Democracy in a complex digital world

Jacques Bus, Digital Enlightenment Forum

In “The Open Society and its Enemies” Popper[1] states that the change of the closed (tribal) society into the open society can be described as one of the more far reaching revolutions of human kind. It started with the change towards agricultural settlement and development of fenced villages, castles, and walled cities (security by perimeters); followed by the industrial revolution and strong urbanization which led to open urban environments and distributed physical security; now we are making another large step forward towards global interaction, open worldwide trade, global communication and data sharing, and with it open data, open innovation and the need for a new generation of cyber security at local and global levels.

However, is this a transition process with a steady-state ending or an ongoing search for balance between on one side the individual with its need for privacy and freedom, and on the other side the societal limits that enable these individuals living together? Is the struggle of individuals to live in closed protected communities gone with globalization? The contrary might be true seeing the fierce opposition of large groups in society against immigration, flaring up of racism and discrimination against other cultures, as well as emergence and fast growth of populist parties with slogans like “My people first and above all else”. 

When I started as Head of Unit in Trust and Security of the EC ICT programme, I used to start many of my presentations with the change in physical security when we moved from security by castles and walled cities in the middle ages, to the open urban metropole environment now. Physical security and safety is now in the first place an activity of the individual, in combination with societal law enforcement and nation state protection by the national army and security institutions. We lock our doors while we know that a professional robber can break the lock relatively easy. We use a dog, video camera’s etc. to scare off the criminal with the deterrent that he will be caught by law enforcement. And we build armies to protects the state against its enemies. And in an ideal democratic open society we do so in an accountable, fair and transparent way to ensure that the individual can justifiably trust the power institutions to work in his/her interest. Of course, we still must accept that there will remain substantial natural and man-made risks in life within and at local, societal and global level. The latter is often forgotten or deliberately hidden in our western social security societies.

I used “security from the castle to the open metropole” as a metaphor for the evolution of cyber security: from closed perimeter-based systems to the open global Internet, to show what direction could be used to restore the security balance in digital society. Again, measures must be taken at societal, state and global level. But first of all we need to enable individuals and communities (whether geographically local, or focus groups on the Internet) to self-organise their protection within an overall accountable and fair environment.

The ongoing need of people to feel respected and accepted in its own limited living environment is however well understood by the large ICT companies and their answer is to create targeted advertising and information filter bubbles in the digital world. All kind of information is available to most of the people (at least in the western world) but it does not help them to better understand other people and make wiser decisions. On the contrary, through social networks like Facebook and others, people are given the opportunity – and most embrace it willingly – to only see information that confirms their own small community’s opinion and cultural awareness, creating a so-called “echo chamber” even without caring about the truthfulness of this. And the powerful exploit this tendency.

On 12th July 2016 The Guardian published an article by Katharine Viner[2] which gives an excellent description of modern politics and the influence of the media. How the digital revolution is changing the power dynamics. How journalism changed at major media organisations supporting the filter bubbles under the influence of social media, market conditions and the demise of politics also due to heavy lobbying of global companies.

It is of little or no use to blame the politicians and global company executives for first understanding and then exploiting what most of us humans want: living free in our intimate small environment, but of course with the benefits of consumerism and nice well-protected exiting holidays in exotic cultures given to us by global trade. But we should blame politicians and company executives for not ensuring in the current digital society the democratic principles of accountability, fairness and transparency of governance of global private and public organisations. The lack of these has given our society a strong push towards polarization and conflict as shown recently with the Brexit, the US presidential elections and the emergence of populist parties in most European countries. History shows how this can lead to disaster.

The grand challenge of our times is to reconstruct the democratic and fair balance between the individual needs and societal responsibilities in this world with so many new digital and other technical opportunities. It has started in discussions on personal and group privacy, data sharing and informational ethics. Ethical and data sharing rules were always in the mind of the individual and the culture of the community before the appearance of digital networks. Now we try to include these rules in systems or advocate open data and systems. In fact, the jury is out on what to do, as appears from ongoing discussions.

For example, Johnson[3] warns those who unconditionally advocate the use of open data that this can lead to injustice and unfairness through biased data and data modelling decisions.

Frederika Björklund[4] suggests that governance in advanced liberal societies can be constructed around the autonomous self-responsible individual who exercises their freedom as a freedom of choice. However, the choice ends up to be the choice to be seen and one adapts to the rules, or not to be seen and therefore considered to be suspicious. The question is whether government surveillance could be executed in a way that it is not one to many, but many to many, like normal social control, which can be debated and is not discriminatory but free in whether to accept surveillance or not.

Dirk Helbing[5] argues that self-organisation should be the main control principle in complex societies. Links between the self-organising system nodes should be created (only) when necessary and in fact just based on principle rules (market, justice and fairness, reputation, …) which are also the normative principles for self-organised nodes. The basic principles would be similar on all levels, but different in detail of implementation when deciding in actual situations at the lowest level possible to satisfy the principles.

This principle of self organisation is also emphasized by Nicholas Taleb[6]. When applied to individuals or small communities it strengthens the antifragility and reduces the vulnerability of our large complex societies. It satisfies the wish to live in small recognizable communities and creates stability of the overall complex system. He argues that centralised governance actually creates high fragility for unpredictable (often large) disasters. Leaving room for small deviations and errors, personal and small-community responsibility creates ripples at low levels, but more stability at the high level. People should be left free to make errors to learn and correct.

David van Reybroeck argues in a similar direction if he discusses democracy to ensure that decision are being made by aware and knowledgeable randomly chosen groups of stakeholders and not only by politicians chosen by uninterested and manipulated citizens. Although he does not discuss use of the digital tools in the first place, it is clear that such tools can help the process aimed for.

These are some critical opinions worth of consideration in the discussions on how governance and democracy should be organized in our future society. Many and crucial questions beg for at least some initial, partial answers that can help see the way forward.

Digital Enlightenment Forum intends to organise such discussions with the aim to produce policy recommendations to decision makers both in government as well as in the private sector.

We invite reactions, suggestions, related publications and/or new blog texts to get this effort off the ground.

 

[1]    Popper K.R. (2009) The Open Society and its Enemies, NL Translation, Lemniscaat

[2]    Viner K. (2016) How Technology disrupted the truth, see HERE

[3]    Johnson J.A. (2014) From open data to information justice, in Ethics Inf Technol. DOI 10.1007

[4]    Björklund F. (2013) Video Surveillance and Social Control in a Comparative Perspective, Routledge, NY

[5]    Helbing D. (2015) The Automation of Society is Next

[6]    Taleb N.N. (2013) Antifragile – Things that Gain from Disorder, Penguin Philosophy

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