Traditionally there’s only one unforgivable crime in British society: to rise above your station. The cynicism directed at pop stars who decide to “get involved” is fuelled by the usual combination of envy and small-mindedness—but is justified by the argument, “Well what could (s)he possibly know about it?”
This mindset assumes that there are experts who know, and then the rest of us who don’t. But it’s increasingly hard to support: as information flows more freely, expertise becomes commonplace. If we all have access to the information, then what matters is our ability to make use of it. Judgement becomes the key, not access.
There is a revolution going on, inviting everyone to rise above their station. You see it in open-source computer programming where, instead of protecting their code, companies make it available to anybody, knowing that freelance programmers will evolve it for them—for free. You see it with the iPhone, where Apple invented a platform and made it easy to build applications for it. (There are now over 100,000 different apps for the iPhone: far more, and far more varied, than Apple could ever have developed itself.)
This revolution—putting tools into the hands of anyone who wants to use them—is spreading into governance. Consider the increasing number of “e-democracy” websites. Among the best are those put up by UK Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD), which include TheyWorkForYou.com (“Keeping tabs on the UK’s parliaments and assemblies”) and FixMyStreet.com (“Report, view, or discuss local problems”). Similarly, the backlash against MPs’ expenses may end up producing a system where everything spent, said and done will be recorded online.
It’s often remarked that politics is like a sausage: better not to see it being made. But these days people want to know what’s in their sausage—and start making their own.