Could Technology Remove the Politicians From Politics?

Sue Brideshead at Motherboard: “The tech industry has talked long and hard about democratizing industries. Democratizing content, democratizing taxi-cabs, and democratizing bed and breakfasts. But what about democratizing democracy?

Disruption is the word of the moment in Washington, thanks to an incoming president who counts his inexperience in government as an asset. It remains to be seen what kind of disruption Trump will bestow upon the White House, but efforts at disruption from the technology world have refined and chipped at only the topmost layer of inefficiencies. Mark Zuckerberg has poured cash into a broken school district; programmers have toyed with ways to secure digital ballots; and analysts have sought (and failed) to hone the political poll. The team of engineers Barack Obama lured to Washington has been tasked with fixing podunk websites and backend systems. But what they have failed to identify as a problem is the very system that elected their boss. Because beyond the topmost layer of government gunk lies a broad and broken structure: the idea of representation itself. In the era of the internet, the very premise of sending a man to Washington or a woman to city council is badly in need of an upgrade.

The idea of a political representative evolved out of necessity. Townspeople couldn’t afford to take a day off and ride a horse to the capital. They needed to agree upon one guy who would more or less say what they were thinking, and they voted to pick the right guy for the job.

Horses became model T’s became jets flying politicians from their constituencies to the District of Columbia, ostensibly to have an ear to the ground in their home state and a hand to the buzzers on the Senate floor. But travel—and voter awareness—requires cash that drives up the price of running for office.

The Republican President-elect scored votes by calling Washington “corrupt” and “criminal,” “rigged” and “stagnant,” but “quaint” is the first adjective I think of. In the era of the iPhone, sending a man or woman to Washington to “represent” a district back home can feel about as forward-thinking as sending an intern to Amazon headquarters to pick up the new DeLillo. Why do congressional offices read bills in hard-copy, in private, while their constituents draft their work in Google Docs? Why does a senator have to stand on the Senate floor to hear arguments or to vote, when her constituents watch proceedings on C-Span and vote for which Game of Thrones heroine her hair most resembles on BuzzFeed?..

….The price of running for office is now astronomical, literally; a New Hampshire senate race tops the cost of sending your satellite to low earth orbit with SpaceX’s rocket…But the most disturbing fact of our Republic is an upsurge of anti-intellectual rhetoric. An ongoing protest of California’s default direct democracy—its barrage of referendums—is fueled by the disturbing fact that voters are likely to base their decision on a television advertisement. Referendum protesters rightly note that a system reliant on advertising hardly cuts money out of politics or ensures an informed electorate. But the premise of this protest rests on the assumption that a Representative is more informed than a television advertisement; that a Representative makes decisions by speaking with experts, using paid time and expertise…

…Fixing an existing problem with new technology often fuels new and terrifying questions. Displacing power simply raises the same questions of control and ownership in new places. For example, even without the risk of politicians becoming susceptible to lobbyists, voters could still be influenced by special interest groups that can afford to bombard voters with their message. But by distributing the power for change among the electorate, a direct democracy model would effectively make lobbying efforts much more expensive and inefficient….

…What I do know: our system is broken. Voters crave transparency, an end to political photo-ops, an end to the influence of television, of Facebook, a way to flush the lobbyists out of Washington and drag the cash out of politicians’ pockets. As a citizenry, we hold relatively little power to destroy lobbying; to reform pay-to-play; to transform the media industries; re-engineer Facebook, or temper the bad behavior of the wealthy and powerful. But our new technologies also mean that there’s one central component we might have the power to remove from government completely: the politicians. (More)”