Using new tools to solve the challenges that we face today
When The Economist asked me to contribute an article on how technology can help save democracy, I jumped at the chance. Tech and politics have been my twin passions for most of my life, although I was rarely able to indulge them since they were relegated by my overriding concern: chess.
But once I retired from professional chess in 2005, I was able to treat them as more than hobbies, aided by many expert friends who were kind enough to bring me into their worlds. From artificial intelligence to media and news, to polling and elections, I’ve had hundreds of conversations about using new tools—or making new ones—to solve the challenges we face today. The trick is that many of these challenges are the result of the same new technologies we’re hoping will save us!
You’re probably familiar with Moore’s Law, the observation by legendary technologist and cofounder of Intel Gordon Moore, that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles roughly every two years. The popularly understood practical consequence is simple enough, that computers double in speed every two years. Moore’s estimation turned out to be quite accurate, becoming a “law” that has held since 1975.
The power of having such a stable improvement curve is tremendous, allowing for strategic planning across the countless industries that depend on computing power and computer prices.
The impact of this frequent doubling on other aspects of our lives has been far less predictable. The evolution of human society is terribly slow in comparison, although it, too, is accelerating. We are struggling to keep up with digital speed, advances that can happen in the blink of an eye, the execution of a piece of code that affects billions of lives across the globe, unimpeded by geographic and national borders.
In contrast, our political systems are built into sprawling bureaucracies that follow Parkinson’s Law far more than Moore’s. Instead of adding more, smaller transistors to a chip that gets faster and cheaper, bureaucracies expand constantly and yet get slower and more expensive. Functionaries tend to create work for each other, and work expands to fill the time available.
Simply adding digital tech to a few government processes like document publishing and budget tracking has not solved this fundamental problem. Nor would speed ever resolve the core issue of a lack of government responsiveness because our democratic systems are based on elections that only take place every few years. You can’t ask people to hold their tongues for that long — not when the immediate gratification of Twitter and Facebook are in their pockets 24/7.
Communication could fairly be called instantaneous since the advent of the telephone, and ubiquitous with the proliferation of the internet thirty years ago. Unlike earlier electronic mass media — radio and television — the internet is a two-way channel. Instead of being merely a receiver, it was also a microphone — and then it became a megaphone.
The shift wasn’t truly meaningful until something appeared that could tie the millions of megaphones together: social media. I distinguish social media from the original and superior form, the social network, which connected individuals with each other. In just a few years, more people got their news, or, considering how distorted much of it is, their “news” from quick scrolls through Facebook.
This isn’t to say that fake news doesn’t also proliferate on cable TV and talk radio, it obviously does, but the feedback loop of social media polarizes like nothing else. Your friends and family are there; it feels personal because it is. It also encourages and rewards individual participation in a way television, radio, and regular websites cannot. Conspiracy theories proliferate best when people feel like they are part of it, not merely observing.
The ability of everyone to share their opinion about every burning national issue highlights partisan divides, forcing everyone to take a side publicly. When it comes to local and personal issues — schools, crime, healthcare — many studies show that there is far greater willingness to compromise to find solutions. This is the “skin the game” theory in practice. Many of us have strong opinions about nearly every national or international issue, but have to admit they don’t directly affect us very much. This doesn’t mean they aren’t important, or that we shouldn’t be active on these big issues. It shows that local issues are a good place to build consensus and community, and to break through the partisan bubbles to share our humanity. The goal is to then transfer that empathy and problem-solving mindset to those big issues as well.
As I’ve often written about here at Avast, threats and weapons usually arrive early in the lifecycle of a new technology. Destruction and exploitation are easier than the layers of evolving standards and security that take a long time to develop — and that are never truly finished. It shouldn’t surprise us that social media was weaponized much the way email was, or that it’s hard to find a balance between the public good and private companies needing to make a profit.
Patching up our old institutions is necessary but insufficient. Unless we launch ambitious new plans to modernize our political systems to deal with the technology-fed demand for immediacy and responsiveness, this vicious cycle of extremism and collapse will continue.
We must emulate the good aspects of social media, with its instant and granular ability to identify and respond to what people are thinking, what they care about, and what they need. We must emphasize local issues to encourage compromises that produce results. We must move beyond the obsolete parties that represent so many things that they barely represent anyone.
