Advancing a Free Society

Information, Decision-making, and Democracy

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Much of the flurried media coverage of the RNC convention last week highlighted the weird or the unexpected (Santorum’s “hands” speech, Condoleezza Rice mentioning immigration, Clint Eastwood talking to a chair) but also commented, more than once, that something about the Convention seemed “off”—even boring.

A recent poll by USA Today/Suffolk University suggests that 90 million Americans will not vote in the November Presidential elections. The lassitude surrounding Decision 2012 (and our political leadership in general) is not isolated to the United States. From the political and economic crisis in Europe, the scandal-plagued leadership transition in China, the disappointing outcome of the Arab Spring, and the slowdown of the global economy, the governments of the world seem, as David Brady and Michael Spence have noted, “paralyzed” by various factors that stall effective policy action.

Perhaps one of those factors is an information problem.

Aside from Josiah Ober’s work on Democracy and Knowledge in ancient Athens, the role of democracy as a decision-making mechanism has not played a major role in the debate about the sustainability of democratic, decision-making institutions. The Athenian invention of democracy was not merely a means of addressing class warfare and economic distribution problems-- it was a mechanism by which they addressed the problem of a scarce resource: information. It was an institutional design that allowed information (and knowledge) to be acquired, broadly accessed, debated and utilized for decision-making.

Present day government leaders—but particularly in democracies (or democratic republics, in the United States)-- also face an information and decision-making problem. However, in the age of the Internet and rapid information diffusion, the information problem is inverted: information is not scarce. We have too much of it. The greatest need for today’s global democratic political leaders is not access to information about their peoples’ needs and grievances, but rather mechanisms to surface truly useful information from mountains of data in order to make better decisions.

Political consumers face the same problem. It is difficult for voters to sift through excessive amounts of information in order to cull useful data to inform our decisions and access our leaders. On August 29th,  Reddit, a social news media website that provides an enormous amount of information to its users, hosted President Obama in an online forum. More than 20,000 comments were made-- roughly equal to the number of delegates, alternates, and credentialed media on-site at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. This unique form of engagement provided hundreds of users an unprecedented opportunity to chat with the President of the United States online. But that engagement is not likely to translate into meaningful policy action. Only 32.5 per cent of the Reddit users reside in the United States and most of the users are males between the ages of 18-24 who tend not to vote. In other words, new technologies provide consumers with more information about their leaders and policy options but have not, (with the exception of and now perhaps provided constructive feedback loops to effect change.

Consumer and commercial markets have begun to address the role of information flows and decision-making by adopting information-managing technologies in ways that political leaders have not yet been able to effectively harness. Facebook, Twitter, Flipbook, Instagram, Quora, and Reddit are all (to at least some extent) designed to help users organize and interpret the endless volume of articles, posts, updates, photos, videos, and other content that inform the way they make decisions. More sophisticated big data technology platforms address the analysis and decision-making needs of the private sector (like large financial institutions) and government (mainly in the intelligence and defense communities). But a similar technology has not yet been effectively applied to tracking and analyzing information that could aid political consumers in making decisions that will lead to meaningful policy changes, better engagement with leaders, and that will transform the political systems that many are convinced are irreversibly broken.

“Democracy” is a term broadly used to describe a number of political systems and institutions where individuals have some control over who governs them. What we do not hear in most debates about democracy, paralyzed decision-making institutions, the future of global governance (like a Security Council that no longer reflects the existing global balance of power), or our own electoral process, is the potential of technology to improve the flow and quality of information, to change the way we are informed and then make decisions regarding our policy options, and to disrupt the way we operate within these institutions.