Are digital technologies making politics impossible?

This essay was originally written as an entry for the Nine Dots Prize, hence the question. Inspired yesterday by the 54th anniversary of King’s Dream speech, I wanted to publish it because I believe it’s important that a positive view be stated. I worry that there is great danger in restricting our view solely to staring down at the dangers that face us — and I also feel that there is much out there to make us look up and be excited. I’d very much welcome any comments and feedback to improve the argument to the level where it might deserve a platform — if you can pull me up on anything you disagree with, should be evidenced more or better, and so on, I’d really appreciate it.

Following philosopher Marshall Mcluhan’s famous maxim “the medium is the message”, in this essay I will argue that the message of mainstream politics has been outgrown by digital media; but that if we can find the courage to bring the message up to date and not merely stare in horror at the dangers as they come upon us, we will come to see these dying patterns not as the last redoubts of stability at the edge of chaos, but as a set of temporary compromises forced upon us by a combination of our limited media and our equally limited understanding of ourselves. Digital technologies may indeed be making today’s staid and consumerist representative democracy impossible, but they also bring a new, more fulfilling and arguably more truly human politics within our grasp.

A glimpse of the possible

We all know about Trump, Putin, and ISIS. Not so many of us know about Taiwan.

As Audrey Tang tells it (here and here), the story begins in 2012. The Taiwanese government launched a communications campaign in support of their “Economic Power Up Plan”, telling their people that economics and governance are extremely complex matters, best left to the experts: the government. “Instead of wasting time talking about policies,” the television advertising campaign said, “let’s focus on doing the groundwork to improve the economy and just get things done!” In a state which spent most of the 20th century under authoritarian rule, gained freedom of the press only in 1988 and had its first presidential election in 1996, this was an appeal to still-current cultural norms expressed in adages such as “obedience is the foundation of responsibility.”

But times had changed. Tang, a programmer by profession and a passionate democrat, was not the only one outraged. Soon she found herself one of a group of programmers and developers brought together by their shared determination to respond, and respond constructively. They set out to “fork the government”, creating parallel (“forked”) websites to those of many government departments, making whatever information they could hack and scrape together accessible and visually engaging, and showing exactly how civic participation in public decision making could operate, were the government open to it.

The group called themselves “gov zero” after the replacement of “o” with “0” in their otherwise identical forked URLs (their site addresses all end in “”); to date they have had over 100,000 active contributors, and many of their number are now members of the government, including Tang, now Taiwan’s Digital Minister. From the early days outside the wall, building a citizen audit system which allowed anyone to grade and comment on every budget item from the Accounting and Statistics Office, to now running extensive participatory budgeting processes, a recent mass civic deliberation on how to respond to the arrival of Uber and other “sharing economy” businesses, and much more, Taiwan is thanks to the gov zero community at the forefront of a very different model of democracy. Indeed, theirs is now ranked the most open government in the world; and in 2016, amid all the political turmoil elsewhere, achieved a seamless transition of presidential power from incumbent to elect, with data from all ministries published openly online.

Taiwan is not the exception; it is or at least could be the leading edge of the new rule.

Take Portugal, where the world’s first national-scale participatory budgeting process is launching as I write; and Paris, where over 100m euros a year are now spent in this way. These processes are open to all citizens to nominate, support and campaign for specific projects, and participate actively and meaningfully in the process. Individuals make their own full allocation, with the aggregate ultimately adopted, and the government convening and facilitating the process. By understanding the compromises in your own allocation choices, people come to understand one another’s point of view, even across very different perspectives.

Take Calgary, Canada, where in 2010 Naheed Nenshi became North America’s first Muslim mayor on the back of a participatory digital campaign which was built as much around inspiring and enabling citizens to do simple things for the city with him as telling them what he would do for them. The grassroots campaign Nenshi started, “3 Things For Calgary”, has become an annual phenomenon across the city, and copycat campaigns — with Nenshi’s open blessing and encouragement — are taking root around the world. Indeed, the “3 Things for Canada” campaign is a major part of the nation’s 150th birthday celebrations this year.

Take Argentina, where a group of software developers accidentally created both the concept of liquid democracy, at the core of which an individual can choose either to vote herself or to delegate her vote on particular issues to those she trusts, and a political party, Partido de la Red, which is rooted in reframing elected representatives as facilitators of the debate among their constituents, not just spokespeople appointed every few years.

Take Reykjavik, where over half the citizenry has participated in an online participatory democracy platform since its founding in 2011; the small Andalucian town of Jun, whose citizens now govern themselves almost entirely through Twitter; Mexico City, which in 2016 began a mass project to crowdsource its constitution powered by the online petition platform… the list of examples could go on and on, and on.

