a blog

by Josh Nicholas

Democracy as a technological problem

Debates about the future of democracy often revolve around things like money, districting and incumbency. But an interesting paper out of RMIT is framing it as a technological problem.

The paper itself is an exploration of using a Blockchain for "coordinating preferences", or what they call "crypto democracy". But in setting the stage there is this amazing passage:

...technological and institutional changes have both expanded democratic possibilities and helped develop trust that individual votes — i.e. choices - are inputs into the social choice governed by the constitutional system. Technological advancement opens up alternative systems through which democracy might be practiced."

(My emphasis)

It may seem obvious, but it's worthwhile to dwell on the idea that our institutions were created for a context with entirely different technological boundaries.

And historically, our institutions evolved as the technology did.

"Ancient Athenian democracy was organised predominately by sortition rather than representation. Several hundred offices, including the membership of the governing Council of the 500, were filled each year by random allotment."

"Participation in the lottery was not compulsory, but for those who chose to do so, identification was verified by ownership of a bronze identity plate. These plates were slotted into a tall marble machine, the kleroterion, from which they were withdrawn according to the random roll of a dice. Offices were allocated on the basis of the order the plates were withdrawn."

The introduction of the kleroterion, alongside the identification controls of the bronze plates, provided a material increase in the ‘democraticness’ of Athenian democracy, according to that society’s own conceptions of participation. In that case, technology and technological change expanded the institutional possibilities of democracy and reduced the costs of those institutions."

(My emphasis)

A lottery system, in other words, was not a Platonian ideal, but a beautiful, practical use of the tools at hand.

I'm not sure about the proposal the paper goes on to flesh out. Or whether Blockchain has a role in our future. But its maybe time to start thinking about how the technological boundaries have shifted since our institutions were created.

What new institutions can we dream up?