Our misguided love affair with techno-politics

The Economist: “What might happen if technology, which smothers us with its bounty as consumers, made the same inroads into politics? Might data-driven recommendations suggest “policies we may like” just as Amazon recommends books? Would we swipe right to pick candidates in elections or answers in referendums? Could businesses expand into every cranny of political and social life, replete with ® and ™ at each turn? What would this mean for political discourse and individual freedom?

This dystopian yet all-too-imaginable world has been conjured up by Giuseppe Porcaro in his novel “Disco Sour”. The story takes place in the near future, after a terrible war and breakdown of nations, when the (fictional) illegitimate son of Roman Polanski creates an app called Plebiscitum that works like Tinder for politics.

Mr Porcaro—who comes armed with a doctorate in political geography—uses the plot to consider questions of politics in the networked age. The Economist’s Open Future initiative asked him to reply to five questions in around 100 words each. An excerpt from the book appears thereafter.

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The Economist: In your novel, an entrepreneur attempts to replace elections with an app that asks people to vote on individual policies. Is that science fiction or prediction? And were you influenced by Italy’s Five Star Movement?

Giuseppe Porcaro: The idea of imagining a Tinder-style app replacing elections came up because I see connections between the evolution of dating habits and 21st-century politics. A new sort of “tinderpolitics” kicking in when instant gratification substitutes substantial participation. Think about tweet trolling, for example.

Italy’s Five Star Movement was certainly another inspiration as it is has been a pioneer in using an online platform to successfully create a sort of new political mass movement. Another one was an Australian political party called Flux. They aim to replace the world’s elected legislatures with a new system known as issue-based direct democracy.

The Economist: Is it too cynical to suggest that a more direct relationship between citizens and policymaking would lead to a more reactionary political landscape? Or does the ideal of liberal democracy depend on an ideal citizenry that simply doesn’t exist?  

Mr Porcaro: It would be cynical to put the blame on citizens for getting too close to influence decision-making. That would go against the very essence of the “liberal democracy ideal”. However, I am critical towards the pervasive idea that technology can provide quick fixes to bridge the gap between citizens and the government. By applying computational thinking to democracy, an extreme individualisation and instant participation, we forget democracy is not simply the result of an election or the mathematical sum of individual votes. Citizens risk entering a vicious circle where reactionary politics are easier to go through.

The Economist: Modern representative democracy was in some ways a response to the industrial revolution. If AI and automation radically alter the world we live in, will we have to update the way democracy works too—and if so, how? 

Mr Porcaro: Democracy has already morphed several times. 19th century’s liberal democracy was shaken by universal suffrage, and adapted to the Fordist mode of production with the mass party. May 1968 challenged that model. Today, the massive availability of data and the increasing power of decision-making algorithms will change both political institutions.

The policy “production” process might be utterly redesigned. Data collected by devices we use on a daily basis (such as vehicles, domestic appliances and wearable sensors) will provide evidence about the drivers of personal voting choices, or the accountability of government decisions. …(More)