Our capitals and their grand government buildings seem far away from our lives; the wooden benches of parliaments remind us of romantic black-and-white movies rather than of current affairs. Our institutions have become remnants of historic achievements only our grandparents can feel proud of. If those elected to represent us in these castles – once beacons of societal triumph – would behave like wise old women and men that steer us through the rough sea of global developments, we might feel comfortable with our democratic systems.
But this dull competition of grey-haired men, greedy for media attention, corrupted by campaign money, committed only to their old boy networks, is as much inappropriate to the furnishing of government buildings as it is to the current state of the world. This stark contrast leads many to look at our democracies as a silly, elitist, and self-centered circus that plays one hidden dirty game after another.
No wonder trust in government is declining. No wonder voter turnout is at an all-time low. No wonder populist movements promising a quick cure to the spectacle are on the rise. But there is no such quick cure. The truth is: we can either hope that politicians will do some soul-searching, think it all over and become the audacious wise men appropriate to the oak paneling on parliament walls – or we need to adapt our current form of government to the realities of the present.
The very fabric that keeps us together
I was born in 1986, a couple of weeks before the Chernobyl incident occurred and a couple of weeks more before the world knew about it. It was four years before all women in Switzerland had the right to vote. It was even three years before Nintendo’s Game Boy was launched. Generally speaking: we were living on the moon.
What a giant leap we have made since then! And when we look thirty years back, we certainly consider the internet to be the most profound technological change in our lives. It has radically altered the way we communicate, consume, organize our work and our private lives. But it is not the only innovation relevant to society. We have developed new ways of planning and forecasting, new ways of creative thinking, we can compute far more data than ever before, we are the most mobile society this world has ever seen, we are about to discover the human brain’s functioning and perhaps even what our universe looked like milliseconds after it began to exist. Is it presumptuous to expect the very fabric that keeps us individuals together and forms a society to make use of these new findings and adapt them for the greater good of humanity?
However, when we look at the way we organize ourselves as a society, the changes were not cataclysmic. Right, all our ministries have websites (some of them are even pretty well done), we have political debates streamed live (and sometimes we even have a fair number of people watching), we have online newspapers (some of them are even said to make profits), we have governments opening up their data to the public (although we’re not quite there yet), and we even have (some) embassies with Facebook accounts. Wow!
But we still write names on pieces of paper every four years and throw them into ballot boxes – although we’d be just a click away from eVoting. Plans for the new football stadium still need to be consulted in the basement of the city hall – while we could have 3D models on the web. Thousands of civil servants still hold endless meetings in sinister and monotonous meeting rooms, producing mountains of bureaucracy – while we could have entrepreneurs-in-residence of applied design thinking. It sometimes seems as if we’re trying to organize our communities with the 1989 Game Boy because we use the 2014 iPad to watch cat videos.
Our democracy is a – more or less – well-balanced form of government, and we should not apply changes to it without need. However, we must constantly adapt it to new circumstances and insights. And the emergence and ongoing development of new technologies and innovations certainly makes the case for substantial changes. Those changes in our democratic system are not just nice to have; they are vital. Just think of banks whose computers trade at high frequency, think of hackers who attack our infrastructure, think of privacy and data espionage. Democratic law-making, implementation, monitoring and enforcement will need to be faster, more precise, more inclusive, more transparent, more user-friendly, more creative, and cheaper than it has ever been.
Read Newest From Column Maximilian Stern: Internet Ergo Sum