At the heart of democracy lies a deep rooted sense of optimism: the trust in people to govern themselves. The history of representative democracy, on the other hand, is in a lot of ways marked by various degrees of mistrust in people.
This dichotomy characterizes one of the fault lines in present day political struggle – the question of who is in charge, who exercises power, who is being heard and who is listening. Or as the political theorist Hélène Landemore put it, democracy has historically privileged “people’s consent of power” over “people’s exercise of power.”
Democracy, one could argue, is less a theory than a practice: it means giving a voice to everyone in the most equal and just way. One of the key questions explored in our programme “The Future of Democracy” is exactly that: Who structures the discourse, who determines the rules of the democratic game?
In the digital age, this is often a question of technology – the recent showdown between the Australian government and the free press on the one side and Facebook on the other is just one example. For a democracy to work, the deliberative space, a space dedicated to the exchange of arguments, must be free from manipulation and the influence of outside interests.
Today, “there are more opportunities than ever for citizens to express their views,” writes our Senior Advisor and future fellow Simone Chambers. The immediate promise of a more deliberative democratic process, according to Chambers, is to solve urgent and particularly contentious topics in a non-divisive and non-partisan way. One example is the issue of abortion in traditionally Catholic Ireland. Another is the political process surrounding climate change.
On topics such as these, it seems particularly important to find common ground, to identify shared perspectives and to envision a positive outlook on what a better future could bring. France provides an interesting case study of deliberative democracy in action: in the aftermath of the “gilets jaunes” protests, French president Emmanuel Macron agreed to an ambitious plan composed of a country-wide “grand debate” leading up to a citizens’ assembly. This process has just come to an end, with mixed results that are worth considering.
Technology is highly relevant in this process of deliberation, and in the facilitation and organization thereof. Another key element is a public sphere that is both fair and informed. The publisher and author Evgeny Morozov has written extensively about the political economy in the digital age, and we are very pleased to announce our collaboration with him and his team at The Syllabus, an AI-supported online information-service that helps surface stimulating new content from academia to journalism, from videos to podcasts and articles.
Our human-machine collaboration with The Syllabus will help deepen our knowledge in key areas of interest to THE NEW INSTITUTE, namely in ecology, economy, democracy and the human condition. This is how it will work: the Syllabus team takes keywords and feeds them into their algorithm, which finds and filters content based on such criteria as reliability of source, authors, institutions, and degree of trust. The results are then again curated by a human.
We will begin regularly sharing this content in a newsletter section called The Monitor, which will replace our Ideas section. We also look forward to sharing our curated Spotify list, which features a collection of compelling podcasts around our primary topics of interest. The focus as always will be on highlighting solutions that are innovative and constructive – see for yourself or listen to this podcast with Christoph Gottschalk, Member of the Executive Board (in German).
It is in this spirit that we chose to collaborate with artist Simon Denny – and we are very happy to present his work, which combines technological elements like blockchain with a deep reflection on our digitalized world in general and on climate change in particular. Denny explores the potential of the moment, the change that is already happening, in a way that is very much akin to our thinking about transformation.
Hamburg is our home. The world is our habitat. The future is our concern.
Simon Denny, Amazon delivery drone patent drawing as virtual Rio Tinto mineral globe, 2021
This work of Simon Denny directly addresses central questions in the relationship between technology, the exploitation of nature and the power of corporations: A globe built from a rock from a mine of the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto is facing a drone conceived by Amazon – two forms of capitalism, both extractive, both in the field of mining, one mining stones, the other mining data.
Simone Chambers on the Voice of the People
What is deliberative democracy?
Deliberation is a process in which we weigh the reasons or considerations for making a decision. We do this as individuals, for example, when making a decision like “Should I buy a car or not?” When you bring this idea together with democracy, you have a process in which we deliberate together. We give reasons, we have an equal standing. It gives a more compelling and substantive picture of what equal citizenship involves.
Would deliberation replace elections as the main democratic practice?
The idea is not to get rid of voting – it is about a richer view of equal citizenship. When I vote, I can lose the vote and I feel bad – but in deliberation, even if I put forward an argument that people don't find persuasive, they have to give me reasons and justifications and try to persuade. The process respects my opinions in a way that simple voting doesn't. This leads to a picture of democracy as collective problem solving, not as collective competition.
And this works?
The outcomes are actually better. It can translate into some really exciting, innovative and actually realistic reforms within democracy.
One recent example is the citizens’ assembly convened by French president Emmanuel Macron to solve the impasse on climate change. Why is this controversial topic particularly suited for a deliberative process?
Climate change is very interesting. The democratic system that we have now is structurally shortsighted because parties are looking at election cycles. The system has not produced the bold actions that we would like to see. Some people say, what we really need is more technocracy, more experts. But that's not a very democratic solution. Citizens in general actually are very worried about climate change and want action. The problem is that they don't trust governments.
