saving democracy

Why do younger people generally think it is less essential to live in a democracy? Perhaps it’s because the times are changing. The first democracies (USA, France, and gradually the UK) emerged about 300 years after the invention of the printing press. A free press was a cornerstone of American democracy. All of these are representative democracies, electing people to go to a central location and represent a constituency. Maybe they are no longer suitable for a network era society.

For instance, in 2015 I was involved in a project to inform Canada’s Department of Justice — Identifying & Responding to Issues in Canada. One issue we identified was that trust in democracy was decreasing.

“Respondents also note a growing democratic deficit which has contributed to recent cynicism and societal distrust. This further challenges fundamental social-trust contracts. For instance, with the 2008 financial crisis, people lost trust, the psychology of the masses changed, traditional authority figures and institutions were challenged and there was a demise of authority. This is linked to a lack of support and credibility for existing models for resolution and decision-making. This is seen as contestation / dissatisfaction with local, national and international notions of community, the lack of public support for conflict resolution mechanism that do not allow for public input or develop avenues for community engagement and bridging mechanisms for social divisions.”

Source: How Stable are Democracies? New York Times 2016-11-29

Our institutions are failing us. They were designed for the age of print, not  an electrically connected one. We need new structures and the current wave of returns to tribalism manifested as populism will not save us. As the advent of the printing press helped usher in an age of inquiry, first in the Christian religion and later in the enlightenment and scientific revolutions, so do we have to create new organizational and governance structures for a global network era.

If print enabled democracy, will the emerging electric/digital medium destroy it?

” … just invent the printing press. Wait a couple of hundred years while literacy spreads, and presto! We can all talk to one another again, after a fashion, and the democratic revolutions begin.” —Gwynne Dyer

“The main handicap of authoritarian regimes in the 20th century—the desire to concentrate all information and power in one place—may become their decisive advantage in the 21st century.” —Yuval Noah Harari

With every part of the political spectrum feeding us fake news and the events in far-off countries having effects on our own borders, each citizen in a democracy has to become an informed sense-maker. Today, the world is liquid, with few hard borders to stop information. Therefore ensuring we have unfettered access to information, as citizens with inalienable rights, becomes paramount. Our reality is the world’s reality. We can criticize populism in Turkey but we are facing it in our country. The ‘West’ is not immune to any of the world’s problems.

This ‘liquidity’ is another indication of a quadriform  — Tribes (Oral) + Institutions (Written) + Markets (Print) + Networks (Electric) — society emerging. Historian Niall Ferguson noted that the word network appeared at the same time as electricity was developed. Our current non-networked institutions are inadequate organizational forms to deal with a liquid world. We need new network forms.

Our tribal leaders (religious, geographical, cultural), our institutions (political, religious, economic), and our markets (corporations, exchanges, trade deals) do not have the answers on how to live in a networked society. Only networked individuals, with positive intent, can determine how best to organize the next society. An aggressively engaged and educated citizenry can be an unstoppable force for change. But these citizens have to understand the new media landscape and how these new media are changing politics.

“A new form of information manipulation is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is political. It is global. And it is populist in nature. The news media is being played like a fiddle, while decentralized networks of people are leveraging the ever-evolving networked tools around them to hack the attention economy.” —dana boyd

One possibility for network era democracy is moving to a form of monitory democracy.

“From the perspective of this book, the emerging historical form of ‘monitory’ democracy is a ‘post-Westminster’ form of democracy in which power-monitoring and power-controlling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order. They penetrate the corridors of government and occupy the nooks and crannies of civil society, and in so doing they greatly complicate, and sometimes wrong-foot, the lives of politicians, parties, legislatures and governments. These extra-parliamentary power-monitoring institutions include — to mention at random just a few — public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens’ juries, citizens’ assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, experts’ reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, ‘blogging’ and other novel forms of media scrutiny.” —John Keane via David Ronfeldt

Perhaps the emergence of a noosphere will change our systems of governance. But this will require more civil-society agencies to step up. The noosphere may be the best place to save the essence of liberal democracies.

“The noosphere and noopolitik concepts relate to an organizational theme that has figured prominently in our work about the information revolution: the rise of network forms of organization that strengthen civil-society actors.” —Ronfeldt & Arquilla

Ensuring Democracy 2.0

1. First we have to understand ourselves. To make any progress collectively we must know our own selves first. For educators, religious leaders, and politicians, this should be the main effort for the next few decades. We need to work cooperatively, but first we have to know who each of us is. We have to be much better at sense-making. Enabling self-determination can provide the foundation for a new democracy.

Self-determination theory (SDT) is based on three innate human requirements: Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy.

Deci and Ryan [the researchers] claim that there are three essential elements of the theory:

1. Humans are inherently proactive with their potential and mastering their inner forces (such as drives and emotions)
2. Humans have an inherent tendency toward growth development and integrated functioning
3. Optimal development and actions are inherent in humans but they don’t happen automatically

2. We have to connect our humanity and knowledge. Edward O. Wilson, in  The Origins of Creativity, envisages a third enlightenment that will bring us closer to seeing humanity as one common group, with no concept of foreigners.

“Scientists and scholars in the humanities, working together, will, I believe serve as the leaders of a new philosophy, one that blends the best and most relevant from these two branches of learning.”

3. We have to ensure collective human oversight into all network and machine systems so they are not abused by powerful interests opposed to democracy. As computers take over much government work we cannot turn a blind eye to how they make decisions. Not only do we have to focus on human work, we have to keep a careful eye on what the machines are doing, why they are doing it, how they are making their decisions, and who is programming them.

Note: This post is a compilation of several written here over the course of 2018.


Claudio Nichele shared this sketch of the above post.

Image by @jihan65

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