Democracy is broken. A civic hacker revolution could fix it

That the internet has transformed politics, there is already no doubt. But now a second political revolution is happening. It is driven by people who want to reach into the basic sinews of democracy to change how it works. They question not how to use technology to win elections, but whether we need elections at all.

In 2020, this new breed of politician will give us the chance to change democracy. These “digital democrats” will point out that the internet now lets government listen to millions of citizens, constantly and all at once. And they will suggest weaving democracy and technology together to look beyond elections and representatives.

This kind of thinking has been seeping into mainstream politics for a while now. One of the earliest examples was in Iceland, where an open-source online platform called Your Priorities was launched in 2008. Its goal was to translate citizens’ anxieties and concerns into a governmental agenda using the ability of the internet to crowd-source ideas and proposals. In 2012, Estonia launched the Rahvakogu (“People’s Assembly”) to crowdsource and deliberate on proposals to change the law. And at various levels of government, digital-democratic experiments have been tried in in Italy, France, Brazil, Spain and the UK. But nowhere has been more important than Taiwan.

From 2016, Taiwan’s civic-hacker community began to develop an intricate, carefully designed process that uses a combination of online and offline debate to find consensus among engaged citizens on specific issues of law and regulation. At its heart is an online platform called pol.is. Unlike many social networks, the comments that the platform makes most visible are the ones with most consensus. The platform has already informed more than 20 pieces of regulation.

One of its main architects is Audrey Tang. A lifelong technologist and a member of Taiwan’s civic hacker community, Tang is now the Taiwanese government’s digital minister, and she has used her position to move digital democracy closer to power than perhaps anywhere else.

“Democracy will become more and more obsolete in peoples’ minds if it doesn’t catch up to the same radical transparency and participation enabled by the internet,” she says. “If democratic institutions do not hold ourselves accountable to [these expectations], we risk being rendered irrelevant.”

Almost everywhere that digital democracy has taken hold, it began with anger with the status quo. In Estonia, it was a political donations scandal; in Iceland, the 2008 banking collapse that led to a huge financial and political crisis; in Taiwan, it was an occupation of the legislative chamber in opposition to a trade bill.

In 2020 we will see similar anger in many democratic countries. Representatives will feel remote. Government will feel deaf to its citizens. A dangerous anti-political mix of apathy, cynicism, and dysfunction will be the dominant mood. And this will lead to serious alternatives to representative democracy being proposed in serious ways. The digital democrats will push their agenda in front of all of us: to change not just what government should do, but what government should actually be.

Carl Miller is research director for the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, at the thinktank Demos

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