When citizens come together just to deliberate, they are really good at problem solving.
Can you explain how a citizens’ assembly works?
The people are chosen at random, like for a jury. This is called lottocracy. Ideally you have a sample that reflects the population, equal numbers of men and women, minorities. There's no campaigning, no money, no parties. The idea is that the deliberation in these assemblies is somewhat impartial and not hierarchical – very different from our parliaments right now where the people who debate are all tied to partisan causes and platforms. There is a lot of empirical evidence that shows: when citizens come together just to deliberate, they are really good at problem solving.
The French example is somewhat problematic as the outcomes were subsequently not implemented by parliament.
The citizens’ assembly came forward with some fairly radical proposals, 149 altogether. Emmanuel Macron at first said: Great. I love it. I am going to take most of them. Then as he tried to move forward within the traditional democratic institutional system, he got pushback from the industry and some unions. The problem is when the opinions of the citizens’ assembly get funneled into politics as usual. It is not a legislative assembly – its power really is in its public support. This happened in France, this is why I am optimistic that we will have more and more of them.
Would you say that deliberative democracy has a more positive or optimistic view of human nature than does representative democracy?
In the 18th century, in the United States or in France, democracy had a bad name. There was a fear of mob rule. Of particular concern was the fact that the majority of the people were economically in the lower half. There was the specter of the rule of the poor. The idea was to have a system in which citizens get to ratify, get to choose, but they don't actually get to rule. This is in contrast to the ancient Greek view, which is a direct democracy in which people directly rule.
What is the problem with elections?
Elections have a tendency to be oligarchic. Powerful people and people with money are more likely to run for office, more likely to win office, more likely to make decisions. Citizens don't have equal access to the candidacy – but we can find ways for them to have more equal access and for the representatives to be responsive to them. I really don't see us getting rid of elections in mass democracy. It's just not feasible.
I endorse the vision of a mixed system in which you have different institutions, from referendums to citizen assemblies to elections, that work together to try to maximize the responsiveness of the state to the concerns of all citizens. I really hesitate to say that deliberative democracy stands against representative democracy. I think they perform different functions.
Could deliberative democracy be the starting point for thinking about a different, more citizen-driven information ecosystem?
There definitely are lessons to be learned. A citizens’ assembly is very structured. Everybody gets an equal chance. Facebook is not a place for structured deliberation. On the other hand, you need a space for new ideas to come up, for a kind of free-for-all. Take, for example, the question of transgender rights. This is something that bubbled up from civil society into the public sphere. There is a general recognition that the public sphere is going through a transformation. In ten years, the digital landscape will look very different.
Can these forces align to democratize the internet and to democratize democracy itself?
I am optimistic but I am not utopian. I don't think we are ever going to reach true democracy. As for the internet, I do think that it can be democratized. Crowdsourcing has a great potential. There are ways of crowdsourcing and using algorithms to have citizens participate more in the actual construction of the digital public sphere. I don't think there is going to be a silver bullet or a perfect solution. But I do think that we can avoid the doomsday scenarios of the techno-dystopian defeatism.
Simone Chambers is Professor of Political Science at the University of California Irvine. At THE NEW INSTITUTE, she will be involved in designing and implementing the programme "The Future of Democracy".
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Simon Denny, Blockchain company postage stamp designs: Digital Asset, 21Inc, Ethereum [with Linda Kantchev], 2016.
In this work, Simon Denny explores the way technology shifts our notion of what a nation is – Ethereum is one of the main cryptocurrencies, it was conceived by Vitalik Buterin, shown here on a stamp in the style of a Socialist hero, mixing a historic representation of power with its new reality.
The Monitor is a selection of relevant academic papers, books, podcasts, video and journalism in the areas of ecology, economic, democracy and the human condition, compiled by The Syllabus for THE NEW INSTITUTE.
The two books authored and edited last year by Hélène Landemore firmly established her as one of the most innovative voices in the current discourse on deliberative or, as she calls it, open democracy. Landemore, who teaches at Yale, combines a deep understanding of the histories and pathologies of democracy with an empathetic approach toward change - as well as an awareness of the potential of technology to inform, enhance and inspire this transformation.
Publication: Digital New Deal Concept: Anita Gurumurthy, Parminder Jeet Singh, Deepti Bharthur, Nandini Chami, Sohel Sarkar
How can digital technologies contribute to human rights, social justice and equity? This comprehensive report by IT for Change and Just Net Coalition features contributions by academics and activists who are “envisioning progressive ways to engage with the digital in a post-Covid landscape by reclaiming its original promise and building a digitally just world.” The questions addressed include “Feminist Frames for a Brave New Digitality,” “Indigenous Data Sovereignty,” “How the Global South Can Rise to the Challenge of a Digital New Deal” and “A Westphalian Turning Point for the Digital.” All in all a comprehensive starting point for rethinking the internet.
