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Reengineering and Reinventing both Democracy and the Concept of Life in the Digital Era

The Need to Reinvent Democracy in the Digital Era

Direct Democracy; A Recipe for Chaos

Democracy of the twenty-first century refers almost exclusively to the right to take part in the political process (i.e., the right to vote). Nevertheless, the percentages of citizens who choose to exert this basic human right have fallen in Europe to an average of less than 80 % (Poland and Switzerland close to 50 %) and in the US to around 60 % (European Commission 2013). At the same time, the European political-economic system fails to secure employment for 26 million people (ca. 12 %), (European Commission 2013). It is, to say the least, disgraceful that some politicians blame the youth for their reduced interest in politics and diminishing participation in societal matters, when the politicians are the ones who have failed to put in place accountable, transparent and efficient mechanisms and processes to secure one of the most basic human rights: the right to work. Next to corruption, the unprecedented crises of institutions and values and the lack of accountability, one of the root causes underlying the failure of current systems of governance to respond to challenges is the fact that those we elect as our representatives fail to lobby and promote for the issues for which they have been chosen. In a series of co-laboratories using the Structured Democratic Dialogue Process (SDDP) (Future Worlds Center 2012) with 20–25 participants in each working collaboratively for 3–7 days, it was repetitively observed that root inhibitors of the current systems of governance include primarily: The fact that political systems did not evolve like everything else around us; Lack of accountability of those in power; Corruption and conflicts of interest; Corporate control of the means of democracy. Follow-up co-laboratories exploring design options for ideal futures, revealed as most powerful factors mechanisms such as: Laws voted directly by people; Inclusiveness, dialogue, co-decision in local communities and their representation in decisionmaking; Continuous passive and active participation in the political process via online platforms; Independent interactive media created by citizens for citizens, and even suggestions for the end of political parties as institutions. It should not come as a surprise that citizens focus on ideas that seek to put in place better controls on those managing power and direct connections between people and law-making and/ or decision-making processes. It is a broadly accepted thesis that the digital era has rendered most types of intermediaries obsolete or it has replaced them with technology; why not use technology to also bypass our representatives or even bring an end to political parties as institutions (Petridou et al. 2012)[1]?

Since the digital era opens tremendous possibilities for real-time feedback, frequent polling and online voting for virtually any matter from anywhere on the planet, in the minds of many, more voting equals more democracy. Direct democracy, a term coined recently, refers to a specific (one of many) model of democratic participation in which all citizens have equal access, equal voice, and equal voting power on all issues. We argue that if we were to adopt such an approach when taking political or other important group decisions, we would most probably create chaos. The direct democracy paradigm should therefore be rigorously distinguished and differentiated from a paradigm that demands massive, but at the same time authentic democratic participation. The term “authentic” refers to the demand that all relevant stakeholders are given both opportunity to participate in a genuine manner, and voice to argue in a structured and documented way over issues that could potentially influence their lives. As simple as this might sound, we currently do not have the theoretical grounds or the technical means to implement such a model. The challenges spread in multiple dimensions. For example, how do we identify and engage those whose lives will be influenced by whatever is being discussed or it will be decided for every particular situation? How do we weight their voice without violating principles of democracy? In other words, how do we design and implement systems, which guarantee that voting outcomes will always both rely on wisdom and will at the same time, be fair to everyone involved? Furthermore, how do we protect the authenticity of citizens' opinions and their anonymity? More importantly, how do we achieve true and not elusive equality (vide infra)?

Crozier, Huntington and Watanuki in their 1975 “The Crisis of Democracy” book (Crozier et al. 1975) report that Willy Brandt believed that “Western Europe has only 20 or 30 more years of democracy left in it; after that it will slide, engineless and rudderless, under the surrounding sea of dictatorship, and whether the dictation comes from a politburo or a junta will not make that much difference.” According to the same authors, a senior British official stated that “If Britain continues to be unable to resolve the seemingly un-resolvable problems of inflation-cum-prospective depression, observed, parliamentary democracy would ultimately be replaced by a dictatorship. And Takeo Miki warned in his first days in office that “Japanese democracy will collapse unless major reforms can be carried out and the people's confidence in politics be restored.”

Many contemporary authors, using indicators of citizenship and democratic deficits, also suggest that the current system of governance is not democratic at all and that wide-reaching and pervasive problems threaten the legitimacy and stability of the political system (Dalton 2006; Durant 1995; Macedo et al. 2005; Rimmerman 2001). Several centuries after Rousseau, present-day authors consent that democracy does not exist anywhere in the world, even today (Rousseau 1923) it has indeed never existed (Magas 2013); except once in Athens just after Ephialtes2 invented it, and it lasted for only about 140 years. Ephialtes (Wikipedia 2013) was literally the nightmare of the monarchists of those times, and his name in Greek translates to 'nightmare'. We dare suggest that this is truer today than ever before. We put forward the thesis that this is why the systems of governance should and they are about to change!

The above questions constitute grand challenges of our times that need to be addressed with high priority before the current systems of governance collapse completely. Some of the most relevant challenges, central to the EC's 2020 horizon strategies, to UNESCO, to UN and to practically every future-looking organization on the planet, are discussed in the next section.

  • [1] This factor ended up as one of the most influential ideas in the “Re-inventing Democracy in the Digital Era” SDDP, co-organized with the Digital Futures Task Force of the European Commission with participants from the European Youth Forum.
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