What would a democratic internet look like?


99% of us would agree that democratic society is a good idea. So how do we build an internet that embraces this noble thought?

Before we get to how we can do make tech more democratic and what that looks like in practice, let’s go back to 1989.

Party like it’s 1989

A turning point in modern history, the last year of the 80s was the year that saw a PR disaster lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

A man called Gunther Schabowski had a terrible day at the office when he famously miscommunicated a communiqué from the ruling party of East Germany and announced that people would be allowed to pass through the border between East and West right away.

And the wall came down when people began to storm the border peacefully. What a night!

Tim Berners Lee
Tim Berners-Lee at his computer

But over in Switzerland at the same time, Tim Berners-Lee was pulling together pieces of technology that had already been available for several decades into an array which later became the internet as we know it.

Isn’t it interesting to you that in the same year as half of Europe began its journey towards democracy, a man in Switzerland invented the internet?

Since 1989, democracy and technology have been on parallel and sometimes intertwining paths.

But what’s a democracy really?

Pollsters agree. People feel less and less enthused by politics. By most metrics, the public is increasingly uninterested in voting or participating in what is seen as a democracy.

But is the ability to cast a vote every four, five, seven or in some places nine years the extent of what a democracy is?

We don’t see it like that. At it’s most basic, democracy is another way of saying, “the rule of the people.”

35,000 opportunities daily

It’s difficult to put a number on it, but one of the most convincing estimates of how many decisions an average person makes daily places the number at around 35,000.

Of course, many of those decisions are as basic as sit or stand. Many of the decisions you make have a significant impact on the world:

Jeans or chinos? Trivial right? Well, if you choose chinos, you’re indirectly affecting the lives of denim manufacturers in Bangladesh. They will have to deal with a marginal surplus of their ready made garment sector which was worth $173.82 billion in 2014.

This is a tiny choice and realistically, your impact as an individual is negligible. But it’s a democratic process – you’re voting with that lovely leather wallet. (Unless you boycott leather – in which case, you’re making another democratic choice that affects another huge global industry).

If it’s night on impossible to avoid participating in democracy while you’re getting dressed, imagine how you’re embracing democracy in a meeting scenario or when you pay duty on a flight to some exotic location.

Who’s already embracing democracy in tech?

Well, let’s start with Medium.

I’ve worked with WordPress almost since it began. Blogging tools are great because they give you the ability to express your ideas.

But what they don’t do is provide you with an audience. And if you’ve ever tried to build an audience online, you’ll know how difficult it is.

If you don’t have an audience, you’re not really exercising free speech, you’re shouting into a void.

Even WordPress’ own platform which allows you to access a potential audience can’t nearly compete with Medium’s ready made audience of millions. All you need to do is tag your story with a relevant tag and it’ll be presented to the internet by one of Twitter’s co-founders @ev.

Or how about Airbnb?

Hotels are great. I can stay in the Hilton in Tallinn and have much the same experience as if I were staying in Abu Dhabi.

But that’s not necessarily democratic. A large part of democracy is the ability to express yourself and find people who think similarly.

Airbnb creates a place where you can find people who think just like you. You can choose to stay in a yurt or a castle. Minimal room or cluttered? Whatever represents you best. Also, choose from a variety of price points.

Maybe even make a life long friend. Airbnb creates a marketplace for the right to express yourself.

How much more democratic can you get?

So how do we make tech more democratic?

We think that there are really three important things that people wanting to embrace democracy in their tech need to do.

  1. Encourage collaboration
  2. Encourage dissent
  3. Encourage transparency

Encourage collaboration

In Norman Johnson’s famous maze experiment, he offered individuals the chance to wander freely around a digital maze that he had created trying to find the exit.

Norman Foster's famous maze experiment
When they completed the maze, he offered them another go. Only this time, he would be counting their steps. Individuals managed an average of around 34 steps to find the exit.

Then he pooled all of the journeys and made an average best course. When he did this, he found that the number of steps it took the group to find the exit fell massively to 13 steps.

Quite an improvement! And all because Johnson simulated a democratic mechanism in his maze.

Crowds generally decide better than individuals.

Take a look at Unbound where people are collaborating to make choices on which books ought to be published and which ones would do better in the drafts pile.

Or Wikipedia where you can have a hand in collaborating on the most comprehensive and democratic text book ever produced.

Encourage dissent

We’ve told the story before but dissent could have saved an American company millions of dollars when they were opening a store in China.

The company has a culture which discourages employees from saying that there’s anything wrong with the company itself. So when they called in their five leading project managers to ask whether their flagship Chinese store would open on time, what do you think happened?

The executives feared losing their jobs so much that they didn’t want to tell their board of directors that it was obvious the store opening would be delayed.

In parallel, the company attempted an experiment. They allowed every employee to have an anonymous vote on the outcome of the question: Will we open our new store in time.

In this case, 9 out of 10 people who had experience of the project said: Nope. We’re going to be late.

And when they were late, the company probably felt a little silly to have not listened when their staff dissented.

Actually this transfers well to tech too.

Zara are well known for embracing dissent. The company doesn’t over manufacture stock. Instead, they allow store managers around the world to report on what is and isn’t selling in real time using mobile devices. In a central office, Zara is making really wise choices about what to manufacture and what to halt. All because they allow their managers to dissent.

Likewise, Reddit is responsible for some truly incredible feats in dissent. Several years ago, Reddit surfaced a video of a father beating his daughter in her bedroom. The story became front page news around the world. And why? Because the father was a prominent American judge abusing his daughter. Reddit gave its users worldwide a chance to dissent by exposing hypocrisy by a government official. Justice was served.

Encourage transparency

In another famous experiment, Solomon Asch showed participants two cards. The first card had a single line on it. The second had three lines of different length on it.

Solomon Asch's three lines experiment

Asch asked participants in the study to make a guess at which line on the second card matched the card on the first.

He asked them to do this in private initially. And then he made everyone in the group say their thought out loud.

Interestingly, in the group activity, 75% of people chose a line which was obviously longer or shorter than the test line.

Why? Because only one person of the eight in each group was a real participant. The other seven were actors who had all agreed to give the incorrect answer to see if they could make the real participant agree with them.

In reality, authentic participants got the answer wrong only 1% of the time when the group was removed from the equation.

But now we can see: transparency is vital in democratic choices. If you hide vital pieces of information, people choose badly.

That’s why a company like Skyscanner is so great. Previously, to book a flight, you could call a travel agent who might give you the best value flight – or they might give you the one that paid the best commission for them. Skyscanner allows people to do a simple search from their browser and see immediately all of the prices charged by all the airlines. Transparency facilitating better decisions for the people.

How will you embrace democratic ideas?

Democracy is easy – but you’ll have to choose to embrace it.

In your day to day life, think about the processes and your interactions with technology and ask yourself:

  1. How can I encourage collaboration?
  2. How can I encourage dissent?
  3. How can I encourage transparency?

I think you’ll find the answers aren’t as lofty as you might imagine.