THR Blog   /   November 12, 2020

Digital Democracy’s Road Ahead

Looking abroad provides some relief from the doomsday projections with which we began.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( WikiConvention in Paris, August 2016. Ziko van Dijk via Wikimedia Commons.)

Last year, the Pew Research Center, in conjunction with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, canvassed nearly one thousand knowledgeable sources—technology executives, journalists, academics, and others— for predictions about how digital technology would affect democracy in the next decade. The results make for dreary reading: Nearly half of the respondents said  that digital technology would “mostly weaken aspects of democracy and democratic representation” by 2030.

In a remarkably short time, digital technology has gone from being democracy’s handmaiden to its scourge. Such a dramatic turnaround should give us pause. To imagine the future in which digital technology complements democracy requires that we recall what the digital revolution seemed to promise. We should acknowledge its victories and learn from its mistakes. In this, the first of a series of blog posts, Wheaton College’s Richard Gibson looks into the history of the promise and disappointment of  digital democracy—and suggests how we might get back on a healthier course. You can read previous installments here.

In the last decade of the twentieth century, as we’ve seen, Howard Rheingold and William J. Mitchell imagined the Web as an “electronic agora” where netizens would roam freely, mixing business, pleasure, and politics. Al Gore envisioned it as an “information superhighway” system for which any computer could offer an onramp. Our current condition, by contrast, has been likened to shuffling between “walled gardens,” each platform—be it Facebook, Apple, Amazon, or Google—being its own tightly controlled ecosystem. Yet even this metaphor is perhaps too benign. As the cultural critic Alan Jacobs has observed, “they are not gardens; they are walled industrial sites, within which users, for no financial compensation, produce data which the owners of the factories sift and then sell.”

Harvard Business School professor Shoshanna Zuboff has dubbed the business model underlying these factories “surveillance capitalism.” Surveillance capitalism works by collecting information about you (your Internet activity, call history, app usage, your voice, your location, even your fitness level), which creates profiles of what you like, where you go, who you know, and who you are. That shadowy portrait makes a powerful tool for predicting what kinds of products and services you might like to purchase, and other companies are happy to pay for such finely-tuned targeted advertising. (Facebook alone generated $69 billion in ad revenue last year.)

The information-gathering can’t ever stop, however; the business model depends on a steady supply of new user data to inform the next round of predictions. This “extraction imperative,” as Zuboff calls it, is inherently monopolistic, rival companies being both a threat that must be eliminated and a potential gold mine from which more user data can be extracted (see Facebook’s acquisitions of competitors Whatsapp and Instagram). Equally worryingly, the big tech companies have begun moving into other sectors of the economy, as seen, for example, in Google’s quiet entry last year into the medical records business (unbeknownst to the patients and physicians whose data was mined).

There is growing consensus among legal scholars and social scientists that these practices are hazardous to democracy. Commentators worry over the consequences of putting so much wealth in so few hands so quickly (Zuboff calls it a “new Gilded Age”). They note the number of tech executives who’ve gone on to high-ranking government posts and vice versa. They point to the fact that—contrary to Mark Zuckerberg’s 2010 declaration that privacy is no longer a “social norm”—users are indeed worried about privacy. Scholars note, furthermore, that these platforms are not a genuine reflection of public opinion, though they are often treated as such. Social media can operate as echo chambers, only showing you what people like you read, think, do. Paradoxically, they can also become pressure cookers. As is now widely documented, many algorithms reward—and thereby amplify—the most divisive and thus most attention-grabbing content. Keeping us dialed in—whether for the next round of affirmation or outrage—is essential to their success.

Rheingold hoped that the Internet would disrupt the monopoly that the big TV networks had on American attention. That forecast has proven correct, but there is no reason to celebrate: One cohort of media giants has replaced another. Once again, we face a media landscape in which “a few people control communications technology that can be used to manipulate the beliefs of billions.”

How can we resist? At a national level, the answer is obvious. The tech companies must be regulated. Their monopolistic practices must be disrupted. Fresh incursions into our privacy must be prevented.

Sweeping legislative changes, however, aren’t going to happen overnight. In the short term, we must consider our own conduct, for we are all to a degree responsible for the success of these antidemocratic “walled factories.” Our time is their money. It would be foolish, I know, to suggest an immediate and systematic boycott of the Big Five (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft). Recent articles have shown that this is virtually impossible, given how pervasive their products and services have become.

Rather, now’s the time to reconsider your reliance on social media. Now’s the time to switch from Google’s Chrome to the open-source browser Firefox, which values your privacy. Now’s the time to look beyond Apple, Google, and Facebook for a daily news round up. Jacobs proposes an even bolder experiment: How about poking around outside the walled gardens to see what grows out there? How about building an open garden of your own?

