Designing digital democracy

The two services that, more than any other, have come to stand for the dysfunctional relationship between digital technology and politics both emerged in more or less haphazard ways. Facebook was famously a hormone-driven college project, and Twitter began life as a piece of internal innovation within the now relatively little-remembered podcast aggregator, Odeo. Speaking about Twitter’s early days in a 2013 interview, one of its architects, Evan Williams, was candid about the lack of deliberate intention that characterised the development of the platform:

With Twitter, it wasn’t clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define, because it didn’t replace anything. There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is. Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility. It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network.

The emergent properties of Twitter were compound rather than simple. In these heady days of 280 characters, it’s easy to forget that it initially relied on the technology of SMS, itself developed by telecoms engineers using spare capacity within the phone network to exchange short messages on technical subjects. And of course it also rests on the platform of the Internet, which started life as a research project within the US Defense Department (among, to be fair, other conceptual origins).

The details of these origin stories aren’t important. The part that matters is that, like much that is wonderful about digital technology and media, Facebook and Twitter didn’t set out to become what they are now, any more than did the Internet or the Worldwide Web. Whatever foresight their founders may not have had, they certainly weren’t conceived as tools that would change the face of democratic politics, and it’s fair to say that the ways they’ve done so have been inherently chaotic and emergent.

As the full range of unintended consequences of digital services play out, actors across politics and technology have been waking up to the possibility of guiding and shaping them. This happened pretty early on, with Obama’s 2008 election victory marking a milestone that showed the possibilities of micro-targeting through social media. It feels a long way now from the positive feelings that many had then, and later, in the hopeful early days of the Arab Spring, about the potential for digital media to empower citizens. As genie after genie emerges from the digital lamp, the reactions of commentators have tipped further and further into panic, with a DCMS report published over the weekend on the risks to democracy posed by the use of online tools (news story herefull report here) merely the latest call to arms. The report doesn’t target only obvious and deliberate abuses of digital such as fake news or election fraud. More striking is the acknowledgement of the threats posed by the “relentless targeting of hyper-partisan views, which play to the fears and prejudices of people, in order to influence their voting plans and their behaviour”, highlighting that there is no monopoly on virtue in some corner of the political spectrum. The report’s prescriptions, while laudable, read like an exercise in damage limitation: the watermarking of political campaign material; empowering the Electoral Commission to impose stiffer fines; an audit of the social media advertising industry etc.

In any case, the report is released into a public discourse around technology and politics that is nothing if not widespread and febrile. What makes fewer (or no) headlines is the parallel phenomenon of secular decline in the membership base of British political parties (thanks to the excellent Talking Politics podcast for highlighting this trend and unpacking its consequences for our politics in a recent episode). This is only partly masked by the recent surge in Labour party membership, which has nevertheless not taken it back to pre-1980 levels. Combined with the introduction of one-member-one-vote for the election of party leaders in both the Tory and Labour parties, the decline of membership leads to the placing of unprecedented power into the hands of a small electorate (or, in the case of the Tory party, whose membership has collapsed from 3 million in the 1950s to probably only a little over 100,000 today, a tiny, dwindling and aging one), and as a result the closing off of what was previously a broad channel in which our democratic representatives could learn and contend with the views of the public.

So the well-documented unintended consequences of digital technology play out in a context where democracy is already under threat from other forces. It’s a step in the right direction that politicians are sitting up, taking notice and demanding action. What seems to be missing at the moment is a deliberate approach — by those with the power to directly influence change — to shape digital technology to drive politics in more positive ways, or even to offer solutions for problems whose origins lie elsewhere, for example by addressing the deficit opened by shrinking party memberships. Where there are initiatives to create positive change in public discourse, they tend to come from the tech sector. Evan Williams moved on from Twitter to found Medium, as a thoughtful response to the ongoing huge problems faced by the media and technology sectors in providing a sustainable platform for high quality content and experiences, one that could, among other things, enrich and strengthen democratic debate. In WikiTribune, Jimmy Wales is seeking to do for news and current affairs what Wikipedia has done for knowledge — to harness the wisdom of crowds in a way that optimises the opportunities for positive impacts and mitigates any negative consequences. And Kialo has very deliberately set out to design a platform that hosts opposing viewpoints in a framework of respect for facts, reason and the intelligence and motives of adversaries. There are obvious hazards to applying a digital design mentality to the complex problems of modern democratic politics. It’s so easy to find them that at a recent conference on democracy and technology, a ‘pre-mortem’ workshop on a proposed digital political platform generated 32 reasons for failure in ten minutes.

Kialo, pioneering new tools for public discourse Kialo, pioneering new tools for public discourse

But the harmful impacts of digital technology on democracy are already here. To suggest that any deliberate attempt to use human ingenuity to plan and design for better approaches will necessarily do worse is a counsel of despair. The publication was recently announced of the report of the Independent Commission on Referendums. (The concept of the commission, incidentally, and the unanimous nature of the recommendations made by this one, are both excellent examples of the ability of debate to generate consensus and agreement as well as anger and division.) Among other things, the report called for the piloting of citizens’ assemblies in any future referendums. It’s not hard to see how tools such as Kialo could facilitate and enrich processes of deliberative democracy in ways that could massively improve the level of discourse around both referendums and other political processes. Too often it feels like we are all peeking miserably through fingers as we watch our democracy writhe. But we have organisations in our country that are ideally placed to use digital technology to carry out bold experiments in extending the possibilities of democracy. Parliament Digital Service, for example, could offer a platform for the body at the centre of our representative politics to do just that, rather than seeing digital technology simply as a tool to better represent and connect the public with the arcana of existing legislative processes.

Of course, politics is only one forum for conversation and debate. It can be the place where otherwise good (or potentially good) relationships come unstuck. Columbia University’s Difficult Conversations Laboratory has carried out some interesting research into the ingredients that lead conversationalists to listen and respond positively in the context of disagreements rather than retrench and shout. It turns out that priming for the acceptance of complexity is a key to good conversations. It’s also something which may be existentially necessary for the human species, but which seems increasingly hard to reconcile with democracy. Anyone setting out to make it more possible to do so certainly has my support.

The image at the top of this blog post is taken from XKCD, CC BY-NC 2.5

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