We are in deep need of digital democracy. But it's not about digitising democracy, but democratising digital.
The digital is political. This is probably anathema to the diehard digerati. They don’t want to acknowledge that the digital sphere increasingly defines, controls and governs the analogue world. But there is no real democracy in the digital sphere. Big Tech creates the rules others have to follow, with little or no democratic checks and balances. For quite a while, it has been a standard line of defence to say that existing law applies to digital as well.
While that’s undeniably true, it leaves us with a lot of questions, for example: which law? The EU already has a track record of legal and political fights with the tech behemoths of the Valley. There are, of course, countless other initiatives, acts of regulation and civic responsibility, to name a few. But all these are attempts to control and govern the digital sphere, while in fact it’s often the other way around. We need a new set of rules for this. As Jamie Susskind puts it:
to what extent should our lives be directed and controlled by powerful digital systems—and on what terms?
To the dismay of my fellow blogger Adam, I keep coming back to a great drama of our days, called Brexit. Contrary to a widely held opinion, I actually think that the House of Commons is a fine example of a democratic institution working just as intended. In fact, it does a tremendous job of checking and balancing the government. Both the governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson have, so far, failed to secure a majority in the house for the deals they negotiated with the EU. And that’s fine, since Brexit is such an important and far-reaching endeavour that it should require a broad consensus to move forward.
The public can only exist in singular
However, broad consensus is in short supply where the general public is divided into the Parallelwelten of micro- and nano-publics, each neatly sitting in their own filter bubble. While the parliament does its job, it is under massive pressure through our newfangled digital publics. From the very beginning, the Brexit campaign was a digital creation. Brexiteers masterly played the digital fiddle, the emotions and dynamics of the Twitterati working well in their favour. The digital platforms have put the well-known mechanisms of the tabloid press on steroids.
The public can only exist in singular. It’s a great achievement of democracy to create a single public sphere, where everything concerning the people as a whole can be debated and decided through democratic institutions. After several decades, the EU still lacks a single European public, for a lack of common language. That’s a major weakness of the European project. And there is no single digital public for the digital sphere as well, albeit for different reasons.
Through the ginormous influence of the Valley, the digital sphere is pretty much an American project. But with China and Russia, other world powers already weighed in. Russia even goes so far as to turn the digital weapon against their creators, with their troll agency set up to manipulate US elections. We are right in the middle of a power struggle. But that’s only a meek foreshadow of future battles.
It’s not about digitising democracy, but democratising digital
We are in deep need of digital democracy, with a single digital public sphere and digital democratic institutions. The internet is still stuck in the early, chaotic stage of a new medium. Those often come with political consequences. The printing press was a disruptive technology, helping to bring down a centuries-old world order. The radio was important for the rise of early 20th century dictatorships. Television massively changed election campaigning.
The internet and digital technology have far broader consequences and might well turn out to be disruptive for democracy and modern societies. No one is obliged to like the democratic process or its outcomes. But at least it’s a proven way to produce generally binding decisions. That’s better than having these decisions made by engineers and written in code, without public scrutiny or even a remote chance of influence.
Thus, engineers would comprise a new feudalist elite, a closed shop to rule the world on their terms. This digital feudalism may well last for a while. It is already deeply rooted in Silicon Valley groupthink. However, in the long run I’d expect digital feudalism to show the same signs of weakness that led to the demise of feudal societies over half a millennium.
To be clear: it’s not about digitising democracy, but democratising digital.