Clay Shirky has changed his mind about democratic participation, he tells, ahead of an appearance at a POLIS event at the LSE tonight.

"All the rhetoric,  including - I'm embarrassed to say - some of mine, has assumed in the past that democratic legitimation is itself enough to regard aggregate public opinion as being clearly binding on the government," Shirky explains.

"I've changed my mind," says the internet writer and consultant and professor at New York University's interactive telecommunications programme.

Shirky, best known for his book 'Here Comes Everybody', has long been interested in the impact of internet use on media and society in general.

Shirky says he previously made certain assumptions about the result of what he calls 'crowd wisdom' and its positive impact for democracy. Now he believes that public pressure via the internet could be 'just another implementation layer for special interest groups'.

It is 'not fair', he adds. There is a need to redress the political checks and balances in place in order to control the influence of such groups, he explains.

For example, during the Obama campaign, he watched the campaign for legalisation of the medicinal use of marijuana become a prioritised item on the website.

But, Shirky explains, while this type of online phenomenon is a 'net positive' for democracy, it is not 'an absolute positive.' It doesn't necessarily mean these representational tools are a replacement for the vote, he adds.

"Are we really going to let a Digg-style voting algorithm commit the federal government top issue to the 'wrestling with medicinal use of marijuana'?" he asks.

Shirky hopes to open up the debate on this issue: "There needs to be some mechanism by which executive or legislative branches can say we are taking this under advisement, but we are not taking dictation [from special interest groups]."

"It's clear that it's yet another environment in which special interest groups have to have some kind of check and balance against them," Shirky says.

Shirky, who is known for his historical analogies (for example, likening the 17th century gin craze with current media trends) says that society now faces a point in constitutional history paralleling changes introduced by the Magna Carta.

Its signing in 1215 marked 'the integration of the idea of lobbying into formal rules around government,' he says. 'People [came] together and decide[d] that some combination would be carved out between two different opposing forces' he explains, referring to the way the English king was forced to accept certain rights and privileges for his subjects.

Significant changes often come at times of crisis, like the current financial downturn, adds Shirky, who says we are entering a two-three year period which could shape society for decades.

"In a crisis people lay their hands on what works without regard to how they've done it the past," he says. Often seen as informal changes, significant technological shifts quickly become part of the established political landscape, he says.

Shirky hopes that specifically British issues will get raised at tonight's debate. "When this stuff charges in the US the questions are 'what are the kids doing?' and 'what is it going to do to companies?' In the UK it is 'what is it going to do for the government and social exclusion?'

He thinks the recent Lord Carter report, on which he commented last week, is 'remarkable', in the government's move to say 'this [digital] space is non-optional'.

A campaign led by the organisation MySociety, which played a part in the government's reversal of a decision to ban publication of MPs' expenses, has also caught his interest.

"It was classic news cycle timing," he says, referring to what some said was a government tactic of a 'good day to bury bad news'.

"What MySociety did is break that cycle and and publish it in media that doesn't have a cycle. There is a new mechanism, in addition to referendum and political representation, which is not the same as casting a vote," he adds.

"It is democracy in action, at such a young stage that we don't even know how to integrate it into the rest of the democratic mix."

We are at the beginning of an open-ended conversation, says Shirky.

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