Can the Internet contribute to improving political processes?
This question initially sounds “so 1990s” – perhaps one would have liked to ask it in the 1990s, when the Internet was still new. But that was the time when people tinkered in garages to become billionaires, and we didn’t have a lot of the experience we have now – including the experience that in real politics, quite independently of the Internet, certain things no longer work as stably and naturally as they did in the 1950s or even the 1990s.
So now is a good time to think again about the Internet and politics. I aim to do this in six steps.
Step 1: Politics is about counting – namely legitimate collective decisions. Power, decision-making, deliberation, social learning, implementation, execution and so on are also part of it. But the core of politics are decisions that are made collectively and ideally accepted by all. Options are weighed against each other by counting support for them based on conscious individual decision and individually responsible for them – usually based on the principle of equality between individuals, but not necessarily limited to it (one man, one vote vs. one share, one vote etc.) And counting is something that works well with the help of the Internet. Web-based surveys, download statistics, advertising rates based on access statistics, many counting processes use the net today. But for every count you need an input. So the support based on conscious individual decision has to get on the web.
Step 2: Support is always evaluation-based. In politics, therefore, different possible forms of a future reality must be weighed against each other and evaluated. And evaluation is something that works well with the help of the Internet. Hotels, restaurants, professors and public toilets are today evaluated with the help of the Internet, and many industries have changed a lot because of this. But these evaluations that we know are all based on direct experience. To evaluate something that can only be realized in the future is much more difficult. That is why grassroots democracy works so rarely: Not everyone can or wants to have a detailed opinion on every issue. There is a problem of the cognitive effort behind the evaluation of options.
Step 3: Cognitive costs can be reduced by trusted actors. In politics there are many actors in whom individuals more or less trust and from whom they more or less accept the assessment of options in individual decisions. These are individual politicians, parties, but also associations, interest groups, NGOs, citizens’ initiatives, lobbying organisations. And the expression of trust is something that works well with the help of the Internet. On Ebay, strangers achieve significantly lower prices as sellers of a good reputation, and even on Tripadvisor, hotel ratings look at those whom one can trust because they indicate similar interests. But trust in politics is much more multi-dimensional than hotel bookings: so it depends on the structure of trust relationships.
Step 4: Trust relationships form networks. Representative democracy is almost always based on a special structure: everyone places themselves in a group with one mark on the ballot paper for the next four years. And the assessment of options is then undertaken by a party, an organisation that represents this group in all matters. But in Europe, individualization processes dissolve these clear classifications, and outside Western Europe the cultural traditions on which they are based have hardly existed. Everyone has many different and, in individual cases, even contradictory relationships of trust with the aforementioned actors, from politicians to parties and NGOs to lobby organizations. These relationships form general networks. And mapping general network structures is something that works well with the help of the Internet. We see this on Facebook, LinkedIn and all the other social networks that store on large servers who is connected to whom in trust.
Step 5: Network-based collective decisions are possible. On the basis of the secure storage of individual trust relationships, political decisions can be made by dividing the one vote into many small flows of trust to actors, who in turn pass them on to options. This will by no means replace all of today’s political processes, but it is a more legitimate way of doing complicated, contested, confusing, supranational or, conversely, very small transactions that require more involvement of individuals. For if political actors and their option evaluations are integrated into the net and the trust relationships of individuals with them are stored, every voter receives a represented position for every decision, which can either be left as it is or changed, with less cognitive effort than if one starts from scratch. And storage is something that works well with the help of the Internet. With Dropbox and other cloud services, a lot of sensitive data has been stored for a long time now, and we do banking almost exclusively over the Internet.
Step 6: The connection between startup and social movement. Let’s go back to the beginning again: Why hasn’t this been thought already in the 1990s? On the one hand, because everyone expected representative democracy to continue to exist forever and overlooked the connection with group-based social structures. On the other hand, because on the organizational level everyone continued as before: computer scientists recruited venture capital to make themselves and their financial backers rich, social movements fought for individual causes without seeing how important appropriate institutions are – and constitutional lawyers had too little knowledge of computer science. The introduction of network-based collective decision-making needs a mixture of startup and social movement. And startup and social movement are both something that works well with the help of the Internet. You just have to connect them. Certain things have to be programmed. But even if the social gain from better and more accepted decisions is great, no one will get rich from them. After all, profit orientation would in turn be detrimental to the indispensable trust in the process. Every individual and every organization that joins a system of network-based collective decisions as a voter, trusted actor or developer is part of a social movement that, in times of globalization and individualization, will continue to enable trust in order to make democracy better and fit for these challenges.
[Update note, August 2020: In this short paper, dated from July 17, 2017, Civil democracy is still termed “network-based collective decision making”. The term “Civil democracy” got used from Spring 2018 onwards.]