Looking ahead to government by smartphone

How soon until we are voting, legislating and ruling by smartphone? Keystone

As voters around the world become more tech-savvy and more demanding, states are experimenting with new forms of digital politics. Switzerland has been slow to adapt, according to two new books looking at the networked future.

This content was published on October 27, 2017 minutes

Robot workers, artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding, blockchain, bitcoin, smart fridges, hacked fridges, MOOCs, e-books, drones, smartphones – the detritus of digitalisation is clear from the sheer number of new terms that have entered the English language. Hardly a day goes by without another article dissecting the glorious (or apocalyptic) future that such new technologies are shaping.

But when Costa Vayenas, a Zurich-based public affairs consultant and former research head at the UBS bank, began to develop an interest in the effects of tech shifts on democratic practices, he was struck that this was one area flying beneath the radar. 

(How) is voting and citizenship changing? 

He dug a little deeper, then much deeper, and the result – two years later – is Democracy in the Digital AgeExternal link, a short but wide-ranging book tackling the question of how representative democracy will be forced to adapt to digitalisation.

His key message? “This is unstoppable. You cannot have technology changing everything, everywhere, except in this little area, where all stays the way it was,” he says. 

Disintermediation (“cutting out the middle-man between two parties”) is overhauling most sectors of society, and democracy – often still operating under centuries-old methods – will be no different. Whether it is e-voting, proxy voting, or mass participation in online legislation drafting, changes are coming.

“Where technology leads,” he says, “society and the law eventually follow.”

Lumpy progress

Some have been quicker than others in jumping on the bandwagon. Estonia, a pioneer of online voting (citizens can even change their vote as many times as they wish, before the polls close), and where anyone can now apply to become an “e-residentExternal link”, is the obvious example. Elsewhere, over a dozen countries have been experimenting with online voting, and in 2015, Brazil crowdsourcedExternal link a landmark law regarding (of course) Internet rights. In Singapore, chat-rooms have been set up to debate issues of public interest at designated times.

Even Plato, over 2,000 years ago, warned that “tyranny naturally arises out of democracy”

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And if overall the pace of change has been lumpy, in a longer-term future it is where we are all headed, Vayenas says. That is, towards technology “bringing more people closer to more freedoms and more opportunities.” 

Four major factors are driving this: the inherent nature of democracy, which has “never been a static thing” (look at female suffrage, increasing referendums over time); the will of many politicians to make voting easier for constituents; an IT industry steaming ahead to make the technology; and a public increasingly clamouring for change.

Lots of people are wary of the changes, however. “There is always deep unease about giving people too much power,” Vayenas writes. Even Plato, over 2,000 years ago, warned that “tyranny naturally arises out of democracy”. Hysteria in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the US election last year also was (and remains) a clear sign that some are not confident about the ability of the masses to make well-informed decisions.

Vayenas is more optimistic. Not so much about the technology, but about the natural result that more power will flow from politicians to publics. 

“You can trust the people over time to make good choices,” he says. “As long as they don’t vote to burn the house down, they will do what is in their best interest.” He mentions the Iraq war of 2003. “The decision to send an army to war is almost always taken by just a few individuals. It would be difficult to get an entire electorate to support an offensive first strike when the threat to the nation is not obvious.” 

The most innovative country in the world?

As for Switzerland, it is something of an anomaly.

It’s true that in an age of eroding established structures and calls for more citizen power, the alpine democracy is a clear beacon. Vayenas writes of the three “tight springs” of the Swiss political system – “constrain the power of the executive, constrain the power of the legislature, constrain the power of the judiciary” – that ensure the Swiss model is both one of the most participatory and most stable in the world.

And yet it is surprisingly slow in innovating with new forms of technology, something which runs against its both its political character and its reputation for innovation. Adrienne Fichter, journalist and the author of another recently-published book on the topic, Smartphone DemocracyExternal link, goes as far as saying that Switzerland is only a “developing country” in terms of digital democracy.

Her book mostly focuses on how technology, through its impact on media and communication, is reshaping how we form political opinions, rather than how we directly interact with government and democracy in the digital age. And Switzerland is much slower to adapt than countries like the US. 

“People are conservative in terms of media,” she says. “They often rely on traditional sources.” Politicians are also extremely inactive online, and their online followers are scarce, even compared with neighbouring Austria and Germany.

As for top-down efforts, she finds that the state may be getting things backwards. For example, from 2019, the government is planning to introduce e-voting mechanisms, but, for Fichter, “this is not totally safe at the moment.” The software is not yet bulletproof. 

In contrast, she finds it odd that there has been such opposition to the online collection of signatures for people’s initiatives, which is easier to implement technologically. “Maybe you need 1,000,000 signatures, rather than 100,000”, she says, but it would still make sense to roll this out before online voting.

Outdated practice? Organizers of People's Initiatives still cart their 100,000 signatures by hand to the Federal Chancellery. Keystone

Politically contentious

Why the apparent slowness in Switzerland to embrace digital democracy? Fichter states the obvious when she says, “we are probably not so innovative in digital democracy because we don’t need it”. The political system works well in Switzerland, and people have ample opportunities to vote; there less dissatisfaction with the political system as in more rigid representative models such as the US.

Public affairs consultant Vayenas says there is also a political component. Some parties and interest groups are reluctant to change a status quo that suits them. He predicts a big fight about this in the coming years. “This is highly controversial,” he says, and will determine the pace of change. It’s about power: “who will gain by going electronic and who will lose.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no such fears about change from either Vayenas or Fichter. “Media literacy is increasing all the time,” says Fichter. We are not likely to all begin making more rash decisions because of (for example) online voting. Safeguards can also be introduced, says Vayenas. He mentions the precaution in Switzerland of double majorities: peoples' initiatives need to get a majority both nationally and among the cantons.

“Had the 2016 UK Brexit referendum been run as an initiative on the Swiss model, it would not have passed,” he says.

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