How will technology change democratic engagement?

27 : 10 : 2017 Technology : Digital : Culture
Inside the Black Box (Supervised Learning) by Tom Pearson, London Inside the Black Box (Supervised Learning) by Tom Pearson, London

As people continue to lose faith in the ability of established democratic systems to effect real change, they are starting to look for alternative pathways to political efficacy.

Peter Maxwell, senior journalist, LS:N Global

Camilo Casas, who is running to become a city council member in Boulder, Colorado, wants local constituents to vote for him. This may seem like a painfully obvious statement, but in Casas’s case it is essentially his entire pitch: if elected, the public will be able to influence the way he votes through an app that he has developed called Parti.vote.

‘I am personally convinced that when you have to lobby a constituency rather than an elected office, you will on average get more democratic and consensual outcomes,’ explains Casas. Although he is a political outsider in terms of his chances of being elected in his district, Casas is one of a growing generation of activists who believes that the future of democracy is diffuse rather than centralised, with power residing with a public who can use technology to vote on an issue-by-issue basis.

The continuing intransigence of world governments in the face of the climate change crisis, the surprise election of Donald Trump and the UK’s decision to leave the EU have all left a large demographic of voters feeling disenfranchised. As people lose faith in the ability of established democratic systems to effect real change – debilitated by atavistic party politics and the self-interest of career politicians ­– they are starting to look for alternative pathways to political efficacy.

In response, digital technology is now moving the concept of direct democracy out of the seminar room and into the real world. Casas’s app mimics blockchain-powered platforms such as MiVote, which aims to create a fairer form of democracy for citizens. The app tells users about what is being debated in the Australian parliament, provides them with relevant information on the issues and enables them to vote. In aggregate, these votes would dictate what legislation that representatives of the MiVote Party, if elected, would support.

AI could be used to create proxies that learn about new policy matters and weigh up the arguments against your personal and political profiles before casting your vote accordingly.

The San Francisco-based Democracy Earth Foundation is another initiative that aims to use digital voting systems to transform how people engage in politics. The Foundation hopes that in the future, the seamlessness and transparency of this system will eliminate the need for centralised power and create the sort of liquid democracy in which people can choose to delegate individual decisions to people they know, rather than distant politicians.

Eventually, however, artificial intelligence (AI) could make the concept of voting redundant, transforming the way citizens enact their democratic duty by outsourcing the role to a digital double. With voter engagement still far below what would be considered optimal to host truly representative elections, AI could be used to create proxies that learn about new policy matters and weigh up the arguments against your personal and political profiles before casting your vote accordingly.

A combination of machine learning and sentiment analysis would trawl everything from your social media feeds to your location data, media habits and online retail accounts to assess how your attitude towards key social issues is evolving. That five-star review of Ivan Krastev’s latest opus you left on Amazon would do more than just act as a promotional tool for the author, instead having a small but tangible impact on shaping the state’s political reality.

Although the more distant future of AI-powered proxies acting on an individual’s behalf might seem outlandish, we are much closer than many realise to giving such technology this sort of agency. According to Gartner, by 2020 the average person will have more conversations with artificially intelligent bots than with their spouse, while a recent study by communications firm Weber Shandwick revealed that more than half of respondents were happy for AI to undertake such tasks as providing companionship for the elderly and offering advice on finance and health.

Indeed, consumers are already growing accustomed to living with personal assistants that are increasingly adept at learning their behaviour and anticipating their desires, such as Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. It is not such a stretch from allowing such systems to order our favourite meals or plan a surprise family holiday to letting them weigh in on our behalf on local zoning laws – after assessing the impact on the price of our homes – or select our state representative, while taking into account the tenor of the tweets we sent while watching last week’s political debate.

For more on how artificial intelligence is transforming consumer behaviour, read our Neo-kinship macrotrend.