What is democratic technology?
The opinions stated here are my own, not those of my company.
I've been thinking about democracy a lot, as we seem to be in a period of democratic decline.
By democracy I'm speaking more about liberal democracy, protecting the rights of the minority and using a decentralized set of institutions that minimize authoritarian tendencies. Illiberal democracies can also exist, and seem to serve as an intermediary period. Corruption, nepotism, and declines in trust are looming threats to countries that soon see societal decay.
Technological progress and innovation have been increasing, and this can pose an opportunity or curse to democracies. They can serve to improve our freedom and contribute to tyranny.
I have a specific definition of freedom inspired by the original American writers. Thomas Paine writes much on this idea in his book Rights of Man. Freedom is about control, but also about sustainable civilization. Reading it, you get a very raw idea of the American experiment. At the time, the consensus was that people were incapable of self-government. They said we were not intelligent, too prone to emotions and populism. The Constitution was radical, outlining exactly what the government could do and what it couldn't.
Freedom to choose is not freedom to be uncaring. Paine knew our government had the duty to ensure everyone had the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and taxes were meant to be reallocated to those who needed it. He muses about policies that sound like social security. Tyranny was an overactive monarch, but it was also an angry mob of violent farmers that made up the French Revolution. He sympathized with the revolutionaries, the French monarchy being unjustifiable, but realized that a government of violence couldn't last.
What is democratic technology? The word comes up often. A lot of startups advertise themselves as democratizing something. Yet often it's not.
When I think of democracy I think about institutions and standards. A solid democracy is decentralized a bit, but not enough to descend into anarchy. A number of startups will advertise democracy as a selling point to makers and creatives. They create a marketplace of content and expect you to get to the top by making the most viral content.
This is not democracy. You are thrown into the chaos of marketing to the public. The best ideas do not bubble to the top, the most viral ideas do. Disinformation, misinformation, outrage, and reposts are what generate the most revenue, steering the public consciousness in the wrong direction.
The rights of the minority aren't respected because the minority don't give the most engagement. This is anarchy more than democracy. It is tyranny of the public. It is tyranny of the algorithm. Social apps wind up with an oligarchy of viral creators above a large collection of struggling proletariats hoping to appease whatever logic defines virality. This is not freedom.
Egalitarianism doesn't mean everyone should have the same number of followers, or we should punish the most popular creators. Yet the way popularity is determined today may not be good for a healthy democracy.
It would be easy for me to be salty that I don't have many Twitter followers and complain that it's "the algorithms fault". But if I did have a million followers, would I say I deserve it? Or is the follower count almost an arbitrary metric creating a division among people to create certain classes?
This post is not meant to place blame on any one company or propose a dismantling of any technology. Individual corporations should compete in a capitalistic marketplace. Rather, it's to ponder what would make a technology democratic and what is tyrannical. This is meant to be defined in shades of gray, not binary. Every democracy is imperfect, as are all governments. The Constitution asks us to create a "more perfect union", not to pretend we're already there.
Many technologies imply that a marketplace alone is democratizing, ignoring the tyranny of algorithms that promote only a small group of people. They don’t promote democratic principles like a Constitution-like outline of what the platform cannot do, nor do they have a defined process for letting individuals and groups affect changes in the platform. Limitless free speech isn’t necessary, but those accused have no transparency in how to appeal platform decisions. They are declared guilty by an all-in-one tyrannical system rather than having the chance to demonstrate innocence. Breaking our justice system into separated legislators, executives, and justice provides a decentralization of power, and limits one group from overextending their power.
In a healthy democracy we see conflict, and that's good. Democracy isn't simply having the best answer or ideas. No policy is perfect, but we can make it more perfect. We can make things better, sustainable, and maintain it for another day. It's no surprise that American democracy has lasted for hundreds of years while dictatorships fall in decades.
