The Changing Face Of Democracy In The Digital Age

Two years ago in this column, I wrote about billionaire Russian entrepreneur Evgeny Kaspersky and his concerns about democracy in the age of the Digital Native.

To quote myself paraphrasing Kaspersky: “…[O]ne task that we really should be able to accomplish online is voting. But the security specifications for voting are significantly higher than those for Twitter, and if we can’t meet those specs -- and, as of now, we can’t -- there's not much point in allowing it to happen online. If you think elections can be bought now, just wait until they can be hacked; a vulnerable e-democracy is not far removed from no democracy at all. The alternative, that we stick with an analog voting system (or at least an in-person one), produces an equally volatile scenario: that ‘official’ elections engage only the dinosaurs, and that everyone born after the year 2000 unhooks from the framework. It’s not hard to imagine younger voters, in 10 or 20 years’ time, looking at you incredulously: ‘You want me to stand in line? And show physical identification? Are you serious?’”



At the time, I was writing about how insightful Kaspersky was. But today it seems that the political shift being engendered by Gen Y is more dramatic than he envisioned. Kaspersky was wondering how Digital Natives would want to use technology to engage with our existing political system. Turns out they’re actually looking for a whole new model.

Take, for example, Argentina’s Pia Mancini, who said in her TED talk this week, “We are 21st century citizens, doing our very very best to interact with 19th century-designed institutions, that are based on an information technology of the 15th century.” Mancini’s solution is DemocracyOS, the online platform she cofounded to elicit public comment, conversation and vote on political topics. Although it’s still in its early stages, the platform is already being used in places like Brazil and Tunisia.

Or take Loomio, an online tool created by a group of folks -- friends of mine -- here in New Zealand, for collaborative decision-making and democratic organizing. The founders were involved in the Occupy movement and, in their words, saw both “the empowering potential of grassroots collective decision-making when well facilitated, but also the limitations imposed by needing to be in the same place at the same time to participate.”

Loomio co-founder Ben Knight says the platform is now being used by thousands of grassroots community groups and social movements worldwide. He adds, “Most recently, the Podemos movement in Spain has picked it up as a community democracy platform on a huge scale. But it's also being used in less precarious, but just as exciting, situations, like neighborhood groups, schools, sports clubs, government departments and workplaces. Knowing that there are groups of 12-year-olds using Loomio to make decisions about how their school cafeteria runs is what keeps us going. “

The people working on these projects have opted against fighting the system in favor of creating a new one, following the same leapfrogging model that led to widespread adoption of cellular phones in Africa or solar energy in Rizhao, China.

Mancini said, “Our political system can be transformed, and not by subverting it, by destroying it, but by rewiring it with the tools that Internet affords us now. But a real challenge is to find, to design to create, to empower those connectors that are able to innovate, to transform noise and silence into signal and finally bring our democracies to the 21st century.”

These platforms certainly aren’t perfect. But they’re worth paying attention to. I don’t think Kaspersky had any idea of what a 21st century democracy would look like. But I don’t think it’ll be too long before we all find out.

Next story loading loading..