Resource paradoxes of digital transformation (2) – the digital death of consensus

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Digital technologies enable everyone to participate in shaping politics. With enough commitment, social outsiders can have a significant influence on politics. This promotes the “democratisation of democracy” and at the same time makes politics slow and inflexible.

Some time ago, former Federal Councillor Moritz Leuenberger spoke in an interview with Societybyte about his fears that the digital does not correspond to the nature of human beings and that Boolean thinking (in zeros and ones) makes it difficult to find compromises in politics. He was referring to parliamentary work, the representative part of Switzerland’s semi-direct democracy. So is there a threat that decision-making in parliament will be massively hampered by digitalisation? Is the political resource of “problem-solving within the framework of representative democracy” being (partially) lost as a result of digitalisation?

The phenomena

From a purely phenomenological perspective, the digitalisation of the legislature is characterised by seven very different development trajectories:

  1. The conventional core business of the legislature has been successfully digitally transformed
  2. The transformation of the substantive work on laws has largely failed – although there have been partial successes here and there are justified hopes for the future, the digital tools once conceived are still missing
  3. The successes in promoting participative and deliberative approaches are rather marginal – despite many digital projects on e-participacon, co-creation, living labs and various smart city concepts (macro-factories, citizen sensing, etc.), with the exception of the open government data platforms, little has been sustainable and the notable exceptions do not fit into scientific theory
  4. The visionary concepts for a future democracy have almost completely evaporated – liquid democracy, fuzzy voting, parliament of issues, etc. play no role in political discourse
  5. The power of outsiders and radical groups in politics has risen sharply thanks to a wide variety of internet platforms – as a result of the loss of importance of gatekeepers, the possibilities of AI and a rapidly changing information consumption culture, highly selective perceptions of the world now have global mobilisation potential
  6. The hitherto very stable Swiss model of semi-direct democracy is threatened by cultural change (flood of initiatives, fighting on after defeats in referendums) and is otherwise largely ignored by academia – it practically does not appear in discourses on the unsustainability of democracy
  7. In the international arena, joking and raving prevail – almost all aspects of democracy are scrutinised or attacked, both publicly and behind closed doors

All of these developments – even points 6 and 7 – have to do with digitalisation in one way or another. In order to observe them, however, you need non-everyday access to information. It is striking how much hype there is now in the scientific community, what strange anger sometimes harmless contributions to discussions in scientific communities provoke and how selective research and journalism are in discussing these developments.

Theory and practice are often very different. Just as the court of Louis XIV would have seemed incomprehensible to a naive observer, today it is impossible to deduce from the political science literature how democracy actually works. And that is nothing new. Privy Councillor Goethe certainly had a lot in mind when he wrote “All theory is grey, but the golden tree of life is green.”

Embedding in social trends

Whether digitalisation with its Boolean logic also promotes the growing friend-foe mentality is unclear. Carl Schmitt, whose principle of “order needs location” has been called into question by digitalisation, is evidently experiencing a comeback in everyday political life in the West, which is also having an impact on scientific theory. It is now considered natural that science is against something, while at the same time the ideas of truth in mathematics (fortunately not a science!) and in the natural sciences (including Popper’s world view on these!) are considered ridiculously naive.

In view of this new division in the research world with its strong emotions from both sides (here the sciences supported by scientific theory, there the naïve disciplines such as mathematics and physics, both quite angry with the other side when they (very rarely) meet), it is obvious to see the comeback of Carl Schmitt’s philosophy as a social trend that has nothing to do with digital thinking. But of course this social trend is also benefiting from digitalisation. The significantly accelerated global exchange via the internet helps the propagation of ideas (and actions!) The acceleration of so many things – for example scientific publishing, which in the case of publications on ChatGPT has taken on almost ludicrous forms – takes a lot of “reason” out of the system, because checks and balances cannot achieve arbitrarily high efficiency.

We are therefore dealing with a situation that, on the one hand, is not exclusively initiated by digitalisation, but on the other hand is influenced by digitalisation at various levels. It reinforces trends that are independent of it, creates its own trends and has an impact on the defensive mechanisms of democracy, both strengthening and weakening them, currently with a predominance of the weakening effect.

Direct and indirect effects

As outlined above, digital competition to parliamentary processes does not come from technology research, but from various direct enabling functions of digital technologies, as well as their initial economic and political valorisation. Specifically, four mechanisms play a particularly important role

  1. The individualisation of information procurement past curators and gatekeepers, who are tangible/tangible as persons
  2. The undermining of parliamentary decisions through online communication campaigns that lack any transparency as to who is active and how
  3. The promotion of social conflicts on digital platforms through the (economically motivated) use of algorithms that deliberately emotionalise people and switch off their cognitive and moral control mechanisms
  4. The now very efficient production, personalisation and dissemination of one-sided information and explicit misinformation thanks to AI

This list is not exhaustive, but it illustrates that in many respects it is NOT ONLY about overcoming previous obstacles to participation – distributing information online is much cheaper than distributing it by flyer – but that this new ability to participate can be used above all to eliminate mechanisms of moderation and consensus-building. The result is that the negotiation of broadly accepted solutions is made more difficult.

At the same time, parliaments are faced with new challenges for which they are inherently ill-equipped:

  1. Solving problems that require global co-operation – in particular global warming caused by CO2 emissions (which, unchecked, will drastically reduce the number of people who can live on earth) and the desire of many people to migrate from poorer to richer areas (for which many seek to use the asylum system)
  2. The creation of a geopolitical order that contains the current fundamental conflicts, in particular the conflicts pro-and-con human rights (between West and East), pro-and-con equality of women and men (nationally also pro-and-con equality of binaries and non-binaries) and pro-and-con democracy (democracies must find a peaceful coexistence with autocracies)
  3. The aspiration to accelerate legislative processes in terms of substance and, above all, impact – from short-term facilitation of experimentation to the rapid realisation of digital infrastructures to the medium-term fundamental transformation of the principles of law

This list is not exhaustive either, but it illustrates the problem. To summarise, it must be said: Digitalisation has weakened parliaments and thus representative democracy itself through direct enabling functions. At the same time, it has played a significant role in the emergence of new, difficult tasks/challenges. Although it contributes to solving them to some extent, it does much less than further increase them through its indirect impact. (The geopolitical order also includes, for example, an order for the digital economy and an order for dealing with cybercrime and cyberwar)

The paradox

While the first resource paradox of the digital transformation is that the digital increase in efficiency makes companies inefficient, the second resource paradox of the digital transformation is that new, incredibly high demands are simultaneously being placed on politics and – this is the real paradox – the ability to make efficient democratic decisions is weakened by the fact that people are empowered to participate more easily. The more this empowerment of participation, the more hopeless the future of representative democracy becomes. It only takes a little imagination to picture all the things that will blow up in our faces because individual adventurers, well-organised minorities, zeitgeist fads and attacks by authoritarian states demand legislative changes – now and immediately, of course, if not yesterday, as in the case of deepfake cyber attacks on elections. Many, really many things in the work of parliaments and governments will become much, much more difficult.

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AUTHOR: Reinhard Riedl

Prof. Dr Reinhard Riedl is a lecturer at the Institute of Digital Technology Management at BFH Wirtschaft. He is involved in many organisations and is, among other things, Vice-President of the Swiss E-Government Symposium and a member of the steering committee of TA-Swiss. He is also a board member of eJustice.ch, Praevenire - Verein zur Optimierung der solidarischen Gesundheitsversorgung (Austria) and All-acad.com, among others.

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