Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Oct 21, 2019
Interrogating the future of digital democracies

Democratic governance is one of the oldest forms of political governance, dating back to 507 B.C.E. in Ancient Greece. Most people believe that since then, democracy has only flourished. The reality is that ‘ancient democracy’ collapsed; first into anarchy and then into dictatorship, heralding the medieval period, also known as the dark ages. When the United States of America declared itself a sovereign nation in 1776 (1776-1789) and ratified its new government, it was the first ‘modern democracy’. Near simultaneously on the other side of the Atlantic, the French revolution overthrew the monarchy to establish a republic with liberal democratic values. Both countries experienced violent political periods a few decades after becoming democracies and have grown into their form of governance over the centuries since their forming.

Today, the United States and France are liberal democracies that continue to uphold democratic values, human rights and maintain their commitment to the political freedom of their citizens. This is not without struggle, because democracy is messy and it is a constant dialogue between citizens and their elected leaders. Citizens demand that their many voices be heard, that actions be taken in support of different interest groups, and that elected leaders be held accountable. Democracy is naturally messy because it is meant to represent an entire nation of people who think differently and want different policies from their leaders. Liberal democracies are the preferred choice of government for those who wish to elect their leaders and, no matter the outcome, experience a peaceful transition of power. It is the preferred choice for those who wish to be able to live free from prosecution because of the gender they love, the god they pray to (or don’t believe in), as well as for women to freely have access to civic liberties (and have a space to defend them) such as the pursuit of independence in all its forms (economic freedom, political participation, professional choice, reproductive rights and sexual consent).

Over 2,500 years after the birth of democracy in Ancient Greece, and just a few hundred years after its resurgence at the end of the medieval times, we are transitioning into a ‘digital democracy’. We are toddlers in this new period, learning how to walk in the digital spaces of an intangible territorial sovereignty, where the digital borders are blurry but play a role on the democratic infrastructure inside physical borders.

What does it mean if most of a nation’s time is spent in digital spaces? Their mind and attention is in these digital spaces, while their physical bodies are in the territorial sovereignty of a nation’s government. Digital spaces for work, love, shopping, hobbies, and religion can all be found online. Over the years, the platforms that facilitate these exchanges reached across borders to become the glue for social and professional networking, they have provided access to business markets for a new wave of digital ‘mom and pop’ shops, and have documented our lives in ways that generations of royalty have never experienced.

These digital technologies, combined with the pervasiveness of corporate algorithms, have created a social and economic infrastructure that has increasingly taken power away from government as more citizens sign onto terms and conditions of the platforms they digitally inhabit. While this has taken away layers of bureaucracy in some aspects, it has brought more power to individuals to deliver their messages to broader audiences, sell their products to larger markets, learn new skills for free through many digital mediums, enjoy more forms of digital entertainment and connect with like-minded people across the world.

However, as the spaces we inhabit (with our attention) have shifted from physical to digital, we have entered the sovereignty of those digital spaces, and their respective algorithms, which have increasingly become the mediators of our lives. They suggest who to date, what job to apply to, what home appliance to buy and which political candidate to vote for.

In this sense, the algorithmic mediators of our lives have taken agency away from citizens, with several consequences, one being that the thoughts in our minds may not have necessarily come from there. It is unrealistic to argue that individuals should simply ‘leave’ these platforms. The costs of leaving are too high for those who rely on them for market viability and economic sustenance. Some say it is convenience, but these platforms are also a form of liberation (for revival of ‘mom and pop shops’ on Instagram and Etsy and Uber). They are also a form of entrapment when there aren’t other platform options. Opting out can have financial, professional and social consequences. In this space, unelected leadership and corporate policies are the defacto form of civil law online.

How do liberal democracies around the world exercise their authority inside their physical territory, when the hearts and minds of their citizens residing in that same soil are living digital lives (for the most part of their day) under another leadership’s terms and rules. If liberal democracies are meant to be “for the people, by the people”, then the corporate jurisdictions in which we inhabit most of our digital lives are “for the corporation (and its shareholders), by the founders, mediated by a small group of engineers and defined by lawyers protecting corporate interests”. None of these people are democratically accountable to the citizens of any nation because they have never been elected in democratic elections.

While citizens vote in elections to determine who will govern them in the physical space, unelected leaders govern the digital spaces we spend time in, and they are playing an important role in the new fabric of our digital governance. Does democracy exist in the digital world if no one elected those who govern it? Does democracy exist in the digital world if no one elected those who control the main platforms of our digital lives, or write the algorithms that play a role in our fate? What does that mean for the role of those who are democratically elected in the physical spaces we inhabit? What does it mean to have an “informed” civic debate in these circumstances? When democratic representation in the physical world does not apply to the digital world, the laws as they stand are not fit for purpose.

This essay originally appeared in Digital Debates — CyFy Journal 2019.
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