This is the first of three articles that explores the increasing role of technology in supporting a new kind of democracy. Over the next three weeks we will survey the state of Western democracy as it stands, introduce the term ‘digital democracy’, look at the key threads of current digital-democracy work and ultimately outline the key challenges going forward.
Western democracy now
Western democracy is in crisis. Voter turnout rates have fallen steadily for around 50 years, but recently a more pronounced disillusionment has taken hold. A range of political, economic and social developments have pushed more and more voters to lose faith in representative democracy’s central tenet: the politicians elected by the people represent the people’s interests.
As a result, the political centre has imploded in favour of support for more radical politicians on both the left – Corbyn in the UK and Podemos in Spain – and right – UKIP, The National Front, in France, and a certain Mr. Trump.
Brexit, too, was widely interpreted as a protest vote.
How did we get here?
The financial crisis is one reason for this. Given the crisis was partly triggered by (knowingly!) reckless mis-selling of financial products, many have interpreted its aftermath as proof that politicians prioritise corporate power over public interest.
Almost none of those reckless financiers were convicted. Many have argued that the true punishment came in the form of austerity policies that hit the taxpayer, and disproportionately affected those least able to take the strain – through rising prices, falling wages/employment and a stripped-back welfare state.
Other factors abound. To name just three: concerns over corporate power have also manifested in opposition to the secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP); Edward Snowden’s surveillance leaks heightened fears that personal privacy is under threat (only last week a review upheld bulk-interception powers in the UK); and political scandals have also played their part, such as the MP’s expenses scandal, which hit the UK immediately after the crash.
The shape of democracy going forward
Improving democratic processes and structures is only part of the solution here, but it is essential if we want to restore faith and health in our political system.
Technology is part of this hope.
Across society, including in the realm of democracy, new technology is exponentially changing processes, expanding possibilities, and spawning new ethical conundrums. Social media is now central to political strategies, for example. Politicians’ voting behaviour is readily monitorable thanks to databases like My Society’s TheyWorkForYou. And we are faced with new questions, such as what happens to politics when AI becomes better at making decisions than humans. Democracy is being reshaped, reignited and redefined, and we are excited that tech for good has a part to play in that.
Although technology’s impact on democratic structures and procedures has been less pronounced than in other areas of society so far, people are working hard to use technology to improve those processes and structures.
What do we call these efforts?
One possibility is ‘civic tech’, which the Omidyar Network defines as tech that “empowers citizens to make government more accessible, efficient and effective.” However, others see civic tech as something broader. Matt Stempeck, writing for Civicist, argues that civic tech “encompasses the application of tech in previously distinct fields like government, development, democratic elections, journalism, policy, urban planning, education, youth engagement, humanitarian response, healthy communities, social services, the nonprofit sector, and political campaigns, to name more than a few. Civic tech will remain a maddeningly broad term.”
Perhaps a better term is ‘digital democracy’ - the term used at May’s DCENT conference, in Madrid. Although democracy is explicitly political, changing democratic processes and structures means transcending what we typically consider the technical political sphere and entering the civic sphere.
Labels and definitions may seem pedantic, but they are essential to map landscapes and ensure clear communication: both fundamental tools if nebulous fields like digital democracy, civic tech and tech for good are to be properly understood and developed.
But what does digital democracy really look like? Next week, we will answer this question by concretely outlining the key threads of digital-democracy work currently being undertaken around the world. This work is incredibly exciting. It promises new forms of political engagement, new currencies, new democratic structures and more. In short, it offers a better way to distribute power.