Democracy in the age of the Internet of Things

With the release of Swipe the Vote in spring 2016, Tinder, the ultimate hook-up app, broke new ground in the United States by claiming to be able to match young voters with their dream-perfect presidential candidate. The matchmaking app tries to make voting sexy by employing to representative politics its same cut-to-the-chase dating method.

Who wants to read up on candidates’ policies, attend rallies or even watch a debate? You just want to jump into the bed of democracy with the one who turns you on politically, right? Who would bother to vote in the future if a set of sophisticated algorithms just identified, by trawling your data mine, your ideal candidate?

Once upon a time there was a www…

In the past two decades, we have observed how the web has evolved from an oddity to a tool used in different phases of electoral strategies.

The first U.S. presidential campaign website, for example, went online in 1995. It was a modest website consisting of a few photos and statements, ordering instructions for campaign merchandise and an email link for interested voters to contact the campaign. The Democratic primary candidate Pat Paulsen made it, running against Bill Clinton. The use of the new technology did not particularly help the underdog candidate to rise up in the competition.

In 2004, another Democratic candidate, Howard Dean, used the internet more effectively. He pioneered internet-based fundraising and grassroots organizing. The strategy was centered on mass appeal to small donors and was more cost-efficient than the more expensive method of contacting fewer potential larger donors. Dean also promoted active participatory democracy among the general public through online outreach.

…but the www might become a wtf

As was the case with the early rise of the internet, the emergence of the so-called Internet of Things is set to become a game changer. And young people are likely to be the main target audience, as is the case with the Tinder widget for the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.

The basic idea behind the Internet of Things is that any device with an on-and-off switch can be connected to the internet. Forecasts indicate that 6.4 billion connected devices will be in use worldwide by the end of 2016, up 30 percent from 2015, and will reach 20.8 billion by 2020. These figures show how massive this technological change is going to be. Deeper changes will happen, however, for the entire political industry. The availability of a wealth of data will create a new ground for how decisions will be made by democratically accountable politicians.

A set of sophisticated algorithms could automatically calculate, through data coming from our own objects and wearable devices, our supposed political preferences.

Electoral campaigns will look dramatically different in 10 or 20 years. We could, for example, imagine the institutionalization of apps that simplify citizens’ participation. The electorate might officially express opinions on policy issues on their own devices, swiping to register “likes” and “dislikes.” That would be the next level of “Tinderpolitics,” where the swipes would not just have an indicative value, but become binding. It would be interesting to be able to forecast what this would mean for policy making, and whether all policy issues would be reduced to these kinds of binary decisions.

Going further, a set of sophisticated algorithms could automatically calculate, through data coming from our own objects and wearable devices, our supposed political preferences. These data could be sent to decision makers seamlessly, making voting obsolete. Such sets of algorithms could potentially even have unlimited access to the physical activity and the things that any given citizen would own.

To complete this imaginary dystopian scenario, a massive big data processor could then calculate the optimal mix of policies ranked according to the behaviors and choices of people everyday.

What would be governments’ reactions?

Plausibly to dismiss all elected officials. Act via spokespersons with simple job descriptions. To announce daily the results of the calculations of the algorithm. To dispatch them to the director generals of ministries. To smile at cameras. To look good.

Could this be the case of our governance systems in, let’s say, 20 years?

Wait, what?

This makes me think again about the early 1990s. We truly thought then, at some point, that we would have been flooded by MiniDiscs and Digital Compact Cassettes. But we weren’t.

In the same fashion, many political analysts at that time were predicting an end of representative democracy caused by deliberative democracy through the internet. But we never really saw that happen. And it would be hard to predict or prove that this new wave of technological progress will lead to a dramatic change in political organization.

We have seen dystopian societies run by men and not by machines many times in history.

The reasons for this go beyond technical matters. There are broader risks in having the general electorate involved in every political decision, as opposed to delegation, as well costs for the public related to obtaining enough information to constructively contribute to every decision — not to mention the risk of having ill-founded and populist decisions.

However, some political formations have grown around this concept. The Five Stars Movement became the second largest group in Parliament in Italy after the national elections in 2013. The Pirate Party in Germany is promoting the concept of “liquid democracy,” with some success, as a hybrid system whereby an electorate vests voting power in delegates rather than in representatives.

And that’s when youth should get up

Young activists involved in these matters will have to keep these changes in mind in order to retain their influence over the way policies will be drafted, decided, implemented and evaluated in the future. They will have to cope with the tension between the risk of a technocratic and dystopian future, the promise of a dream-like utopia or tech-enhanced business as usual. Often reality has proven to lie in between.

Dystopian futures could become real, even if humans keep control of policy making. We have seen dystopian societies run by men and not by machines many times in history. It is a reminder that politics is a human responsibility, without stigmatizing industrial and technological development. The society imagined by Samuel Butler in 1872 in “Erewhon” was no worse, in some aspects, even if it totally banned the machines for fear that they would take over following Darwinian evolution.

In the case of the Industrial Internet, the political discourse and narratives will shape its further development and goals. Young activists play a pivotal role in shaping such discourse. The most important mission they have is to transmit such goals and discourses in an understandable way, in order to keep their fellow peers and all the citizens aware of the consequences of the changes that are happening so we can ultimately keep a transparent and democratic oversight over the future of society.

This article supports #YouthUp, a Pan-European campaign to crowdsource the best ideas for a more youth-inclusive politics. It draws on reflections made by the author in the chapter “Policy and Politics in the Era of Industrial Internet” included in the volume Out-thinking Organizational Communications: The Impact of Digital Transformation published by Springer.