Politics: The Digital Future

The origins of the Internet have always been wrapped up in digital democracy, says Carl Miller.

On April 25, 1963, Joseph Licklider – Lick to his friends – wrote a memo to the ‘Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network’. The memo was about an ‘overall enterprise’ that Licklider, himself, was at a loss to name. What he really wanted to do had never been done before: he wanted to work out a way for the very small number of hugely expensive computers that he and his colleagues worked on, to talk to each other.

Characteristically modest, Licklider conceded that it was possible that “only on rare occasions” would his intergalactic computer network be necessary. But if they could crack it, if they could make it work, well then think, he exhorted the readers of the memo, think of the scale of hardware that could be thrown at common problems: “we would have at least four large computers, perhaps six or eight small computers, and a great assortment of disc files and magnetic tape units”. It seemed like an almost impossible dream.

Licklider worked for the Advanced Research Projects Agency within the US Government, and this memo has a much claim as anything else to be the origin of the internet. But even at this very beginning, Licklider and his colleagues knew that from this humble technical origin, a number of other origins would be created too. Sometime later Licklider wrote that connecting computers together would allow

Decisions in the ‘public interest’ but also in the interest of giving the public itself the means to enter into the decision-making process that will shape their future.”

Right at the very start of the Internet was the idea that it could transform how power and politics works. The origins of the Internet have always been wrapped up in another origin as well: digital democracy.

Now, of course, we are all members of Licklider’s intergalactic computer network. The internet has grown vaster and wider than even Licklider himself could possibly have imagined. But for most of us, most of the time, Licklider’s vision has simply not come true. Whilst the Internet has changed so much about how we live our lives; from where we shop, to the beliefs that we hold, to how we fall in love, it has barely changed how we are involved in political decision-making, how we live as citizens – as members of a democratic system.

Instead of becoming more powerful as citizens, the Internet, firstly has made us the recipients of yet another kind of advertising campaign. Here, during the General Election, we hear the same, empty soundbite, echoing around the Internet:

Politicians aside, as we jump ourselves into the world of politics on social media, we also often jump into digital tribes. This ‘Twitterverse’ of the General Election shows a galaxy of the hundreds of thousands of Twitter accounts who jumped into the digital debate. The location of each of these stars is no accident: those that tend to follow and retweet each other, to see each other’s information and pass it on, are close by, and those that don’t are further away. Over the General Election, there was a Labour tribe, a Conservative tribe, a UKIP tribe, each sharing their own partisan information. Each often tribes often acts like a churning washing machine of information, reflecting your own basic beliefs, your own basic worldview, back at you in a million different ways.

Third, when there is debate and difference on social media, it can all turn very nasty. Over 100,000 messages of abuse were thrown at politicians during the campaign and even politicians, tired, anxious and ragged on the campaign trail, threw over a thousand abusive messages back. Here’re their favourite words:

All of this is political, but none of it is, in a formal sense, democratic. Digital politics is profoundly changing how elections are fought and how political power is sought and won, but it hasn’t changed the way that power is wielded, or given the public a greater say. The daily reality of politics on the Internet has, for most people, most of the time, stubbornly resisted the beckoning future that Licklider pointed towards.

Democracy is a lofty idea, but the loftiest of ideas always produce a train of practical challenges. How can people actually rule? What structures need to be in place, what powers created, what balances struck and what boundaries policed to truly have a system where the people are in charge? The devil of democracy has always been in the detail.

Detail was exactly what was needed in 1649, at the origin of our own democracy. At the end of the Civil War, with the smell of musket smoke still hanging in the air, and our headless king still on the scaffold, we needed a system of democracy that we could make practically work. We faced a huge problem. There were too many people, spread out over too vast a country, too busy, and too ungovernable, to directly rule. We had to come up with something else.

A man, now often forgotten, Henry Parker, had the answer; and in giving it, authored a system of democracy now recognisable to everyone. People, he reasoned, could be sovereign, could rule, if a Parliament was. Parliament needed to represent – literally to re-present – the nation, but conveniently small, all in one room, capable of making decisions. Democracy could be achieved through electing representatives to rule on our behalf. This was the way of making democracy work for huge, modern countries.

People worried about Parliaments at the time that Parker suggested it. They saw it as a very dangerous means to fulfil a worthy end. They were right to worry, because from 1649 to today this way of achieving democracy through Parliaments looks like it is in big trouble, even a crisis. Alongside Parliaments, we’ve seen the rise of political parties, big electoral factories capable of winning elections and commanding majorities. But these factories need to be funded, so we’ve also seen the rise of big money politics, where donations, sometimes shadowy, sometimes not, go to finance not democracy itself but the Parties that live within it. We’ve also seen the rise of politics as a profession, a career you choose instead of being a doctor or an accountant, and often chosen by people who are themselves from political dynasties; families that pass on the contacts, networks, opportunities, even the very self-belief, that it is possible to be a politician in the first place.

The rise of all these things, together, means that citizens are often treated not as the routine participants in a democracy, but the consumers of it; a market that political Parties need to sell a product to every handful of years, come election time. However, this is a product that fewer and fewer of us are buying anymore. Never before have people felt so distant from Parliament, or alienated from politics. Electoral turnout has been falling since the 1950s, so has Party membership. 74% of Brits now don’t trust politicians to tell the truth, more than estate agents and bankers. Politicians have become Britain’s least trust profession. From Bernie Saunders and Jeremy Corbyn to Donald Trump, across the political spectrum people are desperately searching for answers and alternatives outside of the political mainstream.

At the birth of the Internet, what I think Licklider was imagining was a return to a kind of democracy before Parliaments – all the way back to the origins of Democracy here in Athens. What Licklider saw, and what is true today, is that perhaps for the first time in centuries, Parliaments are no longer the only practical answer to make democracy work. The Internet is now making alternative systems of democracy possible, and people are beginning to build technology to find other ways of letting the people rule, and of shifting power away from political parties and back to people.

One new possibility is digital direct democracy. No delegates, no Parliaments; people constantly and directly, voting on decisions. The sheer number of people, and their distance apart – such a difficulty in the 1640s when Parliaments were created, no longer matters. Another is liquid democracy, where votes flow around networks of people as easily and seamlessly as money or information. You pass your vote on economic issues to someone you trust, on defence to someone else; votes that can revoked at any time. A third, radical idea, is blockchain democracy: A democracy without not only Parliaments, but also states. People are building technology, today, that allows networks to function without any kind of middleman – where everyone makes sure everyone else is following the rules. Bitcoin, you may have heard of, was based on this. It’s now being used to allow people to become citizens of a virtual nation, with insurance, citizenship, land titles, even embassies. This takes democracy out the geographical space, and fully into Linklider’s intergalactic network.

There are a flood of new platforms being developed to make this happen. Not many of them are highly used, and these systems will be subject to manipulation, open to abuse. We don’t know which will work, and how to slot them into the system that we have. Reinventing democracy is not easy, of course, it is extremely difficult.

But what is clear is that Parliament – representative democracy – is no longer our only option of making democracy work. On the one hand we’ve got a crisis of our current system, and on the other, all these new possibilities. The demand for more participatory, more inclusive ways of making political decisions will continue to grow, and the technology that finds new, cheaper, and more convenient ways of doing it will get better and better. Something, sooner or later, has to crack and we will see, I think, the next grand evolution in democracy itself.

From Licklider’s memo to today, this is what the best of the Internet has always been about about: innovation, trying new things, never being happy with the status quo, never being happy with what we’ve inherited. It’s time to try something new.

This was based on a talk that Carl gave to the TedxAthens Conference on ‘Origins’ in February, 2016.