Digital Democracy | Carl Miller | TEDxAthens

Translator: Chryssa Takahashi
Reviewer: Robert Tucker On 25th April 1963,
this man, Joseph Licklider, JCR Licklider, or Lick to his friends, he wrote a memo, a memo addressed to the ‘Members and Affiliates
of the Intergalactic Computer Network’. Licklider himself was at a loss for what the overall enterprise
of this memo was about. And that was because it was about – Licklider was trying to do something
which no one else had done before. He wanted to get the very small number
of incredibly expensive computers that he and his colleagues worked on to talk to each other. Now, he didn’t think this would
necessarily always be particularly useful. He writes in the memo:
– he has quite a tactical turn of phrase – ‘It will possibly turn out, I realize, that only on rare occasions do most or all of the computers
in the overall system work in an integrated network.’ It didn’t necessarily always
have to be switched on. But if they could do this,
if they could crack this problem, if they could make it work, think, he exhorted
the readers of the memo, think of the size of the Intergalactic
Computer Network we would have. We would have
at least four large computers, perhaps six or eight small computers, and a great assortment
of disc files and magnetic tape units. Think of the scale of hardware
we could throw at collective problems. Licklider worked
for the United States government. He worked for ARPA, the Advanced
Research Projects Agency, there. And this memo, I think,
has as much claim as anything else to being the origin of the Internet. But even here, at the very beginning,
at the very birth of the Internet, Licklider and his colleagues knew
that from this humble technical origin a great number of other origins
would also be created as well. He wrote, reflecting on this,
sometime later, that computers would allow
‘decisions in the public interest but also in the interest
of giving the public itself the means to enter into
the decision-making process that will shape their future.’ Right here, at the very birth
of the Internet, they knew that if you connected
computers together you would change the way that human beings
connected with each other. You could change how politics works. You could change how power works. In other words, the origin of the Internet has always been wrapped up
with another origin as well, the origin of digital democracy. Now, of course, we are all members of Licklider’s Intergalactic
Computer Network. The Internet has spread
further and wider and more profoundly than even Licklider
could possibly have imagined. So, has his vision come true? Has the rise of the Internet
changed how politics works? Has it given the public a greater say
in the decisions that affect their lives? Has it changed our democracy? My answer is that for most of us,
most of the time, it really, really, really hasn’t. It is incredible how the Internet has changed so many
different parts of our lives. From where we shop,
to how we fall in love. But it’s barely changed at all
our role as citizens; it’s barely changed at all
how we can become involved in the decision-making process; it’s barely changed at all
our system of democracy. So, I think that the rise
of the Internet so far has stubbornly resisted
the beckoning future that Licklider pointed towards. Rather than making us
more powerful citizens, the Internet firstly has made us just another target
of just another advertising campaign. Here are messages sent after the UK’s Prime Minister,
David Cameron, performed in a debate. Matt Hancock, an MP: ‘Whoa! What a strong commanding performance
from David Cameron tonight.’ The Conservative main Twitter account: ‘Commanding performance
from the PM tonight.’ Ed Vaizey, MP, a Conservative MP: ‘Strong and commanding performance
from David Cameron tonight.’ The Press Office: ‘Strong commanding
performance from David Cameron.’ Jim Messina, the Conservative pollster: ‘Strong commanding performance
from David Cameron.’ The Tory Treasury,
can you guess what that one is? ‘Strong commanding performance.’ Rather than telling us
what they really think, politicians often use the Internet
to echo the same empty soundbites, the same message discipline
around the Internet. And when we jump into digital politics,
we also jump into digital tribes. This is our Twitter verse that we created
for the UK general election. And every tiny dot,
every star in this galaxy, is one of hundreds of thousands
of different Twitter accounts that jumped into that rolling,
sometimes very rude, sometimes very interesting digital debate which helped us decide
our political future. And the location of every star in the sky
is absolutely no accident at all. Those who tended to re-tweet each other,
or to follow each other, those who tended to see
each other’s information and to pass it on: they are close together. And those who didn’t are further apart. And, of course, as we tended
to follow and re-tweet and share the information
of people we agreed with, of course, we jumped into digital tribes. There’s a Labour tribe,
there’s a Conservative tribe, there’s a Scottish conversation happening
entirely unto itself. Each of these an echo chamber; each of these a washing machine
of information, of whirling information, sending back your own world view to you
in a thousand different ways; each basically confirming
your basic beliefs in the first place. And when there is
difference on social media, when there is disagreement, all too often it descends into abuse. These are the favourite swearwords
of over 100,000 people sending a deluge of abuse
into politicians. They’ve had enough of the campaign,
enough of politicians, and they wanted to tell them that. These are their favourite words
that they used. But politicians themselves,
tired, ragged from the campaign, anxious about potentially
losing their job, well, they sent over 1,000 messages
of abuse back to constituents and to other politicians as well. Now, all of this is political. All of this, I think,
is profoundly changing the way that elections are fought. All of this is changing
the way that power is won. But none of this is democratic. None of this is actually changing
the way in which decisions are made. None of this is changing
the role of people in those decisions. So, I think, so far,
Licklider’s vision of an Internet which actually creates
more powerful citizens, with a greater say in the decisions
that affect them, that hasn’t yet been achieved. Now, democracy. Democracy is a lofty idea. It’s one of a very special few ideas that almost everyone in this room
would agree with. But like the loftiest of ideas, democracy always produces
a train of practical challenges. How do you really put
the people in charge? What systems do you have to create? What balances do you have to strike? What boundaries do you have to police? What powers do you have to create to really express the people’s will in the decisions
that are taken on their behalf? The devil of democracy
has always been in the detail. And it was detail that we badly needed at the origin of democracy
in the UK in 1649. The English Civil War was just over, the smell of gunpowder
was still hanging in the air, our headless king, Charles I,
was still lying on the scaffold. We badly needed a form of democracy
that we can make work. And we faced a huge, huge problem. There were too many people
spread out over too vast a country, too busy, too ungovernable, to directly rule. We needed something else. And one man, now often forgotten,