Understanding and incorporating new technology into any system or society is a never-ending process of trial and error. There are countless flaws and weaknesses to exploit, and no shortage of people eager to exploit them. That the dangers of new tech are often more readily apparent than the benefits can make us risk-averse, especially when the subject is as important as education, say, or politics.
The exact opposite is true. As I implored in my Economist article, these things are too important not to change, not to take risks when they are failing us so badly. Our caution has allowed our needs to far outstrip our capabilities, leaving our remarkable new tech and its benefits unevenly distributed, leading to dangerous imbalances.
I’m not pretending to have the cure, only a diagnosis, which is the first step. There is no magic wand, technological or not. But we have to start trying not just something, but everything, in order to find ways to bring the people safely back into the public tent instead of throwing bricks at it from outside the tent.
Getting back to our high-tech metaphor, we need upgrades. They won’t be as fast or predictable as computer hardware, but that’s all right. The good news is that we don’t need much hardware to improve our democratic responsiveness; what we need is better software. That is, the processes we use to translate the will of the people into government action. The infrastructure already exists, including the fast chips, broadband, smartphones, and social media platforms that we all use regularly.
(With the caveat that we do not want to increase the “digital divide,” but to bridge it. If the tools required to make these advances don’t exist for your citizens, that must be addressed. The government builds roads, not cars, and providing the technological infrastructure for everyone to participate in a healthy democracy is at least as important as driving!)
I gave some more specific suggestions in my Economist piece. The clearest example of the principles I’m talking about is advisory voting, a public online platform where people can express their interests and opinions. And by “public,” I don’t mean just that it's open to the public, but that it’s at least partly funded with public money and run not-for-profit. IDs are unique and there’s no trolling or spamming or hijacking. If you wonder why such things haven’t been built before, there are two answers. One, they have, although limited in scope and scale. Two, since they aren’t profitable by design, there’s no appetite for big companies or startups to create such a thing, even though they wouldn’t really be a competitor.
Using such a digital public square isn’t only for real-time polling. After more development and after trust in the system increases, it can be expanded to local voting, and on up. There are also mixed version, where instead of going directly to voting for candidates, you choose elements of a platform issue by issue, which can then be endorsed by candidates instead of parties simply applying the same broad platform to everyone.
The Russian opposition tried out some simple versions of online issue voting eight years ago because the authorities denied us the ability to hold real conventions or elections. Voters could add items to the platform by majority, and select their candidates based on issue alignment instead of party alignment. Upgraded versions of these tools could be used to light a fire under the stagnant parties in democracies like the United Kingdom and the United States. Instead of being bombarded by opinions on social media from the outside, the system can absorb and represent them in a measured way, and politicians can respond to them — or not. The public sphere can regain some of the authority it has abdicated to Silicon Valley tech companies and remove the thumb of the social media giants from the scales of the public good.
The good news is that the digital natives have come of age. Kids born in the 80s and 90s are no longer kids, they’re increasingly running the show and we should encourage this transition. Elders who may have once feared technology are embracing it more than ever as the essential services and conveniences accumulate. From ordering food and shopping online to Facetiming kids and grandkids, to using digital assistants and calling an Uber, the tide has become a flood, partly due to a pandemic that has accelerated many digital behaviors.
Security will be paramount. All of the common activities I listed still have major security and privacy concerns, if not enough to scare people away from using them. Our democracy is more important than a credit card, so we must treat it with care. Public-private cooperation will be essential because the top security professionals are in the private sector and we don’t need or want the government to build something from scratch anyway. Good verification systems aren’t enough; people have to believe in them. This requires not just security, but transparency and a degree of faith in the public sector that has been declining for decades.
With the American president spreading false information about election integrity, it might seem like a bad time to ask for a leap of faith into digital politics. But I contend that it makes it more important than ever to build clean, transparent systems. Everyone deserves to have their voice heard, but trusting our elections, the most basic building block of democracy, should never be a matter of opinion.
Real war has come again to remind us that cyberwar, for all its terrors, is not yet on par with the damage done to flesh and family by bombs and bullets.
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