Trends That Matter:

The rise of subconscious technologies and conscious engagement

Matt Leighninger, Public Agenda

Credit: Tomasz Franko

Two overarching trends are threatening to disrupt American politics, not to mention our daily lives. One is the tremendous growth of subconscious technologies, driven by the new capacity of artificial intelligence to make decisions and predictions. Most of these technologies are unknown to most of us, and are based on the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data we now generate every day. The other trend is the continued development of citizens’ desire to matter in public life, expressed mainly through new forms of conscious engagement.

Rewiring Democracy: Subconscious Technologies, Conscious Engagement, and the Future of Politics defines and explores these trends, which have evolved in parallel in recent years. The paper relies on expert interviews, conceptual mapping, and a broad-based systemic analysis to gauge the force of different trends, illustrate how they connect and build on one another, and understand their potential implications — for our lives, and for our democracy. Rewiring Democracy is a sequel to Infogagement, a report published by PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) in 2014 and re-released with a new introduction, foreword, and commentaries in 2018. Infogagement described a collision between media, technology, and civic engagement — as trends in each field converged, and ultimately erupted into controversies like the “fake news” phenomenon, growing voter disenchantment with politics, and Facebook’s abuse of user privacy.

Rewiring Technology takes a closer look at the implications of technology on our public square. Much of politics, governance, and public life takes place beyond the limited attention spans and analytical capacities of our human brains. This has always been true; the difference now is that we have created artificial brains that are more attentive, analytical, and powerful than our own. And today’s technological advances have made it possible for businesses, institutions, and other organizations to accumulate fairly accurate knowledge about our desires, fears, discomforts, and goals. These capacities make it possible to provide services, offer choices, ask questions, and make public decisions in ways that can be at least somewhat reflective of what we want — all without us being consciously aware it’s happening. Today, subconscious technologies are playing an increasingly significant role in both governance and politics.

Advertisers were among the early pioneers of this technology, but governments are also using it, often in partnership with other organizations, to suggest public services or even do little things like helping people find open parking spaces. Governments are also using subconscious technologies to shape policy. For example, the Canadian government used a natural language processing (NLP) tool to collect news articles and tweets about the G7 and then to assess, identify, and analyze the context, subjectivity, and tone of each piece of text.

The results were then presented to the public and used as part of the discussion material for 320 face-to-face and online deliberations on what Canada should do during its presidency of the G7. Jaimie Boyd, who led the effort as part of her role as Canada’s Director of Open Government, sees this form of opinion analysis as superior to traditional polling. “It is a brave new world for government,” she says.

Credit: Thomas Lefebvre

Subconscious technologies produce citizenship by proxy — a process we could call “mass subconscious personal politics,” because it’s happening on a massive scale, and because it relies on data that is specific to individuals. Subconscious technologies extrapolate information about us and the choices we make, without bringing our conscious selves into the work of public decision making and problem-solving.

These technologies have the power to give institutions and organizations greater legitimacy and approval, depending on whether people understand and agree with how decisions are made. Alternatively, their use could cause tremendous backlash if the public doesn’t trust the technologies or the people directing them.

This balance between approval and backlash is precarious, because when citizens are acting consciously in public life, we want more than the constrained choices, lack of transparency, and limited rights we have traditionally been given.

● We are dramatically more skilled, literate, and confident than we were a century ago.

● We are connected and knowledgeable, but lonely and angry.

● We are forming personal, political, and neighborhood relationships in ways that are creating enormous webs so that citizen mobilization can happen at a speed and scale that has never been seen before.

● We have moved from virtuous, habitual volunteerism to “high-impact public work.”

● We want our stories, relationships, talents, judgments and ideas to count for something.

● We want small and large choices. We feel that institutions and officials should treat us like adults, rather than children.

In other words, when we choose to surface from the subconscious and focus our time and attention on some public issue or question, we want — and increasingly expect — to matter. This impulse is the second trend Rewiring Democracy delves into. It has evolved alongside the development of subconscious technologies, and the two have become increasingly interconnected. The impulse to matter can also be manipulated: we may find ourselves in situations where we think we matter, but in fact, do not. And when this happens, citizens become even less trusting of our leaders and institutions.

Subconscious technologies and the desire to matter can conflict with or complement one another. They conflict when people feel that subconscious politics robs them of their privacy, autonomy, or authentic voice. They complement one another when people consciously approve of and can help direct the technologies. Officials, business leaders, journalists, technologists, and other stakeholders are trying to adapt to, circumvent, and/ or capitalize on this confluence of forces. Some of these attempts set the two forces against one another, while others try to harmonize them. The trends and stories in Rewiring Democracy illustrate some of these cases, in order to help us reconcile our technological capacity to mine the subconscious and our conscious desires to matter in public life.


Matt Leighninger is the Vice President for Public Engagement, and Director of the Yankelovich Center, at Public Agenda. Public Agenda is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues and work together to find solutions. He is also the lead author of Infogagement: Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection. Over the last twenty years, Matt has worked with public engagement efforts in over 100 communities, in 40 states and four Canadian provinces. During much of that time, Matt served as Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, an alliance of major organizations and leading scholars working in the field of deliberation and public participation. He also led a working group that produced a model ordinance on public participationand developed a new tool, “Text, Talk, and Act,” that combined online and face-to-face participation as part of President Obama’s National Dialogue on Mental Health. He has assisted in the development of Participedia, the world’s largest online repository of information on public engagement. His first book, The Next Form of Democracy, is a firsthand account of the wave of democratic innovation that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. His second, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy, co-authored with Tina Nabatchi, is a comprehensive look at participation theory, history, and practice, and explains how we can transition from temporary engagement projects to stronger democratic infrastructure.