve politics?

The philosophy behind open-source software has been used to create an operating system and a pretty powerful crowdsourced encyclopedia, among other things, so could adopting that same approach change the way that politics and government work for the better? That’s the idea media theorist Clay Shirky has proposed in a TED talk in Edinburgh. The idea is an appealing one — to use the same process behind Linux and Wikipedia to make government more collaborative and open — but would it work? Developing software and web services is very different thing from creating legislation, and the history of the open-source movement is fraught with infighting among quasi-religious factions. But it may be the best hope we have.

After giving a kind of whirlwind tour of the open-source movement in his talk, including the rise of Linux, Shirky devoted much of his discussion to Github — a kind of crowdsourced platform for maintaining code that Linux creator Linus Torvalds also created, which allows anyone to edit, to “fork” or create their own version, and to track the changes that others make. It’s not a big stretch to get from that idea to the idea of crowdsourcing legislation, which is what Shirky seems to have in mind, and there have already been some attempts at doing this via Github: for example, a German software developer has uploaded all of Germany’s laws to the platform so that citizens can recommend and track changes.

It’s an intriguing idea: that a simple software platform aimed at collaboration could change the way legislation is developed and implemented, much like the process that powers Wikipedia has created a crowdsourced encyclopedia that evolves and changes over time. But is it realistic? There were plenty of skeptics who said Wikipedia would never succeed, and yet it has an excellent track record when it comes to reliability, despite some hiccups in the process, such as the recent incident involving author Philip Roth. That said, however, there are also plenty of critics who believe that the “cabal” of editors who control the crowd-powered encyclopedia have too much authority.

Of course, some would argue that we’re already in that kind of situation with most governments anyway, and therefore Github couldn’t make things any worse. And Shirky is not the only one to make this argument: developer Abe Voelker has proposed a “Github for laws” that would take exactly the same approach to crafting and crowdsourcing legislation. There have also been some initial experiments with similar ideas — including Iceland’s new constitution and similar types of project in Finland and Ireland — which shows that others are also open to the concept.

One of the problems with applying a technical solution like Github to a massive cultural and political process like government, however, is that creating laws — even small ones — is very different from changing a piece of code so that Linux can duplicate Windows-style typefaces, or changing the Wikipedia entry on George Bush. And if even those kinds of prosaic examples can lead to the equivalent of a Linux or Wikipedia holy war, which in many cases they have, what hope do we have that politicians can actually use a similar process to change the way that government works? As Shirky suggests in his talk, there’s also a pretty entrenched bureaucracy that has become part of most governments and likely has no interest in relinquishing that control to the crowd.

In his book “Here Comes Everybody,” Shirky described the potentially massive impact of crowdsourcing and crowd-powered social change, and his admiration of Github seems to be part of an attempt to find tools that will help us deal with the tidal wave of human-driven collaboration. This is something we clearly need, so it’s worthwhile to start looking at solutions — and while Github may not be the answer, at this point just about anything is probably worth a shot.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Fabio Venni