Fake news, foreign intervention, echo chambers, big data and analytics, you’d be forgiven for assuming that we are witnessing the death of democracy, the final gasp of liberal societies first, and best, hope, assailed unaccountably by social tech and evil empires.
Assailed it may be, but not necessarily by evil: much of todays narrative carries overtones of evolving power, and fearful entities of control.
For sure, some people are using technology, either directly, or to drive social influence, from outside the nation state: hacking voting machines is a clearly hostile intent. Planting deliberately false news, and using hacked accounts to do so, is clearly hostile. But it is a mistake to mistake the messenger for the message.
Elections have always been about imbued hope, as opposed to concrete fact: we make our decisions on promises, and sketchy evidence, not cast iron guarantees, and money back commitments. Indeed, we vote for the person, not the party. We invest trust. And that trust is invested upon ephemeral, insubstantial, desire, belief, and hope.
It’s not that we are uniquely now, today, in a world where we are influenced by opinion, but it may be that today we are in a world where we are exposed to more of it.
But this is our world.
When assailed, we can complain about the assault, or we can consider what the assault tells us about democracy itself.
Social technology connects us, in fact, that word ‘connection’ is one of the two core aspects of change that i see in the Social Age: we are connected, with great levels of redundancy, outside, beyond the control of, any formal entity or organisation, and that connectivity is democratised, giving a voice, and a space, to any who care to claim it. Be that state actors, or passionate citizens.
The modes of connection are democratised, so with it, democracy itself changes.
Take opinion: i am an independent thinker, i form my opinions based upon evidence, and facts. Except that i don’t. In reality, i form my opinions based on preconception, existing paradigms, ways of knowing, belief, hope, trust, optimism, dominant social norms, fear of consequence, selfishness, a small element of generosity and kindness, and a large dose of blind ignorance.
Opinion is subject to the views of others: either others with whom i agree, or others with whom i passionately disagree. Whichever stance i take, their opinion counts. And in an ecosystem where i am visible to, and within sight of, ever more opinion, i have ever more to take into consideration.
Sure: technology may limit what i see, or skew the views i hear, but my social status, rank, worldview, and community, already do that. Technology may exacerbate an existing issue. But also provide opportunity: my view, if well framed, if carefully considered, may itself find traction. The mechanisms of social control can also be mechanisms of social enlightenment. There is nothing inherently and intractably doom laden about the Social Age, but there is a deeply embedded urgency of change.
Take music: i have a favourite band, music that i enjoy, recommendations that i will freely give. But to imagine i formed these views through my individual brilliance, through the quality of my ear, and my cultural discernment is flattering, but wholly untrue. The radio selects what to play me, Apple music filters further, my HomePod ensures the random selection is anything but, and i choose to play things that i believe my friends (with similarly excellent taste in music) will enjoy. We are both liberated with, and trapped by, these chains. Last night, on my ‘new music mix’, came up tune after tune that i loved. New music, shared to me based upon analysis of what i already like: the music in my echo chamber is sweet indeed.
Perhaps i should have a playlist served up of ‘Tunes you will detest’, music of provocation and dissent. Perhaps news articles of hate and vitriol. Perhaps i would be a better person by engaging in that particular dissent (indeed, one of the techniques of Social Leadership is to engage willingly in stories of dissent).
Democracy is, undoubtedly, in it’s current format, under assault, but part of the pain that we feel lies in the inability of democracy to evolve. Because every dream accretes structures of power, and those structures of power create spaces to nest, spaces where mortal beings find power and pride, and hang onto it for grim life.
It may not be democracy that is dying, but rather the structures of establishment power that sit behind them that are ill.
And within all the debate, there is one thing that we should keep front and centre of our thoughts. Who is democracy for?
A civilised society is something very different from just a society. Democracy should be for all, not the privileged few. Recent political movements, throughout western democracies, have shocked the establishment, an establishment that often forgot that it was not representative of all. Our political systems, which nest inside the notion of democracy, have been shown to be selfish, and self perpetuating, and have been rocked by new tendencies of bipartisanship, and opposition.
Political power is increasingly held in dissent, not in consensus. It’s held for a minority, not the many.
And yet, in a democracy, our government should be for the many, indeed, for all. Government is a willing subservience, but still an accountable one.
As modes of social connection proliferate, as modes of idea formation and transmission shift, as the nature of validity becomes increasingly a distributed idea within a system, as synchronous modes of engagement become the norm, so we must evolve the machines of democracy, the mechanisms of listening and engagement, and the models of accountability and power.
Perhaps it is to these issues that we should focus some of our righteous ire: assailed from outside we may be, but lethargic and sick within, we most certainly are.
Democracy, should it die, may die of neglect, not outward assault.