Noah Feldman writes: At the Philadelphia convention of 1787, James Madison alone took complete notes in a rapid shorthand, a self-appointed job that he said almost killed him. But today, constitutional debates are recorded in Twitter bursts — and in Tunisia, where the constituent assembly is compiling that nation’s new constitution, the children of the Arab Spring are using the full range of technological tools to ensure a degree of transparency never seen before in such political processes.
At the heart of the technological openness is a Tunisian nongovernmental group called Al Bawsala, which means, roughly, the Compass. Bawsala staffers are 20-something Tunisians dressed in the same skinny jeans and sweaters worn everywhere by young people too cool to be called hipsters. Their look alone marks a contrast with the formally dressed delegates of the National Assembly whom they supervise.
And supervise they do. From the balcony of the main chamber of the National Assembly, in the parliament building called the Bardo, the Bawsala posse keeps an eagle eye on every moment of the proceedings. When an assembly member speaks, at least one Bawsala member tweets a precis of the speaker’s comments in real time — translated into French. The speed and quality of the summaries are amazingly impressive. I’ve been sitting in the balcony myself, and whenever I’ve had trouble following the assembly members’ Arabic — sometimes speakers shift from formal standard Arabic into Tunisian dialect — I would look over a colleague’s shoulder at the Bawsala feed. Invariably, it was already posted and immensely clarifying. Everyone around me was following it, from journalists to international observers. It was the first draft of the first draft of history. It also meant that anyone outside the hall could follow the debates, even without access to Tunisian television. [Continue reading…]