How Technology Can Restore Our Trust in Democracy

Our devices making us feel more disconnected than ever. What if we used them to make democracy work better?

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The travails of the Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State, and the upsurge of right-wing populism throughout the countries of West all demonstrate a rising frustration with the liberal democratic order in the years since the 2008 financial crisis. There is a growing intellectual consensus that the world is sailing into uncharted territory: a realm marked by authoritarianism, shallow populism, and extremism.

One way to overcome this global resentment is to use the best tools we have to build a more inclusive and direct democracy. Could new technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), data analytics, crowdsourcing, and Blockchain help to restore meaningful dialogue and win back people’s hearts and minds?

Underpinning our unsettling current environment is an irony: Thanks to modern communication technology, the world is more connected than ever — but average people feel more disconnected. In the United States, polls show that trust in government is at a 50-year low. Frustrated Trump supporters and the Britons who voted for Brexit both have a sense of having “lost out” as the global elite consolidates its power and becomes less responsive to the rest of society. This is not an irrational belief: Branko Milanovic, a leading inequality scholar, has found that people in the lower and middle parts of rich countries’ income distributions have been the losers of the last 15 years of globalization.

The same 15 years have also brought astounding advances in technology, from the rise of the Internet to the growing ubiquity of smartphones. And Western society has, to some extent, struggled to find its bearings amid this transition. Militant groups seduce young people through social media. The Internet enables consumers to choose only the news that matches their preconceived beliefs, offering a bottomless well of partisan fury and conspiracy theories. Cable news airing 24/7 keeps viewers in a state of agitation. In short, communication technologies that are meant to bring us together end up dividing us instead (and not least because our politicians have chosen to game these tools for their own advantage).

It is time to make technology part of the solution. More urgently than ever, leaders, innovators, and activists need to open up the political marketplace to allow technology to realize its potential for enabling direct citizen participation. This is an ideal way to restore trust in the democratic process.

As the London School of Economics’ Mary Kaldor put it recently: “The task of global governance has to be reconceptualized to make it possible for citizens to influence the decisions that affect their lives — to reclaim substantive democracy.” One notable exception to the technological disconnect has been fundraising, as candidates have tapped into the Internet to enable millions of average voters to donate small sums. With the right vision, however, technological innovation in politics could go well beyond asking people for money.

Instead, it could be harnessed to enable citizens to participate in the political process more directly. Just as “fintech” has made lending and investing more accessible to a wider number of ordinary people, and “edtech” has allowed millions to study for online degrees, why can’t “votetech” make our democracy more, well, democratic?

Current authentication technologies, along with the growing usage of smartphones and tablets, could revolutionize the act of voting well beyond simply choosing candidates every two to four years. A DC-based start-up, InnoVote, building a product to let people vote much more safely and conveniently. The key is Blockchain, a distributed database technology originally developed for financial transactions, that securely authenticates the identity of the person making the transaction. If the company succeeds, and if officials adopt the system, this could offer people a convenient and secure way to vote.

Experts note that Blockchain is much more secure than any paper-based system could be. Of course, it is also more convenient. Through the use of such a system, voters could register their opinions from their own homes on any bill before a legislature. Too busy to vote in real time? Current technologies enable you to configure your political preferences in advance and have the system vote for you automatically using data analytics. In such a system, lawmakers would be more like conduits for information, not proxies for their constituents who sometimes seem more beholden to donors.

Truth is a populist demagogue’s worst enemy. Authoritarian leaders have one thing in common: They all lie. As things stand now, they are abetted in this by current technology and media fragmentation. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In the not-too-distant future, augmented reality systems combined with wearable devices will allow citizens to listen to political speeches or read op-eds with live fact-checking seemingly right in front of their faces. Or imagine a virtual town hall meeting to discuss some law or regulation that may impact you, which — thanks to virtual reality — you can attend even if you are hundreds of miles away. Compared to existing techniques, such as livestreaming, AR and VR can provide added convenience and efficiency, enabling millions to participate in real time from wherever they are, not just in front of their computers. As wearable technologies become more common, these technologies will provide limitless opportunities for citizens to engage more fully in political decision-making.

There are challenges. The first is one of access to these digital tools, which remains uneven even in well-off countries, where residents of rural or low-income communities are much less likely to have broadband internet or updated devices. Second, skeptics might suggest that a system of popular voting on all legislation would lead to what the American founding fathers called “the tyranny of the majority.” The role of politicians and courts would be key here — as mediators, educators, and guardians of human rights. And finally, to make real-time fact-checking credible, the mainstream media would need to finally let go of antiquated notions of “impartiality” and continue moving toward a model where, particularly in political reporting, assertions are not automatically treated as valid so long as “the other side of the story” is also told. Sometimes, only one side has the facts right.

The global establishment needs to be willing to get out of the way and allow these innovations to happen. That, indeed, is perhaps the biggest challenge of all. At the local level, at the very least, direct democracy does and can work. Just ask any small-town resident of New England on Town Meeting Day each March. And technology can enable this level of participation on a wider scale. We should also remember that the establishment is itself shifting to encompass a younger, more tech-savvy cohort — whose energy can be turned toward a great democratic project.

While technology is the key tool this project needs, political will is still the most important driver of change. Elites must be willing to let ordinary people have more of a say. Otherwise technology will lead to resentment and isolation rather than a sense of fairness and justice. Could it be too late for liberal democracy? Yes — if the global elite refuses, as the old Apple ads put it, to “think different.”

Photo credit: JASON KEMPIN/Getty Images for Samsung

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