Democracy finds itself at a crossroads. Our formal, official democracy is still operating in much the same way as it has done for hundreds of years. For most of that time our society changed slowly, but that is no longer the case. In the last few decades, our world has changed so drastically and so quickly that there are no historical precedents. We live in unique times and therefore face unique challenges.
Our democracy has not kept up with recent changes and, although it should not adapt too drastically or too rapidly, we cannot allow it to continue to exist in the rigid form moulded by society 100 years ago. Voting every four years made sense in 1917, with transportation and communication being the way they were at the time. Today, however, this is not enough – as demonstrated by declining trust in democracy in many countries.
Of course, we must have continuity – we do not want a new government every week – but as citizens we should definitely have a formal and active means of taking part in the decisions and policymaking that influence and control our lives. A big part of the necessary changes will be online, as our democracy must reflect our reality in order to function properly.
In the last decade, a range of experiments with new forms of democracy has been carried out, many processes have been tested and a myriad of online software has been developed. Democracy is slowly being upgraded, mostly by grassroots civic hackers working on a local government level whose best results are obtained when successfully collaborating with official public authorities.
We do not lack good options for upgrading democracy – be they processes or software – but there is now a danger that that our democratic processes will be privatised. As the new field of electronic democracy has gained a foothold, commercial companies have realised that profits can be made from it. To be sure, the corporate world is a part of our society and it should have an influence on decisions and policies. Arguably, however, they already have too much influence. Corporations must not be allowed to control our democracy as they represent their shareholders, not citizens.
The power of social media
It is not only the Facebook filter bubble that is the problem – the issue is more serious than that. There are probably more people using Facebook than participating formally in democracy worldwide and a big majority of our political discussions take place there. Facebook’s secret algorithms control what each citizen sees of other people’s opinions and the same applies to Google’s search engine. Those who can pay Facebook or Google can reach a much bigger audience, but they mostly reach the people that agree with their worldview – to maximise our budgets we use adverts that work well and that a big percentage of viewers will click on. This is the real digital divide, a huge problem that has already split opinion the world over. The past decade has witnessed the birth of a new movement of civic hackers promoting bottom up democracy, designed and operated by the people. The key element of this movement is open source software, where democratic innovators make their designs and software open for anybody to use or modify according to their needs. Cities like Reykjavik, Madrid, Barcelona and many others have taken a firm stand through open source public democratic innovation.
Trust is a key factor in democracy; without trust it does not work. Auditable, open, public code and servers are a critical element in ensuring transparency and fairness, the basic requirements for trust. If our democracy is to be hosted on closed and secret e-voting platforms owned, operated and controlled by corporations like Microsoft, Google or Facebook, we are moving into a world of privatised democracy that will always have the interests of its owners at heart. As democracy moves online, we must make sure that we can trust both the software and the processes and that control is in the hands of the people and their elected representatives.