All kinds of changes, many of them driven by technology, affect how we live, work, vote, interact, and get information.
Too often, the people working to strengthen democracy have been caught flat-footed by the pace of new trends and innovations. All kinds of changes, many of them driven by technology, affect how we live, work, vote, interact, and get information. It’s always been difficult to understand the implications of trends in the moment, but it’s even harder today because knowledge is so vast and specialized with experts on each trend often isolated from one another, without an overarching map for everyone to see.
Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement, and the Future of Politics is an attempt to anticipate how the next set of changes will affect democracy, map the intersections of different trends and inform how we should respond. It’s a sequel to the Infogagement report, published by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement in 2014 and re-released with a new introduction, foreword, and commentaries in 2018. The original Infogagement described trends that later erupted into controversies over “fake news,” voter disenchantment with politics, and Facebook’s abuse of user privacy.
Like Infogagement, Rewiring Democracy is based on the assumption that transformative moments often happen when trends come together—when the wires of innovation cross. Think, for example, of how the combination of personal computers, credit cards, and the internet transformed how we shop, leading in turn to dramatic changes in fields like journalism, as newspapers lost the revenue that classified ads used to bring. Well known, slowly progressing changes like the rise in literacy rates or in economic inequality might interact with new developments like blockchain or the rapidly-growing capacities of artificial intelligence (AI).
There are great challenges and potential catastrophes at these intersections, but there can also be great benefits. The intent of the paper is to begin identifying how these trends present significant dangers, as well as opportunities, for democracy.
Many of these dangers and opportunities have to do with the interplay between two major forces. One is the growth of what we call “subconscious technologies,” driven by the new capacity of AI to make decisions and predictions, most of which are unknown to most of us, based on the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data we now generate every day. The other is the increasing determination among citizens to make their actions and opinions matter in public life, an impulse we are calling “conscious engagement.” These two forces are rampant, and the ways in which they conflict with or complement one another may be critical to the future of politics and democracy.
To explore these forces, we relied on expert interviews, conceptual mapping, and a broad-based systemic analysis to gauge the force of different trends, understand their potential implications, and show how they connect and build on one another. The experts we spoke with include:
- Jaimie Boyd, Director of Open Government, Treasury Board Secretariat, Government of Canada
- Peter Eckart, Data Across Sectors for Health, Illinois Public Health Institute
- Allison Fine, author, Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age
- Nigel Jacob, Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, City of Boston
- David Lazer, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Computer and Information Science, Northeastern University
- Josh Lerner, Participatory Budgeting Project
- Peter Levine, Academic Dean and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University
- Abhi Nemani, Ethos Labs
- Darrell West, Vice President and Director, Governance Studies, Brookings
- Ethan Zuckerman, Director, Center for Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
We also hope that this paper serves as an antidote for what seems to be the prevailing sentiment about the fate of democracy: deepening frustration and even resignation that our political system is ineffective and unpopular, without serious attention to how that system could be changed.
Collectively, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about democracy, as if we were standing at the bedside of a slowly declining patient. We know frustration with American politics is higher than ever before. Trust in government and other public institutions has been ebbing for decades, and it has now reached unprecedented lows. Election after election, voters of both parties are attracted to “outsider” candidates who promise to “change the system.” The trends we describe in Rewiring Democracy bring with them tremendous implications, and they should prompt us to think more carefully about how people interact with institutions and with one another. They can help us decide how we might redesign democracy so that it fits the new expectations and capacities of citizens.