MARKUS JOHANNES KRIENKE. Director of Antonio Rosmini Chair at the Theological Faculty at the University of Lugano, Switzerland.

Technology and Democracy.

The coronavirus has illustrated how the ‘reign’ of expertise and seemingly ‘obvious’ information can undermine very rapidly democratic structures and institutions. Democratic debate and deliberation are substituted by technological information, and the dynamics of civil society are completely transformed into the social media. Are we facing the ‘Twilight of the Gods’ of democracy which emphasizes a trend that since several years announced a progressive substitution of democracy by technocracy? Against this pessimistic view, it is clear, though, that in the future post-coronavirus world democracy will face a new type of challenge and have to demonstrate again to be the “worstform of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Churchill).

From newspapers to television, every technological development has influenced on communication and political participation. So what’s new with internet and digital technologies? Their boundlessness and trans-finity relativize the State frontiers and weaken therefore the traditional national democratic structures. They are naturally slow and weak, while the new technologies constitute fast, fluid and flexible transnational networks. Against an initial expectation that this dynamic will overcome the national State, especially in the last years it became clear that national sovereignty will not be disestablished insofar new technologies can also be used to tighten national sovereign power or populistic and authoritative political parties. Insofar the evolution of democracy in modernity was naturally enclosed in the national State, the expanding and boundary breaking ‘democratic’ force of technology was initially seen as damaging democratic institutions; but recently the analysis brought to a different result: it is its populistic and sovereign usurpation that kills democracy, while the crisis of the national State and its institutions must not necessarily be seen as erosion of democracy.

Again: the most democracy threatening aspect of the new ‘political’ face of digital technologies is computational propaganda and influence, also by international agents. Further, big nudging is a used practice not only by big companies but sometimes also by government. Therefore, Big Data and Big Tech is used for and perceived as menacing the freedom of citizens, in their private as well as in their political preferences. Will new technologies become the new panopticon in Bentham’s or Foucault’s sense, and lead to a new socialist configuration of society as it is ongoing in China? And while the individual is perfectly visible and analyzable to political and economic power, he finds himself in an always fitter filter bubble where the digital mechanisms only reflect him to himself like in a mirror instead confronting him with reality or ‘the other’. Not only liberal democracy but also free market, which are based on the free encounter and relationships of citizens, is threatened by this evolution. But there are also other evolutions ongoing: while on the one side, there are reactions of techlash and disagreement to the use of technology in democratic processes, on the other there are credible perspectives on how positively integrating the emerging possibilities in strengthening democratic processes.

Despite the fact that populist political parties or leaders take evidently advantage of the digital media, for an impartial analysis in the present moment it is impossible to affirm a negative impact of “technology” on “democracy”. However, there a sufficient indicators to fear such a consequence for the future – and nearly half of a representative amount of technology experts in a recent survey affirmed their believe that technology in the next ten years will weaken democracy (Pew Research Center, 2020), principally by introducing mistrust and creating disinformation and chaos. The intentional production of fake news, by national or international agents or by chatbots, aiming at determining elections and political processes is already an alarming reality. Therefore, a constitutional rethinking of the democratic institutions in the technological world of the 21stcentury is unavoidable for guaranteeing democracy for the next generations.

This situation puts in a new context the classical dispute if in democracy a rational consensus is possible, as Habermas explains in his fundamental political theory, or whether it is destined as a process of incompatible interests, like Mouffe stated. But Habermas’s fear that public communication could be emptied of all substantial content and separated of the political deliberative processes – like in forms of “postdemocracy” analyzed by Colin Crouch –, has been definitively accelerated by the technologizing of the public discourse. And rationality as fundamental dimension of democratic discourse is challenged by the increasing emotionalization of public discourse through the social media. Already in the 2000s he analyzed the risk that the world wide web will not create a universal and rational participatory discourse but divide societies into small interest groups: fragmentation instead of universalization. What he did not consider is that at the same time, new possibilities of constituting public sphere and discourse have become possible: but in these spheres a democratic discourse cannot be established if the liberal fundamental rights cannot be preserved and guaranteed: privacy, free opinion, private property are at risk in the unlimited connectiveness of “Big Data” and the “internet of things”. But while we try to defend fundamental rights also in the digital sphere, we get aware that democracy – as Habermas claimed inBetween Facts and Norms– is made by “rights” and participatory discourse. This latter one has certainly become faster and more flexible through the new technologies, and will therefore lead democracy into a new era of its realization.

Thanks to new digital technologies, we are able to differentiate within the debate on democracy between its ‘traditional’ institutionalization in modernity, bounded by the idea of national State and the principle of representation, and the new flexible and dynamic forms of direct participation. Much will depend on the possibilities to melt the representative and static essence, founded in fundamental ‘rights’, with fluid tools of a data- and information-reduced technical speed. “Europe”, not the national State is and could be always more the geopolitical space for realizing this new perspective on democracy.

It is required, in a few concluding words, a new synthesis of representative parliamentary democracy and the technological possibilities of modernizing universal participation. This should not lead to electronic voting, which in Estonia exists since 2005, because precisely in this condensing act of democracy it becomes visibly clear that democracy is an inclusive participatory dynamic of real and personal citizens. In conclusion, while technology continues to be an opportunity for democracy despite its increasing risks and threats, definitively exaggerated and utopist seems the hope of many technicians and populists that one day it could replace the real public sphere. “Democracy and Technology” means a new determination of the relationship between the State and civil society under the challenge of globalization and digitalization.