Linked democracy: Foundations, Tools and Applications

By Marta Poblet — Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia,
Pompeu Casanovas — La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia,
and Víctor Rodríguez-Doncel — Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, Spain

 

In May 1989, Tim Berners-Lee shared a paper with colleagues at CERN that proposed “hypertext” as a solution to address the problem of “information loss.” As he wrote, “CERN is a model in miniature of the rest of world in a few years time. CERN meets now some problems which the rest of the world will have to face soon.”  

Thirty years later, the World Wide Web (WWW) project helping high energy physicists “to share data, news, and documentation” has evolved into one of the most pervasive technologies of our time. Today’s WWW preserves part of its originally distributed architecture, but it is arguably a more centralized, siloed, and privacy-endangered system. The Web has enabled new human-computer interactions, social relations, and digital economies. Yet, the problems of sharing data, information, and knowledge remain as acute as ever. 

Berners Lee’s recent calls to “re-decentralise” the Web might eventually get lost in the ether, but his vision of a “Web of Data” underpins the emergence of a new generation of technologies and protocols to share contents online. The Web of Data provides new tools to access, aggregate, and reuse distributed data and information. It paves the way for new economic models and revenue streams. And it has profound implications for democracy and governance: how can we leverage the Web of Data to augment collective intelligence? How can we use it to improve collective decision making?

For some decades now, democratic theorists have proposed different models and institutions to strengthen deliberation as a core democratic principle. They have also explored methods to aggregate opinions for good, correct, or better decision making (depending on different notions of goodness, correctness, efficiency, etc.). Surprisingly, democratic theorists have largely not recognised the potential of the Web of Data for their models. The opposite is equally remarkable: the scientists and developers of the Web of Data seem to overlook the knowledge deficits of our democratic processes. We are able to link data, but knowledge is disconnected.  

The concept of linked democracy aims at bridging this knowledge gap. Our book looks first at the present stage of the Web. People across the globe are showing up online by the billions. It has never been so easy to engage with, produce, link, and consume contents. Noise may prevail, but there is signal too. Online communities and networks combine individuals’ knowledge and talents to create things collectively: software, datasets, maps, ledgers, encyclopedias, etc. The Web enables people to do things together.

To us, this Web-enabled capability resonates with Josiah Ober’s etymological definition of democracy as “people’s capacity to do things” [Ober, J. (2008) “The Original Meaning of ‘Democracy’: The Capacity to Do Things, not Majority. Rule.” Constellations 15(1): 1-9.].  We normally access the Web as users to do different things, but we can also use the Web as citizens to deliberate and make informed, politically relevant decisions. With the appropriate tools, we should be able to constitute an e-demos for a given polity, e-polity, or both. 

Our book examines instances of some embryonic e-demos activities, e.g. citizens who assemble around platforms and apps to monitor their representatives, discuss and vote on issues, draft bills, laws, and even constitutional proposals. There is a myriad of digital tools and technologies tailored to these specific purposes and all these initiatives face the same challenges that Athenian democracy had to grapple with. Our solutions to the issues of creating, aggregating, sharing, reusing and aligning knowledge require new design principles, institutions, and regulatory models. Owing to work conducted by researchers on the Web of Data, institutional economics, democratic theory, and regulatory models, we denominate these new formations as “linked democracy ecosystems.” Linked democracy ecosystems comprise participatory clusters of people leveraging their own capacity to do things, the technologies at hand, and the knowledge produced. 

We suggest the regulatory models for these systems to interoperate at the meso-level, that is, the interface between humans and machines. “Regulatory socio-legal ecosystems” can stabilise and validate them, linking and implementing several normative sources and instruments—hard law, soft law, policies and ethics. This articulates semantic and systemic interoperability by means of a middle-out approach to regulatory and legal governance.

Democracy may be an endangered species today (although we wonder if the opposite has ever been true), but as Ober’s epigraph reminds us, “it is only by mobilizing knowledge that is widely dispersed across a genuinely diverse community that a free society can hope to outperform its rivals while remaining true to its values” (Ober, Josiah. Democracy and knowledge: Innovation and learning in classical Athens. Princeton University Press, 2008). 

 

Linked Democracy is available open access here:

https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783030133627