Does digital technology’s impact on democratic forms of government offer society a net benefit, or has it wrought lasting damage? Its role in the Arab Spring of 2010 was widely seen in a positive light. Since then its influence has been viewed as less constructive.
In this episode of the EIU Digital Economy, Beth Simone Noveck, founder and director of the Governance Lab at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, and Seth Flaxman and Kathryn Peters, co-founders of Democracy Works, shared their views on the effects of digital technologies on democracy.
Current discussions about digital’s role have focused on the way it can amplify misinformation and inflame partisan divides when its use is left unchecked. But from Simone Noveck’s perspective, its greater impact is unseen and largely for the good as technology transforms government in ways that benefit citizens every day. “Bogota, Colombia, [empowers] citizens to complain online about government services to enable the city to know what’s not working and how to make improvements,” Noveck says. “But [the] most exciting, I think, are the technologies of what I would call collective intelligence … like the experiment they’re doing in Madrid around a platform called Decide Madrid, where 460,000 people are online making proposals in a direct, democratic fashion to change the way the city works.”
To participate in any democratic process, digital or not, citizens have to be connected to the voting process. Peters says making it easier for citizens to vote is a goal that digital can help achieve. “We built the tool [TurboVote] to handle the process side. If you want to vote, we will help you know how. We’ll send you the reminders. We’ll help you know what forms you need to fill out. We’ll let you know where they need to go and what’s going to be on your ballot and what to expect,” she says.
And yet, because voting is so personal, digital tools alone are not enough. “People do need to feel invited in, and that participation is not something you can take for granted, simply by opening the door,” Peters says. Flaxman agrees. “Voting is such a complicated behavior. It’s rational, it’s social, it’s habitual. The perceived cost of voting has to seem lower than the benefit to people. But if you know other people who are voting, you’re more likely to do it yourself. If you vote twice in a row as a young person, you’re likely to turn it into a lifelong habit,” he says.
The role that large tech companies can or should play in a democracy is one of the most hotly debated topics at the moment. Flaxman says that tech companies can’t be excluded from participating because they are an integral part of our daily lives. “Snapchat and Facebook in particular [are] helping their users register to vote by sending them to TurboVote, helping them find out about election dates that are happening, and not just federal ones but when their mayoral election is happening. So there are ways [big tech companies can] bring people’s attention directly to our civics,” he says.
Looking forward, Noveck says that digital’s impact on democratic institutions isn’t just about the technology itself, but how we choose to apply it. “It’s first and foremost about transforming the role of people who govern and helping them to fulfill the role of steward of a conversation and coordinator of more participatory action that engages more of us in solving problems,” she says. “It also then fundamentally is a transformation of our role as citizens. We cannot sit back and be passive and wait for decisions to be made for us, and then complain about them every four years at the ballot box.”
Greater citizen engagement is Flaxman’s chief goal, too. “Our vision is to see an increase in participation by at least 20 points, across all elections. That’s our North Star,” he says. “And so one of the big ways we see us getting there is modernizing the voting experience to fit the way people live.”
Read a full transcript of the podcast.