This point is worth dwelling on further. The “walls”—whether surrounding gardens or factories—metaphor is an unfortunately accurate characterization of the Internet as it begins to fragment along national or regional lines. The most notorious offender, of course, is China, with its “Great Firewall” that blocks citizens’ access to numerous sites and services, including Wikipedia, Facebook, and much of Google. That effort has inspired copycats in other authoritarian countries such as Russia and Iran. But just as stifling are government-coordinated Internet shutdowns, which happen with astonishing frequency around the world, including in democratic countries. It is reported that 95 such shutdowns occurred in India alone last year. Even some Europeans are now asserting their “digital sovereignty” (a term borrowed from the Chinese) and hatching plans for the construction of their own Internet, a move partly motivated by the monopolistic actions of American tech companies discussed above.

For many of the visionaries, the Internet’s democratic potential wasn’t limited to a specific country. For Gore, for example, building the Internet presented an occasion on which a “democratic effort” among participating nations was required and from which democracy could spread. That vision of collaboration is worth preserving. As Akash Kapur argued last year in a Wall Street Journal piece on digital nationalism, the dominance of the tech giants “was not the original dream” for the Internet. He counsels that we “restore a sense of inclusiveness and fair play, flatten some of the sharpest inequalities and rediscover and stress the principles that made the network so inspiring (and radically creative) in the first place.” In other words, resisting information monopolies may be good for digital democracy as a global enterprise. Kapur further notes that now is a time when democratic nations need to be banding together (not having Twitter spats) in order to ensure persistence of at least a “zone” of the Internet governed by “liberal principles like free trade, privacy and freedom of expression.”

In these blog posts, I have offered a brief history of the hopes for the union of democracy and digital technology in the United States. Here is an alternative timeline. In the nineties, every public school gets a fresh battery of computers, and the first experiments in online government (via computer terminals installed in the session hall) take place. In 2000, the government declares Internet access a human right, which is promoted by making Wi-Fi freely available to nearly the entire populace within two years. In the following decade, numerous other services go online, including e-voting, e-public safety, e-health, and e-land programs. Armed with an ID card and a PIN, one can—at this very moment—call up medical records, submit taxes, summon an ambulance, sit in on a cabinet meeting, and vote in the local election. This is not science fiction. This is life in “E-Estonia,” the Baltic nation’s now decades-old initiative to build a digital society.

The dour forecasts with which this series began largely overlooked what’s been happening in other countries. One suspects that had Estonians been polled, the results might have looked different. As they might, moreover, had the survey included more participants from Taiwan, where platforms called vTaiwan and Join have had some early successes drawing citizens into the formation of policy. These experiments are being supported by a growing market of citizen-facing “civic tech” and “public interest tech,” which supports activities like participatory budgeting, policy debate, and collaboration between government and citizen groups. As Stephen Boucher, the founder of the Brussels-based “think-and-do tank” Dreamocracy, has argued, “We are in an era of Democracy R & D.”

Looking abroad thus provides some relief from the doomsday projections with which we began; it offers yet another reminder that the relationship between digital technology and democracy is still evolving. There are, moreover, already lessons to be gleaned from other countries’ experiments. vTaiwan—whose architects are in Seattle—is an intriguing interface. It discourages trolling by including no direct reply option. Users must post their own comments, which can then be up- or downvoted by other users. Gradually, the software produces a map of votes, which provides guidance for subsequent comments. At the same time, an initiative like E-Estonia demonstrates that simply creating a killer app isn’t enough. Digital democracy looks instead like a long-term project that requires building and maintaining infrastructure. Citizens can’t be just be given an ID card: They must receive training in how to use the new systems.

Across the decades, the Internet has demonstrated with ever greater clarity that digital technology cannot be all-sufficient for a democratic society. Perhaps no lesson of our brief history is clearer. In the new edition of The Whale and the Reactor released earlier this year, Langdon Winner took up this issue yet again, this time in response to calls by tech humanists (as in, technologists worried about how our current technological order erodes privacy, attention, and relationships) for “humanely designed” products and “humane business models.” Winner responds: “A more useful step would be to seek forms of politically humane technology by exploring ways to build links between Internet communications and forums for face-to-face citizen debate, cooperation, and policy making.” Such in-person encounters make us accountable for our words in ways that social media does not. They make us face rival views. They promote negotiation rather than drive-by trolling.

Notice, though, that this isn’t an all-or-nothing scenario. Winner calls for stronger links between digital meeting places and physical ones that enable face-to-face discussion and, ultimately, communal action. This summer’s events have provided examples of just that synthesis. A video of police officer Derek Chauvin suffocating George Floyd was captured on a smartphone by a concerned onlooker. It quickly circulated on the Internet. Within days, the first protests were organized over social media, with numerous others occurring in subsequent days and weeks around the country and then around the world. The background of the pandemic only magnifies protestors’ embodied argument that these matters cannot be hashed out with hashtags alone.

I have argued that the project of digital democracy can be salvaged if concerned citizens are willing to intervene—to enhance education, to curtail information monopolies (beginning by altering own Internet habits), to follow the lead of successful experiments happening elsewhere, to build and to participate in well-designed platforms for budgeting and policy-making, to keep the Internet free. Reviewing the history of visions for digital democracy, however, should keep us humble about these efforts. Above all, the future of digital democracy depends on recognizing digital technology’s limits. The foremost lesson of the last sixty years is that democracy cannot be conducted by keyboards alone. You still have to show up.