Bad analogies.

Alex
6 min readMar 3, 2020

Close reading is a nasty thing to do to someone else’s work. So, be aware that I am doing it not because the writer is bad or the ideas are without merit, but because I really, really disagree with the statements and I want to take them apart (without malice).

There was an article in Wired a week or two ago that was doing the rounds.

I think it is utter bunk for many structural reasons. I’m going to pick out some big quotes and ideas from this and try and demonstrate why.

That the internet has transformed politics, there is already no doubt. But now a second political revolution is happening. It is driven by people who want to reach into the basic sinews of democracy to change how it works. They question not how to use technology to win elections, but whether we need elections at all.

The internet has transformed politics in the same way that the 24 hour news cycle transformed it. I would argue that the internet has not changed the fundamental constitution of democracy in most/almost all countries, merely people’s expectations of its response SLAs.

The whole idea of civic technocrats getting involved in the mechanics of popular mandates and deciding from a position of knowing some Python whether elections are still necessary has a rich history. At its most benign it is something like Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections (http://solo.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/permalink/f/89vilt/oxfaleph02098300) a jolly intro to how pro league sortition (jury duty but for legislatures) might work. A fun thought experiment, but not something that seems to have enough of a head of steam behind it outside of democratic services consultancies. At its worst, you have groups like WebRoots who astroturf support for online voting without any convincing answer for the massive security risks it introduces to democracy, and basing its popular support on leading questions in opinion polling. Anyway, the point here is that civic tech has a patchy history of involvement in the cogs of democracy and it is often from a position of vanguardism rather than thoughtful knowledge.

Not all countries are the same.

The thing in this article that grinds my gears the most though is the comparative polity section.

In 2012, Estonia launched the Rahvakogu (“People’s Assembly”) to crowdsource and deliberate on proposals to change the law…

But nowhere has been more important than Taiwan… The platform has already informed more than 20 pieces of regulation.

You’ll have heard about Estonia. They’re the poster child for digital government. They have a government with a deeply embedded CTO. They’ve built their entire civic infrastructure to be resilient and redeployable if the government is threatened in war time. They also had a pretty clean slate to start on infrastructure in 1989. None of that is bad, although their online voting/ID scheme wouldn’t make me feel super comfortable (https://www.theverge.com/2014/5/13/5714438/estonia-e-voting-system-could-easily-be-rigged-by-hackers & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007_cyberattacks_on_Estonia). The decisions they have made as a government are unique to their needs and circumstances. Their e-residency brings in money to the economy (especially in PO boxes and anglophone accountants) without too much risk. Their ID system works for their needs and their ability to iterate software as a part of normal government process makes the security issues linked to above more manageable.

Taiwan is the equivalent to Estonia in terms of analogies in civic technology. I’m always interested to hear about what’s happened there. I think it is genuinely amazing that an outside of government group has had such a huge impact on the way that citizens interact with government. But, I don’t think noting that a government has what is essentially a consultations platform is necessarily evidence of a seismic shift in how democracy is done.

From 2016, Taiwan’s civic-hacker community began to develop an intricate, carefully designed process that uses a combination of online and offline debate to find consensus among engaged citizens on specific issues of law and regulation. At its heart is an online platform called pol.is. Unlike many social networks, the comments that the platform makes most visible are the ones with most consensus. The platform has already informed more than 20 pieces of regulation.

This is an opportunity for tyranny of the busybody. I work in government and civic technology, have a family, a dog, hobbies and friends and do not have time to be a legislative keyboard warrior, constantly writing comments and rebuttals. I have a delegated representative legislator who is bound to represent me and my area. The people who have time are often over-represented already. In my national context at least, they are older, don’t have caring responsibilities, don’t work and don’t necessarily represent a cross section of national opinions especially on issues such as EU relations, access to housing, gender and taxation.

In all of this, I feel obliged to link to my favourite gov/civic tech blogpost: https://medium.com/civic-tech-thoughts-from-joshdata/so-you-want-to-reform-democracy-7f3b1ef10597 as it goes through quite a lot of the issues inherent in this kind of thinking: if you want to rock the boat on democratic representation, just “move fast and break things” is not good enough. Disruption doesn’t disrupt for the people who already have power, it just destabilises the living conditions of the precariat. Someone described this for me (in the context of organisational design) recently as “you might see something that looks stuck, but that is only because all the forces acting on it are in equilibrium. As soon as you change one thing, all the other forces are in play again”.

In 2020 we will see similar anger in many democratic countries. Representatives will feel remote.

[citation needed]

Government will feel deaf to its citizens. A dangerous anti-political mix of apathy, cynicism, and dysfunction will be the dominant mood. And this will lead to serious alternatives to representative democracy being proposed in serious ways. The digital democrats will push their agenda in front of all of us: to change not just what government should do, but what government should actually be.

This has been the story for as long as I’ve been interested in politics. FullFact point out that the academic research backs this up: “Look at any survey data on trust, and you’ll see that the majority of the UK public generally says they distrust politicians, journalists and the government. Despite reports to the contrary, this has pretty much always been the case.” (https://fullfact.org/media/uploads/political-trust-in-the-uk.pdf). This isn’t to say we can’t do better, but is to say that we are at no more of a crisis now than we were during the Iraq war protests, or the fuel crisis, or foot and mouth, or the poll tax, or the miners strike or the corn laws.

It’s also worth pointing out here the glaring distinction between representative, democratic legislatures and the executive, which the author conflates to my great disappointment. Government by app is neither possible nor advisable. Sometimes things are done against the will of the people for their greater benefit and, again, the power of those who have the time to spend entirely on lobbying is to be avoided.

On methods for involving people in more inputs into legislation: wonderful. Lots of these things are being tried, not just by tech people, but by legislatures, councils, think tanks, universities and activist groups across the world. Different things work in different circumstances. I think our experience of Big Tech insisting that the US first amendment is in play in all legal systems should make us wary of institutionalising and centralising the methods of interaction with law making.

As a last point, it also has to be acknowledged that, going back to the author’s first point, civic tech does transform politics. Marie Le Conte’s recent piece in GQ on TheyWorkForYou spells out some of the ways that civic tech motivates different behaviours in MPs to be visible to constituents through quantitative measures. Too little of civic hacking/civic tech/govtech includes consequence scanning: imagining what the impact of an innovation may be. Too few articles about society in Wired include a deep understanding of the problems facing civil society and how technology to fix them can only be based on detailed and ultimately very well targeted and human processes based on the needs of citizens, rather than the design patterns of a distant and unrelated polity.

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Alex

Public sector specialist. Anthropologist on the internet.