A new (or perhaps very old) idea of the individual

If these examples represent the kind of politics that is possible in the digital era, it is not simply because they have digital in common as their medium. They also share something much more fundamental: an idea of human nature, and of the role of the individual in society, which stands in stark contrast to that which has sat at the core of representative democracy for the last 70 years. These processes of dynamic participation expect people to want to shape the societies of which they are part, and to come at the task with their own ideas and inspiration, and a moral orientation that seeks the best for that society as a whole. People are conceived of as both capable of and wanting to shape the context of their lives. It is this underlying idea of the individual that enables these initiatives to match democracy to the medium of digital.

The operation of mainstream British and American national governance stands in stark contrast. Such systems cast democracy in the mould of the market, with parties competing for votes, and as such cast the individual in the mould of the consumer. Day-to-day participation is limited to the provision of feedback, whether in the course of formal and mostly tokenistic consultation processes, or to our local and mostly powerless representatives; even on the rare occasions of a major vote, our role is limited to choosing the option which suits us best from a predefined list. These are telling projections of the idea of humanity that lies beneath: such processes are designed for people who are assumed to be both disinterested and incapable of meaningful participation. They expect people to express only their own narrow self interest, and to be capable only of choosing, not of shaping the choices. They are designed for consumers, not citizens.

This is a situation best understood as a compromise born of its time, and its media. These systems were shaped in the age of radio and television, increasingly widespread in their broadcast of information but fundamentally limited to that one-way mode: they provide for mass choice between channels but only for relatively few producers. Representative democracy was the system that matched the medium.

It is only now that this compromise has become outgrown; but outgrown it has become, and the new mismatch threatens disaster. The many-to-many nature of digital media could enable us to reinvent the forum of democracy, leaving behind the marketplace; but if and only if we can also reimagine ourselves as participatory citizens, not just consumers.

Possibility or pipedream?

The democratic innovations above may be built around this citizen conception, but while they are growing and proliferating, they are as yet far from established. Could they evolve to deliver a new normal, or is this just naive idealism? Recent developments in three academic disciplines come together to suggest they could.

First comes the renewed interest in ancient Greek or more specifically Athenian democracy, led by Cambridge Professor Paul Cartledge. In his recent Democracy: A Life, Cartledge casts new light both on the extent of civic participation in Athens, and on its resilience even in the crucible of the ancient Greek world. From him and the scholars following him, we gain an understanding from history that a genuinely participatory human society can exist and indeed has existed; and in the coming era of artificial intelligence, driverless cars and more, we might be prompted to reflect that digital technologies have the potential not only to provide the means for Athenian-style engagement on the scale of modern societies, but also to create the cognitive space for citizenship that in Athens required the labour of slaves, women and non-citizen dependents.

The study of animal behaviour then yields a new and deeply supportive insight into the story of evolution. It has become a commonplace that the most basic driver of evolution, and therefore human nature, is competition. As a former manager of mine put it, “we’re just nasty monkeys.” But the Dutch scientist Frans de Waal and his colleagues have now provided the perfect antidote to this way of thinking. Among many studies with which he has been involved is one published under the title Monkeys reject unequal pay. Two capuchin monkeys, able to see one another through the duration of the experiment, are offered unequal rewards for the same task; in almost all cases, the monkey given the ‘lower pay’ swiftly rejects it; in a significant proportion, the monkey given the ‘higher pay’ does the same. Even monkeys, it would seem, are not “just nasty monkeys”, and an array of other studies provide compelling evidence not only that collaboration, empathy and fairness — the core competencies of citizenship — are present in species as diverse as monkeys, elephants and fish, but that they represent key drivers of reproductive selection and hence of evolution.

The third insight comes from social psychology, a field that has drawn much attention in recent years following Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. Kahneman, a psychologist and therefore very much an upstart in the field of economics, used methods including unconscious priming to strike at the very heart of the most fundamental assumptions of classical economic theory: he showed that even unconscious exposure to a few words will influence our decision making, casting a huge shadow over the idea that human behaviour can be understood on the basis of rational self-interest. In a particularly relevant build on this core insight, in 2012 Northwestern University Professor Galen Bodenhausen led a series of studies which were published under the title Cuing Consumerism. In the most eye-catching, participants were set a simple scenario, then asked two questions: as one of four households dependent on a single well for your water supply, you are told that the well is beginning to run dry, then asked to rate first your willingness to use less water yourself, and second the extent to which you would trust the other three households to do the same. For half of the participants, this was the language of both scenario and question; but for the other half, the word ‘household’ was replaced with ‘consumer’. Levels of willingness to compromise, and of trust in others, were significantly lower among this second cohort: the effect of a single word. Similar studies suggest that exposure to normative statements such as “it is important to find brands that fit my personality”, or even to commercial environments, can trigger similar accentuation of self-interest and erosion of trust.