Go deeper: IT for Change is an NGO based in Bengaluru, India, that “aims for a society in which digital technologies contribute to human rights, social justice and equity” Just Net Coalition is a global network of civil society actors
How the wisdom of the crowd can be best harnessed for bottom-up structural transformation – this is the topic of Helen K. Liu’s paper “Crowdsourcing: Citizens as Coproducers of Public Services”. “Crowdsourcing serves as a distributed problem‐solving production model for modern governments,” writes Liu – a thought that connects well to the larger question of how social media as a public infrastructure can be democratized.
Simon Denny, Cardboard CryptoKitty 127 Auction Display Replica, 2018.
The cryptokitty Simon Denny is referencing is produced via a blockchain, a distributed transaction database technology: a digital collectable that turned into some sort of currency – one cryptokitty was sold for 148000 Dollars at Christie’s in 2018.
Speculative Futures: Israel
Michael Phillips Moskowitz, Senior Advisor and Visiting Scholar at THE NEW INSTITUTE, has conceived of a unique storytelling format that combines rigorous research with elements of design thinking, imagination, and ultimately speculation – the result is an engaging audio essay, rich in substance, nuance, humour, and the topic for this first trial is one of the utmost relevance: the future of Israel. Moskowitz, in the weeks before the next Israeli election, sets out to chart the historical terrain and the current political landscape, only to free himself from the constraint of the present. He explores the spiritual dimension of this contested place and technological potential to overcome a deadly gridlock. Israel is a place of trauma, he claims, it is also a place for healing. But listen for yourself here.
* * *
Giving Voice to Digital Democracies
Marcus Tomalin of CRASSH and the principal researcher in the project “Giving Voice to Digital Democracies,” talked about his work in this podcast. He explores questions like: Can our computing systems be better and do better? How can we – that is everyone from everyday users to professional coders – spot the hidden biases and fleeting programming decisions that make a lasting difference in “real” life? And can we even imagine what we’ll be asking Alexa ten years from now? The title of this insightful episode is very telling: “We are what we code.” The research is supported by the Humanities and Social Change International Foundation and connected to THE NEW INSTITUTE.
* * *
The Foundations of Value and Values
As we prepare to host our first fellows in the fall of 2021, the initial round of interviews in the selection process of the programme “The Foundations of Value and Values” took place, via Zoom, of course. The programme aims to help us move towards a sustainable value-system for the 21st century and is conceived to attract fellows from academia, the arts, activism, the media, government, technology and business.
* * *
Voices from the Past
The programme „Voices from the Past – Lessons for the Future“ has started recording what will be the first of many interviews, collecting the stories of the people that were part of movements and transformations in the past. If you or someone you know would like to tell us his or her story in the relevant areas of our current interest: the GDR in 1989 or the transformative actions from the initiation of the Club of Rome at the end of the 1960s and their much-quoted publication “Limits to Growth” (1972) to more recent movements such as Fridays for Future – please contact us.
Simon Denny, photo by Max Pitegoff Calla
Simon Denny has a very keen eye for the mythologies of the present or rather the imminent future which he treats from a perspective of detached humor – he wonders and muses about the way technology shapes our imaginary and the social and political reality. In a recent project called “Security Through Obscurity” he combined a reflection about the outdoor brand Patagonia, the tech giant Salesforce and Margaret Thatcher. His work often examines the way utopias and dystopias relate to each other in our digitally modified world, challenging the normative assumptions of contemporary platform capitalism. He created a replica of a cage that Amazon originally had planned to use to shuttle its employees through the company’s spaces, he proposed a giant board game called Extractor playing with the idea of mining nature and people, he explores technologies like blockchain to find out how to game the system. Simon Denny was born in New-Zealand and lives and works in Berlin.
Simon Denny, Amazon delivery drone patent drawing as virtual Rio Tinto mineral globe (US 10,246,186 Bl: UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLE WITH INFLATABLE MEMBRANE, 2019), 2021. Powder coated aluminum, steel, fiberglass, resin, paint, iOS Augmented Reality interface, 170 x 150 x 180 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery, Photo by Nick Ash
Simon Denny, Blockchain company postage stamp designs: Digital Asset, 21Inc, Ethereum [with Linda Kantchev], 2016. Custom designed postage stamp, 11 x 8 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Berlin Biennale, Photo by Nick Ash
Simon Denny, Cardboard CryptoKitty 127 Auction Display Replica, 2018. Installation view, Detail, Proof of Work, Schinkel Pavillon, 2018. Cardboard, UV print on cardboard, plexiglas, broken Crypto Kitty hardware wallet screen, 200 x 180 x 70 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Buchholz Berlin/Cologne/New York, Photo by Hans-Georg Gaul