How do we make our technology more sustainable? We should look towards decentralization. Not in a blockchain sense, which creates a tyranny of elites who have too much control over the price, which provides the poor no mitigations in theft, and which uses a tyranny of anarchy to prevent necessary technical improvements.
We should have decentralized institutions, corporate, non-profit, and public that all work and fight with one another to make progress that we all generally agree with. Sometimes the corporations benefit, sometimes the public sphere, but we all create something that's more sustainable and better for the future.
This takes us to the idea of technological standards. I’d say the web is a fantastic example of standards working to benefit not just people today, but laying the foundation for future innovations we can’t yet imagine.
Features on the web are not defined just by a single browser, as that wouldn’t work. One browser cannot dictate platform features, as they wouldn’t be able to get a distributed network of websites to adopt them. They’d have no reason to only support one browser if the features don’t work on other browsers, making those distinct platform features pointless. Tyranny cannot work.
Yet each website is following a set of technical standards, and will add upcoming browser features. Everyone uses HTML. This isn’t anarchy where there are no rules.
Instead there’s a democratic process, a true form of democratizing technology. Changes to the standard are brought by website vendors or browser vendors, anyone invested in the continued success. Changes are discussed, inviting opinion. Changes go through several rounds of drafts and evaluations. Voting members, representatives, decide whether to accept the change into the standard or reject it.
I’m not going to say that the web standards process is perfect, or that there shouldn’t be any reforms. But they are trying to act in a democratic way, allowing the community to shape their own platform. They are trying to balance the tyranny of top-down mandates with the anarchy of millions of disparate website text formats.
Over time, successful innovations become institutions in their own right. Node.js was at one point a simple project but has evolved with its own governance structure. As it becomes more standardized, it allows for further innovation on top.
Social networks may lock in people, preventing them from exfiltrating their data once they’re done with the site. Similarly, some sites post their events in non-standard HTML which makes it hard to integrate into standardized calendar formats. In some ways, innovation is stymied by making things less accessible.
But just making something open source doesn’t necessarily mean it’s democratizing. There are many open source projects on GitHub which have a single-digit number of stars, no external pull requests, and no downloads. That’s fine! Not every project needs to have a governance model established at launch, just as not every technology needs to fully devoted to standards.
Once you do get to a certain size, and you see competitors, you really should start to look at ways to lift all boats. Maybe you won’t find any, but maybe you will.
Consider electronic health records, which seem like a good idea for medical portability and patient transparency. There are many different health insurance providers, hospitals, and clinics. While they have made an effort to provide EHRs for their patients, it’s resulted in a tangled web of varying tools, websites, and formats. There is no standard EHR format, and that’s to the detriment of everybody.
If there was a standard, it would allow insurance providers to better compete may drawing in new consumers without lock-in problems. It would allow emergency rooms to more easily pull critical patient information. It would let patients integrate their data with apps of their choice and better contribute their own records of health. There’s too much worry about trapping your existing customers that they aren’t making enough effort on an industry-wide working group.
It won’t be easy to create a new institution. You need to get a number of constituencies: patients, doctors, medical staff, insurers, and many others from all around the country. It will take a lot of time. But it will be worth it!
A thriving democracy has numerous trusted institutions. We should not trust one entity to do the right thing, as people are imperfect. By distributing the power among many entities and institutions, we can wind up with something resilient. The tricky part is not splitting enough power that we’d wind up being unable to make any large decisions. Democratic technology is important in rebuilding institutional trust.
I don’t have any concrete advice to offer in this post. In a way it would be hypocritical for me to tell you what to do, under the guise of being absolutely right. My hope is that we can discuss as a community opportunities to improve governance structures and develop industry-wide standards.
Because while you and I are fallible, there does seem to be a sort of wisdom of the crowds. When considering a matter like the weight of a cow, individual people won’t get the right answer. Yet when a crowd of people are asked, the average answer tends to actually get really close.
Maybe that’s what democracy is all about.