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Guardian News: Our democratic operating systems aren’t working: here’s how to upgrade them

Originally published at The Guardian

The events of 2016 are signs that our antiquated voting systems are in need of an overhaul – they need to be more direct, nuanced, participatory and informed

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 ‘The complexity of the modern world is lost in a democratic process dominated by political parties wedded to pre-determined ideologies.’ Photograph: Chris Radburn/AP

Worried about his children’s future and angry about the diminishing level of citizen participation in politics, the Australian entrepreneur Adam Jacoby decided to stop moaning on Twitter and do something about it. He founded MiVote, a tech startup that is creating a form of super-democracy

When an issue is raised in parliament, citizens are asked to participate in the decision-making. Rather than voting yes or no, MiVote’s users are asked a far more nuanced question that takes a long-term view.

When I interviewed him, Jacoby explained this concept in more detail, using the issue of immigration as an example: “The vote would be, ‘Would you like the government, the country, to take a primarily humanitarian approach to asylum seekers or immigration? Would you like it to take security approach? Would you like it to take a financially pragmatic approach? Or would you like it to take an international diplomacy approach?,’” he said.

The platform presents a range of research sourced in partnership with universities and other advisers. Typically, it outlines four different positions. Citizens can then vote for as many or as few as they want to.

MiVote is totally neutral regarding the decisions made. This is what I call MiVote’s “non-ideology ideology”. And that is because its creators understand the ways in which the system we use now aren’t equipped to deal with nuance. They understand that informed constituencies can make direct decisions, rather than just electing somebody to elect somebody to make decisions for them.

 

“I would like to see a conversation emerge not about the decisions, but the process by which these decisions are made”

 

This is not to say that I envisage a future without any elected representatives. It may well be that the future of politics doesn’t need politicians. I don’t know. What I do know is that technology can create more direct forms of democracy in which citizens are more deeply involved.

MiVote belongs to a new breed of organisations and projects looking to move democracy into the 21st century. These organisations include pol.is, an artificial-intelligence powered tool that has helped involve large numbers of people in Taiwan in shaping legislation; and DemocracyOS, an Argentinian platform that has had a party represented in government, making decisions based on the public’s will through an online platform. Iceland “crowdsourced” its constitution, involving more than 40,000 people in the process and receiving an approval rating of over 70%. In Estonia the platform e-Residency has changed several laws in just a few months by listening to the feedback of citizens around the world.

In our digital age, we need to upgrade our democratic operating system. In the wake of the contradictory and surprising decisions we’ve seen taken this year, I would like to see a conversation emerge not about the decisions, but the process by which these decisions are made.

Of course technology hasn’t always helped our democracies to function. Filter bubbles and fake news have been blamed for recent events including the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. But this is a problem to be fixed, not an excuse to hold on to an old system we’ve had for hundreds of years purely because that’s the way things are. To me, the events of this year are signs that our antiquated system is in desperate need of an overhaul, because it doesn’t allow us to express ourselves other than in binary terms: red v blue; in v out; him v her. The complexity of the modern world is lost in a democratic process dominated by political parties wedded to pre-determined ideologies, rather than to enacting the will of the people.

Pre-internet, when pen and paper were the pinnacle of democratic technology, it made sense to outsource our decisions to “experts”, but in 2016 we have far more sophisticated tools that can cope with the complexity of the modern day. The existence of this technology requires us to rethink the different roles in our systems of government. As Jacoby says: “There is no excuse in 2016, when you can have a many-to-many and many-to-one conversation, not to have a conversation with our electorate on every issue. There is just simply no excuse for it.”

Democracy has seen little change since Sir Tim Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web 25 years ago, and it is time for a change: to a more direct, more frequent, more human-centred, more participatory, more informed form of democracy.

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Jon Barnes is the author of Democracy Squared: A digital revolution that’s about to democratise democracy

Originally published at The Guardian