To Fix Tech, Democracy Needs to Grow Up

There isn’t much we can agree on these days. But two sweeping statements that might garner broad support are “We need to fix technology” and “We need to fix democracy.”

There is growing recognition that rapid technology development is producing society-scale risks: state and private surveillance, widespread labor automation, ascending monopoly and oligopoly power, stagnant productivity growth, algorithmic discrimination, and the catastrophic risks posed by advances in fields like AI and biotechnology. Less often discussed, but in my view no less important, is the loss of potential advances that lack short-term or market-legible benefits. These include vaccine development for emerging diseases and open source platforms for basic digital affordances like identity and communication.

At the same time, as democracies falter in the face of complex global challenges, citizens (and increasingly, elected leaders) around the world are losing trust in democratic processes and are being swayed by autocratic alternatives. Nation-state democracies are, to varying degrees, beset by gridlock and hyper-partisanship, little accountability to the popular will, inefficiency, flagging state capacity, inability to keep up with emerging technologies, and corporate capture. While smaller-scale democratic experiments are growing, locally and globally, they remain far too fractured to handle consequential governance decisions at scale.

This puts us in a bind. Clearly, we could be doing a better job directing the development of technology towards collective human flourishing—in fact, this may be one of the greatest challenges of our time. If actually existing democracy is so riddled with flaws, it doesn’t seem up to the task. This is what rings hollow in many calls to “democratize technology”: Given the litany of complaints, why subject one seemingly broken system to governance by another?

At the same time, as we deal with everything from surveillance to space travel, we desperately need ways to collectively negotiate complex value trade-offs with global consequences, and ways to share in their benefits. This definitely seems like a job for democracy, albeit a much better iteration. So how can we radically update democracy so that we can successfully navigate toward long-term, shared positive outcomes?

The Case for Collective Intelligence

To answer these questions, we must realize that our current forms of democracy are only early and highly imperfect manifestations of collective intelligence—coordination systems that incorporate and process decentralized, agentic, and meaningful decisionmaking across individuals and communities to produce best-case decisions for the collective.

Collective intelligence, or CI, is not the purview of humans alone. Networks of trees, enabled by mycelia, can exhibit intelligent characteristics, sharing nutrients and sending out distress signals about drought or insect attacks. Bees and ants manifest swarm intelligence through complex processes of selection, deliberation, and consensus, using the vocabulary of physical movement and pheromones. In fact, humans are not even the only animals that vote. African wild dogs, when deciding whether to move locations, will engage in a bout of sneezing to determine whether quorum has been reached, with the tipping point determined by context—for example, lower-ranked individuals require a minimum of 10 sneezes to achieve what a higher-ranked individual could get with only three. Buffaloes, baboons, and meerkats also make decisions via quorum, with flexible “rules” based on behavior and negotiation. 

But humans, unlike meerkats or ants, don’t have to rely on the pathways to CI that our biology has hard-coded into us, or wait until the slow, invisible hand of evolution tweaks our processes. We can do better on purpose, recognizing that progress and participation don’t have to trade off. (This is the thesis on which my organization, the Collective Intelligence Project, is predicated.)

Our stepwise innovations in CI systems—such as representative, nation-state democracy, capitalist and noncapitalist markets, and bureaucratic technocracy—have already shaped the modern world. And yet, we can do much better. These existing manifestations of collective intelligence are only crude versions of the structures we could build to make better collective decisions over collective resources.

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