a man called Henry Parker, he had the answer to this. And in doing so,
he authored a system of democracy which will be familiar
to everyone in this room. A system of democracy
which has come to dominate how we understand democracy today. In this pamphlet,
so innocuously titled ‘Observations’, he reasoned that people
could be sovereign, could rule, if a parliament was. Parliament was what you needed, parliament that could represent,
– literally to re-present – the nation, but conveniently small, all in one room,
able to debate, able to make decisions. People could rule if they elected representatives
to rule on their behalf. And, of course, this idea
of parliamentary democracy, has spread throughout all the world. It’s come to dominate
what democracy means to us all. It was a way of making democracy work
for large and modern countries. It was a way that we could actually
achieve democracy when we badly needed the detail to do it. People worried
about democracy at the time. One of Parker’s contemporaries,
another democrat, called John Lilburne, warned Parker, and he warned parliament. He said: ‘We might justly
have done it ourselves without you, had we thought it convenient.’ They saw parliament
as a very dangerous means to a very worthy end. And from then, from the origin
of parliamentary democracy to today, I think that John Lilburne
was right to worry, because I think this system,
parliamentary democracy, is in deep, deep trouble. Because alongside the rise of parliaments, we’ve seen the rise
of lots of other things as well. We’ve seen the rise in political parties, big, slick, professional operations,
vote-winning machines. But they’re factories,
electoral factories, that have to be funded. We’ve seen the rise
of big money politics – donations. Sometimes shadowy, sometimes not. But all going to fund,
not democracy itself, but the parties that live within it. And these parties, increasingly,
are staffed by professional politicians, people that have chosen
from early age in their careers that they want to be a politician, rather than being a doctor,
rather than being an accountant. But who, increasingly, actually
don’t represent or reflect the societies they are drawn from
in either economic or social terms. And these professional politicians are
often drawn now from political dynasties, families that pass on the connections, the networks, the wherewithal,
the commonest, to even think that you can be
a politician in the first place. And all of this means, I think,
something very, very serious indeed. Rather than being
the routine participants in democracy, people are the consumers of it. They are a market that political parties
have to sell a product to every few years come election time. And it is increasingly a product
that fewer and fewer people are buying. Never before have we felt
so alienated from our political system. Never before have we felt that parliament
so little speaks on our behalf. Never before have we felt so distant from either our politics or the decisions
that are made on our behalf. In the UK, 80% of people don’t trust
their political leaders to tell the truth. Here in Greece, 88% don’t trust
their political leaders. Indeed, my host was surprised
the number wasn’t even higher. Disaffection, scepticism, cynicism
in politics are all on the rise. In general, electoral turnout was falling,
party political membership is falling, people are turning to other ways
to try and improve their society. All of this, I think,
is deeply, deeply serious indeed. Now, this was never part of the plan. What Licklider, I think, was imagining
at the very birth of the Internet was a return to another kind
of democracy before parliaments. A kind of democracy which traces
its origins all the way back to here, to Greece, to Athens,
to the ancient assembly. Why I think Licklider is a visionary,
and what I think is true today, is that for the first time
in perhaps centuries, the Internet allows genuine alternatives
to parliamentary democracy to become possible. The practical difficulties that were faced when we first invented
the system of parliamentary democracy, no longer are quite so difficult anymore. And this is what I think
is going to happen next. I think people are going
to begin to use the Internet, they are going to begin
to use technology – they already are, to invent alternatives
to parliamentary democracy and take power away from parliaments
and from political parties and find ways of safely transferring
that back to the people. And the first alternative
is direct democracy. A democracy without delegates,
without parliaments, where people vote constantly and directly
in the decisions that affect them. The sheer number of people
and their distance apart, once such practical difficulties, such difficult obstacles
to overcome in the 1640s, now no longer matter
that much anymore? And there are already
a flood of platforms, direct, digital, democratic platforms that are beginning
to allow this to happen. Now, many of them aren’t used very much, and it’s difficult to know how to use this
in a way which works and is safe. But I think demand
for this kind of direct democracy will continue to grow. I think, sooner or later, we will see these kind of technologies plugged into the formal
decision-making process. But the Internet hasn’t made
any of us less busy, and so we also have liquid democracy, where votes can travel around in a system
as easily as information or money does. You might give your vote on defence policy
to someone that you trust, you might give your votes
on economic issues to someone else, and others might give their votes to you, to vote on an issue
that you passionately care about, that you are active within. All of these votes circulating around in
a system fluidly, constantly, dynamically. Votes that can be revoked at any time. And how’s this for a final radical idea? Bitcoin democracy. A democracy without not only parliaments,
but also without states themselves. Bitcoin, you might have heard of,
uses very clever encryption technology to allow the middleman
to be cut out of networks. Technology that allows
networks to come together, where everyone makes sure
that everyone else is following the rules. Well, this technology today is being used to allow people to become
citizens of virtual nations. Nations with citizenship,
with land rights, with insurance, even with embassies; but democracies which are
outside of the geographic space, democracies which are
most fully, most perfectly within Licklider’s
Intergalactic Computer Network. Now, none of this is going to be easy. Re-inventing democracy is not easy;
it’s very difficult. We don’t know
which of these is going to work, we don’t know how to do this in a way which fits with the systems
which we currently have. The systems will be open to abuse, they’ll be subject to manipulation. But what, I think, is clear, is that parliamentary democracy
is no longer our only answer. It is no longer the only way
of making democracy work. It is no longer the only way
of expressing the will of the people. And from Licklider’s memo to today, I think that is what the Internet,
or the best of the Internet, has always been about. It’s always been about re-invention. It’s always been about innovation. It’s always been about trying
things which are new. And it’s always been about
never accepting the status quo. Never accepting the legacies
which we inherit. And I think in politics, perhaps more
than in any other parts of our lives, it’s time to try something new,
it’s time to have a new origin. Thanks very much everyone. (Applause)

