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Technologizing Democracy or Democratizing Technology? A Layered-Architecture Perspective on Potentials and Challenges

Bryan Ford

Appears in Digital Technology and Democratic Theory
by Lucy Bernholz, Hélène Landemore, and Rob Reich (editors)
published by the University of Chicago Press


While technology is often claimed to be “democratizing”, the technologizing of society has more often yielded undemocratic or even anti-democratic outcomes. Is technology fundamentally at odds with democracy, or is it merely a rich and infinitely-adaptable toolbox that we’re using the wrong way? We explore how technology has failed to support robust democracy – but could do better – in the context of four basic social processes: collective deliberation and choice, information distribution and filtering, economic commerce, and identity.

Technology could eventually help us make better collective choices, but only if we can make digital deliberation and voting systems both truly participatory and truly secure. Since making good decisions relies on the availability of good information, we need digital forums that enable communities to vet and filter a digital deluge of information democratically without falling into a muddle of fake news, real and perceived bias, or polarized echo chambers. Since effective participations is impractical for those who must spend every moment of time struggling to survive, healthy digital democracy will require a democratic reformulation of digital-age money and commerce as well. Finally, none of these social processes can resist abuse or subversion without a democratic basis for digital identity that can distinguish real people from abuse, botnets, and sock puppets, while preserving the privacy needed for freedom and true self-expression. While this perspective leaves many questions to answer and challenges to overcome, it does suggest a framework or layered architecture we might take as a tentative blueprint for digital democracy.

Book chapter: PDF

Topics: Democracy Personhood Security Privacy Blockchain Economics Identity Voting Bryan Ford