Estonian Song Festival. Image credit:

In a peculiar way, this year’s Song Festival made me meditate on the topic of democracy.

Estonian Song Festivals are a unique part of this little country’s culture. If you are interested, check out the documentary “Singing revolution”, which does a fair (although not unbiased) job explaining the importance of the Festivals for the country. In a nutshell, once every five years about 10-15% of the entire population of the country gather at the Estonian Singing Grounds in Tallinn, and sing songs dedicated to the nation’s freedom. Typically there would be around 30,000 actual singers and then 100,000+ audience. The population of the country is a little over 1,3 million, and they (we) have been singing those songs for years…

On the other hand, Estonia is an aspiring tech country. If you’ve ever visited or read anything about Estonia, chances are you’ve been exposed to its hard-core tech propaganda. E-government is (arguably) so advanced here that it can be considered one of our national exports.

During the Festival, these two factors blended in my mind. With its constant feedback between the audience and the singers, ability to shout “Korrata!” (“repeat”, in Estonian – which the audience would sometimes start shouting, if they want to hear/sing the song they just sang again), and send live “waves” across the Singing Grounds, the Estonian Song Festival is a great exercise in direct democracy. The feedback is immediate, decision making – instantaneous, consequences – felt by all. These qualities of the Festival, overlayed on our tech-savvy, made me wonder if E-government and technology could bring government closer to original direct democracy: something similar to a Greek “Agora” – or the Song Fest itself. The goal of E-government should not be the individualization/alienation of citizens, substituted by fancy abilities of voting or filing taxes online (although impressive in their own right). It should be bringing citizens closer together and making them all feel part of the whole. Digital is good at annihilating the restrictions of physical space (distances) as well as temporal differences that have rendered direct democracy impossible in the context of our overpopulated modern world. From what I see, digital is currently employed by government mostly for the ease and speed of its processing. We need to revise this and put the anti-spatial (or should I say “alternative-spatial”) qualities of the digital to work big time. Not a tech-centered society, but society-centered tech.

This is already being explored through various apps and participatory online services. However, E-government is still pretty far off. May-be our Singing Festival can serve as inspiration.