If Athens represents empirical evidence that societies can do participation; and the capuchins offer confirmation humans can be citizens; then the consumer priming studies offer a hypothesis as to why today we arguably are not. Despite our deeper nature, when we design language, processes and environments that encourage a narrow-minded, self-interested response, we are capable of conditioning ourselves to deliver exactly that. Seen in this light, mass expansion of dynamic participation seems more plausible, just as the political marketplace of Schumpeter et al comes to seem not just outdated, but a prophecy with dangerous potential for self-fulfilment, even a cause for the crisis we find ourselves in.

Embracing the possible

So what would it take to midwife the new politics out of this crisis of the old? If the starting point is a belief that humans are fundamentally participatory creatures who both want to and are capable of playing an active, creative role in shaping the context of our own lives, the answer cannot be a set prescription. The task instead is to create the conditions in which this bigger humanity can flourish. Three such conditions are needed: space, capacity and opportunity.

First, we need the space to be and think as more than just consumers. Arguably, all forms of public space are contracting today, whether physical or digital. The result is that we are surrounded almost constantly by what social psychologists would consider consumer primes. This situation must be reversed if we are to give ourselves cognitive, let alone physical or digital space to express our deeper humanity as citizens. Advertising serves a useful role in society, but we have too much of it: limits on advertising to children, or on outdoor advertising, are crucial. This agenda might also involve, for illustration, the compulsory mutualisation of Facebook, matching its de facto status as a primary public space with an ownership model that encourages it to fulfil the responsibilities that brings. These are ideas with momentum: a number of cities around the world have recently banned outdoor advertising; and the platform cooperativism movement has grown rapidly since its birth in New York in 2014.

The capacities we need are the skills and material circumstances for participation. This puts further weight behind two more existing movements: first, the push for a long overdue revolution in education systems, focused more on the ability to think creatively and ask questions of the world than routine tasks; and second, the campaign for universal basic income, an intervention which could not only radically simplify the welfare state, but in partnership with the next wave of digital technologies expand to underpin a conception of the human as a primarily political not just economic agent, just as the combination of slave labour and citizen’s wages did in ancient Athens.

Last but not least, we need to create opportunities for the meaningful exercise of these skills and aptitudes. Too many people are simply too distant from any meaningful expression of agency over their own context. Reversing this will require a decentralisation agenda far in excess of current incremental devolution, and far beyond the usual horizon of local power over local issues. In the digital era, there is no reason why one city should represent the administrative centre for an entire nation: departments of national government could and should form a network, dispersing proximity to power across the geography of a state. In Britain, where dissatisfaction at this distance was skilfully exploited by the “Take back control” call-to-arms of the Leave campaign. the concentration of wealth and power in London is particularly unsustainable; the refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster in 2020 represents a huge rebalancing opportunity that currently looks set to be missed. If we start from the basis that Britons want to be citizens not just consumers, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds should be competing not just for better links to London, but to become nodes of national governance in their own right.

We have been here before

At the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the rules that had sustained the structure of western societies were fraying at the seams just as they are today. If today we are consumers who might become citizens, a century ago the vast majority of us were perhaps better understood as subjects: if today we have choice between options and might claim the agency to shape those options, a century ago we merely did as we were told. If today we might step up from expressing narrow self interest to playing a dynamic part in decisions about the best for the whole, a century ago we could do no more than watch our betters make the decisions for us. But as levels of education rose, a Great War threw gentlemen into trenches with workers, and the new media first of daily newspapers then radio came online, this pattern could not hold.

Although then as now many argued otherwise, people were both equipped for greater agency and wanted it, and when the pieces began to land after the renewed disruption of World War II, the architects of the new story — from Beveridge to Keynes to Kuznets to Schumpeter — seized the moment. What was born was the society of the consumer, its structures based on the market. Public services would serve us; political parties would compete for our votes; and we would measure the success of our societies by their financial throughput. It may have taken until the 1980s for the seeds then planted to flourish fully, but the logic was established. Relative to the age of the subject, it was liberation indeed.

In light of the opportunities presented by our new media and ideas, these achievements must now be seen as compromises; but the scale and intensity of conscious redesign stand as the mark we must aspire to again today.

We must not wait for one world war, let alone need two, to prompt us to seize the moment.



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Jon Alexander

Jon Alexander


Co-Founder, New Citizenship Project and Author, CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us