“No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world. And yet no subject is so little understood” (Ellul, 1964).
Despite professing the importance of ‘technology’ at a time before what we would come to understand of the word in 2021, Jacques Ellul’s 1964 claim bears even greater relevance now than when it was first written. As technology draws individuals ever closer, its impact is felt in an ever-wider range of public domains and industries. From overhauling manufacturing lines to monitoring and exploiting consumer behavior, technology is fast moving into every aspect of our lives. Individuals' experiences of life are now heavily mediated by technology and this dependence on our technical a priori (viewing the world around us through technology) has been fast redefining the ways in which we communicate with each other both at the individual, one-to-one level, and also at the macro, social level. Whilst leaders and governing bodies around the world aren’t strangers to leveraging the power of technology, it has only been within the last few years that the depth of its true potential has begun to be realised. This post will explore this by addressing the positive potential of technology within democratic processes, more specifically the use of new technology and AI that may be set to revolutionise the way leaders and policy makers communicate with their voters.
We understand that effective leadership requires consensus to be reached and for this to happen quickly, however, the consensus that is reached must also accurately reflect the views of the citizens being represented. Debating at the national level is often carried out through the use of opinion polls but these adversarial methods have drawbacks that can undermine the legitimacy of their results. The dichotomous ‘yes/no’, ‘for/against’ format of these votes arguably over simplifies complex matters to the extent that the conclusion that is reached is not always the best reflection of public opinion. Similarly, they can encapsulate the divided mood of nations and result in ongoing tension. Perhaps the clearest, most recent example of this is the 2016 British referendum on membership of the European Union. Not only was the result a small majority but the vote was criticised for being too complex of a question to be simplified down into one yes or no question. The fallout of the result and the process of leaving the EU perfectly illustrated how complex the matters being voted on are and how-in reality-this style of voting is perhaps not the most suitable mode of capturing public opinion.
A more suitable technological alternative can be found in Tony Czarnecki’s Consensual Debating, a combination of digitized structure content and POLIS digitised debates that enables easier communication of views at the macro level of society. Digitized structured content refers to the clear presentation of content online that enables individuals to easily access topics of debate and POLIS digitized debates are a real time system of debating that gathers and analyses views being expressed in order to gain a fast and accurate picture of the views of those being surveyed. POLIS systems use advanced statistics and machine learning to produce these outcomes and the combination of these two systems, in theory, results in well informed opinions being shared that can be concisely summarised and presented to policy makers-creating a clear and direct link between leaders and the electorate. This digital democracy would allow societies to do away with the dichotomies inherent to adversarial politics, using technology to ensure that the true intentions of the electorate are brought before their governing bodies.
Having already been deployed around the world at the national, local and business level, consensual debating is also being trialed at the European level in the Conference on the Future of Europe. A collaboration between the European parliament, the EU council and the European commission, the conference is centered around an online platform launched in 2021 that is intended to be a way for these bodies to listen directly to the view of Europeans. On this platform individuals can access information (digitized structured content) and forums (POLIS debates) on a select range of topics and share their views on the topics in question. Using AI software, these views are then collected, analysed and published on the website throughout the conference and fed into discussions at the European citizens’ panels and plenaries. Considered a trial for the upscaling of this digital democracy, the European parliament, the EU council and the European commission intend to pursue the recommendations made with the intention of reaching conclusions and providing guidance on the future of Europe by Spring 2022. Secretary of State for European Affairs of France, Ana Paula Zacarias described the platform as “a true genuine process of real engagement with our citizens”. The platform allows Europeans to comment and debate on the following topics: Climate change and the environment; Health; Economy, social justice and jobs; the EU in the world; Values and rights, rule of law, security; Digital transformation; European democracy; Migration; Education, culture, youth and sport and has a forum dedicated to other ideas. Since its launch (at the time of writing) the platform has had 23,421 participants, 6,704 ideas proposed, 12,330 comments 1,839 events and 34,687 endorsements, distributed over the 10 topics of discussion on the platform.
