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How to make democracy work in the digital age

Digital democracy has the ultimate benefit that it supports society’s historical achievements

By: EBR - Posted: Monday, August 07, 2017

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by Dirk Helbing and Stefan Klauser*

There are many complaints about how democracy works these days – or maybe rather why it doesn’t work. For example, we see a polarization of society in recent times.

Modern mass media and social media tend to create “filter bubbles” which reinforce one’s own opinion, while reducing the ability to handle different points of view. The public debate has to contend with increasingly personalized, attack-style, oversimplified, manipulative and deceptive messages or misinformation.

What makes this all the more deplorable and problematic is that societal and political complexity has increased dramatically, pretty much independent of where one lives.

Dealing with the compounded complexity and unpredictable outcomes is even difficult for experts. That leads some to suggest that – since neither voters nor experts can handle this complexity – the solution lies in relying on expert systems using big data and artificial intelligence.

Rise of the machines

So, should we leave it Google’s “omniscient algorithm” or IBM’s cognitive computer, called Watson, to decide about what is to be done?

Depending on the details of such digital operating systems for society, this experiment may very well end in fascism 2.0 (= a big brother and brave new world society), communism 2.0 (= distributing rights and resources based on a “benevolent dictator” approach), or feudalism 2.0 (= based on a few monopolies and a new kind of caste system).

Besides, we have already seen in the past that purely data-driven variants of governance models have failed. They will not suddenly become more acceptable. So far, we don’t even know how to measure human dignity – the most important “good” of modern democratic societies – by numbers. How then could we judge societal progress?

Therefore, the crucial question is how to use the digital opportunities of today and upgrade democracy, “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” as Churchill joked.

Democracy 2.0- how to harness collective intelligence by digital means

The long-term consequences of centralized top-down control could be devastating. It would lead to an unprecedented loss of socio-economic diversity and resilience, a decline in the rate of innovation and serious slowdown of socio-economic progress, a rise in political instability and perhaps even war or revolution.

Centralized top-down optimization may be a proper paradigm for companies or supply chains, but complex societies need pluralism and combinatorial innovation to thrive.

The success principles of the past – globalization, optimization and administration – have more or less hit their limit. To reach the next level of society, an economy dominated by networks must build on the principles of co-creation, co-evolution and collective intelligence.

To achieve sustainable and legitimate results that leverage the benefits of complexity and diversity, it is crucial to move from a government paradigm based on power to a paradigm based on empowerment and coordination.

Massive Open Online Deliberation Platforms (MOODS)

Combining smart technologies with smart citizens is the recipe to create smarter societies. This can be reached by creating Massive Open Online Deliberation Platforms (MOODs). They allow all interest groups to put their arguments on a particular subject on a virtual table, where they can be structured into different points of view.

In a second step, it is important to work out innovative solutions that integrate several perspectives and, thereby, benefit several interest groups well – not just the interests of the incumbent or the 51% majority.

This is the essence of “digital democracy.” It is based on “collective intelligence” – on bringing the knowledge and ideas of many minds (and artificially intelligent systems) together. It is the combination of ideas and interaction of humans that have shown to deliver the best results when challenges are complex.

An updated democratic process should be able to reach equally distributed opportunities and satisfaction, as much as this can be done. While this cannot always be achieved in each single decision, we could certainly get much better in satisfying diverse interest groups than today.

Instead of trying to revive governance principles of the past, which have failed to embrace the complexity and diversity of modern societies, we should engage in digitally upgrading democracy.

After all, being the result of many wars and revolutions – democracy is a highly advanced governance system that has taken on board the wisdom of some of the smartest and most respected people in human history.

Rather than accepting data-driven technocracy to control and abate societal diversity and complexity, we propose a way to leverage complexity for our benefit, through a decentralized, participatory platform.

Overcome the dictatorship of the majority

With the means of MOODs, one can find solutions that consider various views on certain aspects of a topic. Today, one of the main problems is that people can only cast a “yes” or a “no” votes, i.e. to either agree on a proposed solution or disagree.

The topic is often extremely complex and has many facets. So, letting people decide about “yes” or “no” is simply not enough. We suggest that citizens should be able to continuously engage in a specific type of online deliberation processes, where they can feed in their ideas and voice their preferences on different aspects of a topic.

A refined, more inclusive process has several advantages. It enables people to learn about the different aspects of a complex political topic. At the same time, they can contribute to the solution from the beginning, which is believed to lead to a higher satisfaction.

This should also diminish the chances that protest movements and extreme solutions will find good breeding grounds.

Even if the results of the deliberation process would not be binding for policymakers, the MOODs would give them ample guidance when drafting new laws.

It would also be possible to take regional, ethnic and religious differences into account, which could lead to culturally fitting law-making and easily show whether it makes more sense for a specific law to be adopted on a federal or on a regional level.

There could still be a majority vote at the end of a deliberation process. But at this point, the solution would already include a substantial amount of the ideas and wishes of the citizens and it is likely that we would not see extremely polarized situations anymore.

Regardless of whether a proposed new law engendered a 50:50 polarization of society, deliberation processes after the vote could substantially lower the dissatisfaction of the minority, especially again, when mixed with a high level of regional autonomy in the way the vote/law is being implemented.

Counterbalance misinformation

For citizens it is increasingly hard to judge which information can be trusted and why. Governments, companies and rich individuals today can buy armies of bloggers and social media experts to run profiles and chat bots, which then flood social media channels.

Most of today’s largest social media platforms have currently no means to moderate these discussions. We thus need to create new platforms allowing for an informed, balanced, conscientious, substantive and comprehensive deliberation processes.

To define Digital Democracy merely as democratic processes in a media-dominated and digitalized world falls short of what a reasonably advanced idea of Digital Democracy encompasses.

It certainly takes a substantial amount of work to build the required deliberation platforms and to upgrade democratic processes to be fit for the digital age. The task we must accomplish has technical, legal and motivational aspects.

Especially the question of how to engage enough people in the deliberation process will be crucial. One has to secure easy access to the platform and experiment with incentives and gamification to reach sufficiently broad participation.

However, these are no obstacles that could not be overcome. The potential benefits of a suitably refined (direct) democratic process clearly outweigh the costs of turning history back and neglecting us, The People.

Digital democracy – as we envision it – has the ultimate benefit that it supports society’s historical achievements: self-determination and freedom, the division of power and fairness, social inclusion and participation as well as diversity and resilience.

* Dirk Helbing is Professor of Computational Social Science at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences and affiliate of the Computer Science Department at ETH Zurich.


Stefan Klauser is a Political Scientist and FinTech Expert and leads the subject “Digital Society” in Professor Helbing’s Chair for Computational Social Science at ETH Zurich.

**First published in theglobalist.com

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