Digitality and Democracy

Great hopes were placed just a few decades ago in the empowering impact of digital technology. It was expected to enable unprecedented citizen participation and strengthen monitory democracy, to use John Keane’s apt term for the continuous public control of power, by improving interconnectivity and equalizing access to information for users. Some even prophesied the dawn of a new era of direct democracy.

Alas, very soon the initial enthusiasm gave way to disillusionment. The expected empowerment failed to materialise while concern about surveillance as well concentration of power through and over big data grew by the day. Digital tools came to be seen as significantly exacerbating the ongoing crisis of democracy instead of enriching and deepening it. Three essays included in an edited volume on the current crisis of democracy published in 2019 by the IWM broach the link between the pervasiveness of digital technology and the corrosion of democratic institutions. Populist politicians and authoritarian regimes, rather than the defenders of liberal democratic values, seem to have used and benefited most from digital tools. Expectations of strengthening monitory democracy have now given way to fears of the emergence of the surveillance state with powerful digital capabilities.

Paradoxically instead of opening up new vistas of practically unlimited knowledge for interconnected users, digitality has often led to their atomisation within subtly controlled, restricted environments. Despite the possibility of access to more and better information, internet users are in fact much less exposed to a variety of different opinions than before. This  has promoted polarisation rather than the formation of informed opinion based on facts. Internet and social media have become to an alarming degree vehicles of deliberate disinformation (“fake news”) and manipulation of millions of people, including their voting preferences. In a recent essay, Timothy Snyder draws attention to a new emerging regime of digital tyranny characterised by the systematic negation of truth that not only has a devastating effect on democracy but also on the very future of humanity. Indeed, it is due to this overwhelming destructive potential of digital technology that mathematician Cathy O’Neil has termed Big Data and algorithms as “weapons of math destruction”.

Although as a rule the impact of the digital revolution on the economy is discussed independently from its implications for politics, it is hardly without consequences for democracy as also for our working lives. Reflecting on the promises and risks of automation, economic historian Robert Skidelsky calls for both a regulation of the ‘roll-out’ of the new technology and a reorientation of the economy towards ethical goals. It becomes increasingly evident that the regulation of technology is as essential for democracy to survive the digital challenge as is a refashioning of the ethical foundations of politics, economy and science. Though difficult, this is a necessary and worthwhile task.