The application of this technology bears potential to effectively engage individuals in democratic processes but also to properly anchor representative organisations like the EU and national governments in the views of those individuals whose interest they claim to represent. This would address the two dimensions of legitimacy that Fritz Scharpf draws on in his 1999 commentary on governing Europe, input legitimacy and output legitimacy. These dimensions refer to the ability and desire of the electorate to engage with local government and also the extent to which these local governments represent the views of these individuals. Use of technology for the likes of the Conference for the Future of Europe also overcomes the limitations of physical proximity that might impact bodies like the EU who are trying to engage with a high number of people over large areas of land-beyond just one country. In enabling members and leaders of large constituencies to properly engage with one another, and if accepted and proved to be effective and reliable, these platforms could pave a path for greater use of e-democracy at the national level. In addition to this vertical engagement, these platforms would also allow for a sense of ‘horizontal’ engagement; meaning that individuals within governed states would also be able to engage with the views of others (that they may not otherwise be exposed to), potentially developing a greater sense of local/national identity and solidarity. The formality of these platforms would allow these individuals to feel truly engaged with their governments, instead of using decidedly informal social media platforms to share their views. In a world of increasing division, the ability to share political ideas and views in this way may foster a greater sense of local/national solidarity, especially if these ideas were actioned by governing bodies.
However, whilst these proposals are being actioned and gaining traction, there is considerable ground to be covered. Representatively, the platform being used by the Conference on the future of Europe is performing fairly poorly when one considers that there are 445m people within the Europe Union. 12,330 participants over 10 topics of discussion averages to just over 1000 people per topic, and the CoFE website does not indicate whether or not this number discriminates between comments made by the same individual on multiple topics. This suggests that whilst these platforms may have the potential to create a digital link between the electorate and governing bodies of the EU, this is currently still just potential and they have a long way to go before they might be considered truly representative. Additionally, whilst these solutions may be applicable to many developed countries; these platforms would not yet be suitable at the global level due to inequalities in access to devices that would enable participation. However, a 2016 estimate that 5bn people around the world now own a smartphone may be grounds for disregarding this query at some point in the near future. However, there is also the likelihood that these attempts at strengthening the democratic process could invite strong opposition from those questioning the security and legitimacy of these practices. A 2020 review of the use of AI in EU policy making indicated that AI should be used ‘with caution’ and only alongside human decision makers, as a result of the perceived illegitimacy of removing humans from these processes. This suggests that attempts to improve the legitimacy of the relationship between policy makers and the electorate will take time to be embraced by individuals.
However, it must be acknowledged that-whilst these ideas are not new-they have not been long in practice. As such, it must be recognised that over time the increased use of technology and AI may be adopted and embraced on a global scale, but that this is likely going to be a gradual process. The positive potential that is demonstrated by the consensual debating is staggering and the speed at which AI and machine learning is being developed will soon enhance this technology even further. Jacques Ellul was correct in highlighting the importance of technology but it could be argued that even in 2021 we are only just beginning to grasp the extent of its importance.
Conference on the future of Europe. Available at: https://futureu.europa.eu/processes
Czarnecki, T. Consensual debating for all levels of Government. Available at:
Ellul, J. (1964) The Technology Society. New York: Vintage Books.
Manin, B. (2017) Political Deliberation & the Adversarial Principle. Daedalus
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POLIS digitised debating. Available at: https://compdemocracy.org/Polis/
Scharpf, FW. (1999) Governing in Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Silver, L. (2019) Smartphone Ownership Is Growing Rapidly Around the World, but Not Always Equally. Pew Research Centre. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/02/05/smartphone-ownership-is-growing-rapidly-around-the-world-but-not-always-equally/
Smith, J. O’Brien, T. Carr, H. Crowe, P. & Rice, M. (2020) Polis and the political process. Published by Demos. Available at: https://www.openrightsgroup.org/app/uploads/2020/08/Polis-the-Political-Process-NEW.pdf
Starke, C. & Lünich, M. (2020) Artificial intelligence for political decision-making in the European Union: Effects on citizens’ perceptions of input, throughput, and output legitimacy. Data & Policy. (2)16. Available at: 10.1017/dap.2020.19