Maurice Vega

11 Responses

  1. A very interesting and thought provoking talk – from which I mainly derive that our parliamentary democracy certainly needs tweaking and improving…. and the question raised really by Carl Miller in his talk is how; and could the internet help ? For me he talks a little too much about 'changing' the democratic system we have – rather than 'improving' the system. Surely we are only interested in change for the better. I also worry that because I do not care for the political or other sound bytes on twitter etc (which Carl seems to criticise in one breath but urge us towards in another)that I will somehow be entitles to less democratic rites than the person who twitters. Also, even with an 'internet' based democracy there will be problems (as Carl concedes) – and surely there will still be powerful groups selling us their politics and the 'right' decision we should make. In other words, if the main problem of our parliamentary democracy is not the system; but powerful groups who have too much influence on it; will this not be even worse with an internet democracy. Eg Tesco's telling us that 'Brexit' is a great idea – and click here to vote leave and get 4 pizzas for a pound at the same time ? So we must be careful we do not just change for the worse and get new powerful groups dominating how we do things. What we really need to improve our democracy (as a first step in my view) is a better educated and better informed electorate – who are aware of both sides (to some extent at least) of the matter being discussed..

  2. computer systems must learn continuously how to make decisions from a variety of consideration variables.

    One of the considerations is based on human decisions that are experts in fields related to the issues discussed.

    The decision of mechine learning is never absolute, but at least the computer system requires confirmation and affirmation before making a decision.

  3. I really am not fond of people putting forward ideas supported by none but selected facts. I have a question mark at almost any subtend cs here but I'm not going to ask them as the matter mostly is arguable cause not that obvious. But here is a hint – "Back to Greek democracy" Whom in the audience you are to exclude then and how many';ll be left? Sure women are out but I presume after "democracy qualification test" according to ancient Greeks, not many participants of your net democracy may be left. Please don't mix up tools (means of concluding democracy. Weatker it's voting with paper bulitens or clicking button, with essence of democracy.
    Politician is a profession by reason – with time so many needs of different groups and people have been recognised legitimate that it is simply impossible to consider them in political process without professional training. Believe me – if you are going to decide on something seemingly obvious to you, you'll be stunned by controversies and soon enough you'll realise that there are so many side effects on certain groups and people you could never even think of. (Personal example – You may think, let's say, make some complicated thing much easier by just attaching certain colours to certain things. And it indeed makes sense and could make life a lot easier. You propose to make it law. Nice – but you see, I myself am totally colourblind not to mention the totally blind people. So according to your law I am already criminal to be punished) I believe you could not imagine this coming and you really did not mean to discriminate me and more then that personaly. But you see – it is not that easy – your suggested type of democracy is more likely bringing us back to encient Greeks when all the decisions were made just by men who were entitled and what was on average not more than 20% of all the population of the polise tops. And don't be so sure when the day comes you personally for sure vill be granted access to decision making.. Even if you and you alone will create the model, there will be always someone able to convince majority that you are not fit.

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