Can Technology Save Democracy?

Adele Peters in Fast Company: “On March 11, in a state parliament election in West Australia, 24 candidates made only one campaign promise: If they won, they promised to vote on every bill according to the wishes of their constituents, as determined via an app called Flux. (While the votes are still being tallied, it looks unlikely that any will win.)

Flux’s app is one of a handful of new platforms that aim to use technology to let people participate directly in politics, at scale. All are premised on the fact that–around the world–representative democracy isn’t working well. But technology could potentially help end corruption and lobbying, allow people to delegate votes to trusted friends rather than politicians, and empower experts in a field to meaningfully impact policy.

Does Democracy Work?

In 2015, shortly after Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, polls found that only 19% of Americans trusted the government “always” or “most of the time.” (The survey has not been repeated, but presumably, the numbers have not improved.) Only 11% approved of Congress.

Those numbers are historic lows; in 1958, when a poll first asked the question, 73% of Americans said that they could trust the government most of the time. The results can be partisan–people are less likely to trust the government when the opposing party is in power, and Republicans are less likely to trust government, in general, than Democrats. But the overall message is clear. Most people don’t think democracy is working in its current form….

The problems may stem from our form of government. “The problem, fundamentally, is representative democracy,” says Nathan Spataro, cofounder of both the Flux political party in Australia and XO.1, the startup making the software that powers the Flux app. “It is not that your politicians are corrupt, it’s that the politicians are corrupt because of the system. You don’t have to look far to watch how politicians start their career, and how then the system fundamentally changes them by the time they get to the end of it.”

Liquid Democracy

True direct democracy, in which every member of a society votes on everything, could eliminate the problem of lobbying, but has rarely existed. In ancient Athens, assemblies made up of all the citizens gathered to make decisions (women and slaves were not allowed to be citizens). In some Swiss cantons, citizens can participate directly in local government. In both cases, though, issues facing voters were relatively simple and limited in scope. While direct democracy might be the ideal–a government that’s literally by the people and for the people–it’s hard to scale up. In a large society with complex issues, it isn’t possible for even the most dedicated individual to keep up with every possible item that requires a vote–or have an informed opinion about them.

Representative democracy, which ideally solves that problem, also struggles with size. “One of the key problems of the U.S. political system is that it runs into scaling limits,” says Bryan Ford, a computer scientist who leads the Decentralized/Distributed Systems lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Sixteen years ago, Ford began thinking about what he calls delegative democracy, now also known as liquid democracy. “The whole idea of delegative democracy is to try to create a representative system that responds to the needs of individuals but also scales,” he says. “In some sense, delegative or liquid democracy is an approximation to the completely impractical idea of fully participatory, direct democracy.”

It works like this: Rather than asking citizens to vote on every issue, it gives each person the power to vote or to appoint a delegate to vote for them. Unlike a typical representative, that delegate could be changed at any time depending on the issue….(More)”.