Why We Need to Think Differently About Democracy and Technology

The future is here, we just have to make use of it and reshape the way politics is done.

By Georg Diez and Emanuel Heisenberg

The crisis of democracy that we are presently experiencing is directly connected to the crisis of capitalism. And we will not solve the one crisis without finding answers to the other.

The challenge is to think about democracy and capitalism separately, to disconnect the two, practically and theoretically, and to reform both. Otherwise, both will fail because inequality and authoritarianism will destroy the system from within.

Technology is essential in this process; it can both destroy and restore capitalism and democracy. We have to think about technology in a different way.

In the beginning of the 21st century, technology has accelerated capitalism in an unprecedented scope. Most people seem threatened by these changes. If we want to save democracy, we have to come up with a clear and progressive understanding of how technology can be part of a better future for everybody.

What we see at the moment is the destruction of democracy with all necessary technological means, in the USA of Trump and in the Russia of Putin, in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, in the Philippines: Elected authoritarian regimes promoting oligarchy instead of democracy and financial feudalism instead of market economy.

From a Western European perspective, the election of Trump is not an aberration, it is the logical consequence of the way capitalism has changed from a system promising freedom to a system practicing oppression, incorporating the authoritarian tendencies of the emerging new technology into an efficient system of control.

Fact is: A lot of people are anxious about how the new technologies will influence and change their lives; to be more precise, they are anxious about the future and ask themselves if they will be needed any longer.

According to a study by the University of Oxford, in the next 15 years 47 percent of jobs in the US are threatened due to automation, robots and software based on artificial intelligence.

In some European countries, the percentage of people who face unemployment through technology is even higher, affecting areas as different as supermarket cashiers, truck drivers and medical care personnel as well as lawyers, journalists and doctors.

Capitalism, which provides meaning through work, ceases to be a promise for the people. This exacerbates an existing problem: Even today’s form of capitalism is emotionally dead. The very direct threat is that the death of liberal capitalism could lead to the death of liberal democracy.

Authoritarian rulers seem to be more aligned with the forces of the technology revolution led by US technology companies, a future that brings the next level of limitless consumption along with a techno-security-surveillance dictatorship.

The very basic principle of competition has been replaced by even bigger and more powerful monopolies based on intellectual property protection, market dominance and immense investments. These monopolies threaten the very notion of a free market as well as the idea of a free society. These monopolies are strongly linked to the latest technological inventions, most of them coming out of Silicon Valley.

But Europe has its own problems and no own answers to the technological revolution. The democratic parties in the old continent are stuck in the past, deep in the 19th or 20th century when they were conceived and founded.

These parties are dominated by older white men, they don’t mirror the demographic changes these societies have been experiencing, they ignore the immigrant reality and the heterogeneous experience of most citizens who share no longer a common story or history.

In the future, which starts now, there have to be new narratives to unite the citizens and define what it means to be a citizen. The 21st century requires new answers to new questions and new structures for a new kind of politics. The 21st century requires new parties.

All of this is connected to the deeper reason for the fundamental crisis of liberal democracy that we are witnessing: We are in the middle of a revolution, a technological revolution, and every technological revolution has its political representation.

This means in the European context: Social democracy was the answer to the questions provoked by industrialization, mass society and analogue capitalism. The Green party and the environmental movement were the answer to the questions of the nuclear age, the vulnerability of the planet and carbon-capitalism.

And while we are still struggling to find answers for the problems of the past, we are facing already the problems of the future. So far, there are no democratic answers for digital capitalism. The tech elite of Silicon Valley is shying away from accepting the political responsibility, which comes with the invention of new technology.

We believe that there has to be a different approach towards technology to rethink and reform both capitalism and democracy. Technology should be in the center of any utopia for a better world. This requires a fundamental shift in perspective.

It is evident how digital technology could be used for repressive ends — as an engine for further redistribution favoring the rich and the super-rich, as a tool for state surveillance and oppression, creating conditions of extreme forms of conformism through the manipulation of the online discourse via Facebook or Twitter or other means.

It is less evident how digital technology could be used for progressive ends — artificial intelligence, machine learning and robots employed to create a more open and just discourse, a technologically enhanced democracy with a different process of deliberation, a positive disruption of the very ways we think about solidarity and humanity.

There is a utopia at the heart of every new technology. This has been the story since the beginning of human inventions. This has been the story of the great shifts in human history. We still have to find out exactly what the utopia at the heart of the digital revolution is.

The Renaissance for example was such a shift — and if we look back at that period, which was marked by both new technology and a new humanism, we see more clearly the time we live in: Knowledge was free to circulate, people were free to learn, old sets of values lost their credibility, old institutions crumbled.

A progressive use of technology could launch a new, a digital Renaissance which requires a new idea of humanism. We have to come up with a different way to think about technology, which is neither techno-utopism nor techno-fatalism. We need a form of techno-humanism, which puts the individual at the center of any deliberation about politics.

If this does not happen, societies will most likely be torn apart. The conflicts in the US or Western Europe are already evident. It is the young against the old; it is the city versus the rural areas, fear of immigrants, islamophobia. Conflicts about culture and identity that mask economic malformations, a politics of resentment that leads many people back to nation, race, and authority and away from democracy, freedom, humanity.

In order to rebuild our societies, we need to start at the ground level: It is inspiring to look at the city as a place of self-government, independent of a central authority, reminiscent of the role of the city as a place of civilization in the Renaissance.

The city was the place, which made you free, this was the agreement, and you were free within the city. We see this happening again today, in the US for example where sanctuary cities guarantee refugees or immigrants their basic human rights. We see it also in Europe where cities like Barcelona serve as the breeding ground for a new kind of politics, which is born out of the anti-gentrification movement.

These local approaches to politics seem very promising. There can be a debate about how this will change the larger questions of digital capitalism, and it is the contribution of the accelerationist thinkers to have made that argument against what they call “folk politics”.

Still, as a point of departure examples like the concept of the peer-to-peer economy where citizens might produce energy which they then share among themselves in exchange for other services or goods is a productive way about how to combine new technology and new ways of organizing societies.

The same is true for the concept of liquid democracy or liquid feedback which can be used to create a new and living form of politics based on a steady dialogue and feedback mechanism between the elected and the electorate, a different form of direct democracy than the aggressively populist vision of today.

Finally, the whole block chain idea might stimulate inexpensive ways of trade and secure contractual relations between people and a new way to connect citizens around the globe, a driver of internationalism which is under attack by the reactionary forces of today.

It seems clear: Technology can create more and more free public goods; information and entertainment would be universally accessible and affordable. A mindful way of dealing with energy, water and other resources could lead to an intelligent circular economy, which would last for many generations without limiting the needs of consumption.

People would work less and less and redefine the meaning of happiness and fulfillment beyond the constraints of work and pastime. The loneliness in the information age would be addressed and the wage pressure would decrease. Social silos would be blown open.

The new knowledge society would provide new forms of education and understanding. Learning will be a great resource in an automated and digitalized world and at the center of government responsibility. There will be more civic engagement in locally functioning societies, which will provide new forms of trust between people.

This is the dawn of democracy. The future is already here. What are lacking are the people in politics and the parties that recognize, embrace and shape this future. We face a crucial choice — to follow into new forms of authoritarianism or to combine growth driven by technology with new forms of government.


The authors work with a group of international co-authors on programmatic ideas for democracy in the 21st century. Their discourse platform Disrupt Democracy will be online in the middle of 2017.