In the digital age, why is democracy so undemocratic?

Chance deemed that as Jon Barnes was writing his book on “a digital revolution that’s about to democratise democracy” the Western political landscape shifted in dramatic fashion. In the US, Bernie Sanders became the most prominent left-wing politician in an age; a woman, Hillary Clinton, seemed likely to become its first female President, and that position eventually went to a celebrity capitalist with no political hinterland. The UK voted to leave the EU while across Europe, the far right advanced and member states threatened to make their own exits from the Union.

Barnes sees this as evidence of his thesis that the democratic process is no longer fit for purpose and if we are to have governments that are representative of “the will of the people” we will need to take cues from the way digitisation has changed business and society. 

A Brit whose day job is helping organisations manage change, Barnes tells me he wrote this book as an extension of an article and an idea that wouldn’t let go. Democracy Squared is an act of special pleading and Barnes makes a compelling case for change in favour of a world where the people get to interact with government decisions and systems. His argument is amply illustrated by examples. These include the Australian entrepreneur Adam Jacoby’s blockchain approach to voting on policies and actions, Iceland’s constitution that was assembled by crowdsourcing, Taiwan’s platform for reform by bringing together popular opinion, and Estonia’s e-residency scheme.


Network effects

I spoke to Barnes about the book recently and he told me that he had asked himself a basic question: “How do we organise ourselves based on internet logic” rather than just hearing “the same old conversations repackaged” by the same political parties elected the blunt blunderbuss of elections.

Barnes, born as recently as 1987, is perhaps typical of his generation in that he has little patience with existing systems acting as platforms. He says that he wants to “redesign democracy from the bottom up”, adding that he is not interested in “an iteration based on the current system” or even politics as we understand it today, but instead wants to “reduce the need for politics” through application of social media approaches and what he calls “network logic”.

He says he is not “really keen” to share his own views on the world because to him this isn't about 'what' decisions are made but rather 'how' decisions are made. He also believes that the notion we are reverting to nationalism is untrue and lazy.  “As human beings we have nuanced opinions” and to say we are moving to nationalism could also be read as we are asking for change and have no outlet in a system that has eschewed digital developments such as machine learning, social sharing and blockchain. A or B isn't enough of an outlet in 21st century defined scientifically as chaotic. Even the modern meme of fake news is in fact nothing new at all, he says, as big media organisations have always sold ideologies.

Barnes does, however, appear to be fan of another much used phrase. “I don’t believe we live in a democracy because we don’t hear enough about the will of the people.” That will of the people has, however, surely become one of the most heard phrases on news debate programmes today in Barnes’ home country of Brexit Britain. And surely there has never been any time where access to information is so readily available, even if parsing that information and verifying it has become a knotty challenge.

But for Barnes “democracy is enacting the will of the people” and he bemoans the “discrepancy between what people want and what is being enacted”. On the other hand, many of us might fear that referenda have become sources of unwanted disruption rather than evolution as what have arguably been protest votes have led to massive upheaval. Is this the price of a more participative democracy?

But Barnes is surely right to insist that today we have a rough-and ready approach that lumps together many different points of view on tax, refugees, immigration, education, healthcare and a hundred other points of principle and opinion. Using modern digital tools will remove that “single point of failure” in our democratic process, he believes, providing granular decision making that is reflective of citizens.

Democracy Squared is an interesting and well-argued book and I would be surprised if it didn’t find many followers in a generation that looks at the revolution found in pretty well every other sphere and compares it with the stubby pencil, the ballot box and our often mediocre representatives and power brokers.


Also read:
Tech’s voice of dissent
Review: What an untrammelled AI world might bring
Upset by America but unbowed, Scott McNealy still rages
Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe still rings the changes


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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