Which Digital Democracy?

There is a certain life-cycle within democracies: Individuals experience living in a society with a given set of rules; they criticize the legal/political/economic system identifying aspects that need to be changed; then, they try to let their voices be heard, letting their representatives know and do something about it. Ideally, the laws will be adjusted to their needs, going through the necessary changes so that individuals experience and test the new, modified system. The hard, persisting challenge in this cycle is to allow the population – who usually has little to no power – to be the bosses of their representatives – who hold the actual power.

Representative democracies can be more or less „democratic“, depending on the connection between different parts of the population and their respective representatives. All citizens should, in principle, be able to participate in the proposal, development, and creation of laws. But that is not the case for several reasons, including the complexity of the task of mass coordination and the slowness of the law-making “industry”. Legal systems are extremely slow compared to the speed of societal change we are going through, we need faster-adapting political systems. The digital realm is possibly the only way out of the crisis the planet is facing.

The internet and a series of digital technologies have changed the potential to participate at different scales of time, distance and numbers of people. As of today, any individual has the potential to go viral and influence huge numbers of others; multiple people can access certain pieces of information; big amounts of data can be mapped in order to, for example, detect failures in infrastructure, get resident feedback or analyze patterns in public health; crowdfunding currently enables new ideas to emerge, including innovative solutions in civic-tech. The speed of communication and the right combination of technologies could, in principle, allow societies to organize and cooperate at a very large scale.

In the private sector, tech giants such as Apple, Google, Amazon or Facebook have grown to the point that they almost function as states, providing almost the whole infrastructure, services and even education to the online population. But such companies are not necessarily willing to feed users’ feedback back into the development cycle – adjusting, for example, the interface according to sustainability criteria or quit selling private data. In that sense, the experience of using such technologies is very far from being democratic. They are rather lying on the totalitarian part of the political spectrum.

Many ingredients of democracy are already part of the online landscape, but we are still far from having a digital democratic experience. So, how to stimulate the digitalization of democracies or the democratization of the digital?

It could go from online voting every election cycle until finding complex strategies for governance with the aid of machine learning. It could mean gathering people’s data – respecting their anonymity and privacy – in order to improve their lives. Or opening up government’s data so that historical records can be analyzed and compared for future reference.

There are infinitely many ways to turn the digital ecosystem into a democratic experience and it is about time the population engages in open, further-reaching, precise discussions around this topic. A shift towards a digital democracy could finally redistribute political power from representatives to the individuals and allow a better-organized society to blossom.