The Light Bulb Of Collective Intelligence

Finding innovation while seeking consensus.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

ATHENS — Anyone who watched the U.S. presidential debate last week and followed the twisted saga of the COVID-infected anti-masker-in-chief has little doubt that democracy these days is in a state of implosion. In recent years, the resilience of democratic institutions across the West has been tested by successive crises — the financial crisis, a eurocrisis, the immigration plight, a populist surge, the COVID pandemic, racial justice uprisings and no doubt next, bitterly contested election results in what was once the great beacon to the world of how a free people can fairly govern themselves.

All of this cumulatively has broken the old mold of politics, and there is no going back to rule by a moribund political class that has failed.

The search for a new politics is on, going in two opposite directions: the drift toward authoritarianism versus a recognition that the breach of distrust between institutions of self-government and the public can only be mended by deepening citizen engagement. This “worst and best of times” for democracy was a central theme in an online discussion last week hosted by Zocalo Public Square and moderated by Noema executive editor Kathleen Miles.

As Yuval Noah Harari reflected this week at the Athens Democracy Forum, “Democracy is very, very fragile. It is like a delicate flower that needs unique conditions to survive, whereas dictatorships are like weeds — they can grow almost anywhere.” He fears the COVID crisis could well be remembered as the moment “in which surveillance took over” and authoritarianism took hold.

On the promising side, what can be called “participation without populism” is gaining traction. That involves inviting the broad civil society between the polarized extremes into governance through new practices and institutions that enable and encourage deliberation, negotiation and compromise to reach consensus.

The best recent examples of this lately are the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland that found agreement on the controversial issue of abortion (taking an anti-abortion clause out of the constitution) and the Citizens’ Convention on Climate in France that, in the wake of the yellow vest protest movement last year over fuel taxes, arrived at a consensus on a series of measures to curb global warming that take into the account the impact on the average citizen.

Out of these exercises of collective intelligence in pursuit of consensus, something else has become apparent. When you step outside of set ideological positions, innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems can emerge.

In a conversation this week at the Athens forum, Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang explained how creativity materializes from good faith efforts by citizens seeking practical results when they let go of fixed identities and partisan postures that hem in the mind.

One example she used is how Taiwan resolved the challenge Uber presented to the traditional taxi industry which, in most other places, became a pitched battle between the robust forces of innovation and protected cartels.

The solution that emerged from online citizen deliberation was, essentially, to ensure a level playing field that did not “undercut the meter” of taxis — the basis of “fair competition” as Tang put it — and let consumers decide whenever they need a ride. Consensus thus emerged around these points: Taxis need not be painted yellow and the requirements for insurance and registration were to be exactly the same.

Because public opinion became so clear during this exercise, legislators quickly codified the proposed regulations into law. Uber threatened to leave for the first couple months thereafter, but it finally decided that it had to adapt to the vetted public norm, not the other way around, and could still make a going business out of it. Today, Uber is just another taxi fleet, along with co-ops and companies, whose edge is its signature ride-hailing app.

Another example concerned the issue of same sex-marriage. In 2018, citizens were asked to vote on competing referendums. One would preserve the definition of marriage in the civil code as between a man and a woman. The other would have amended that code to include same-sex marriage. The latter was defeated and the “pro-family” vote carried the day.

Here again, the path out of the polarization created by the popular vote was to find a way to level the playing field by discovering where a rough overlapping consensus existed. By taking this approach, deliberative consultation among citizens was able to shift the discourse away from the “pro-family” vs. LGBTQ value systems to where agreement could be reached: to give the right of artificial reproduction to women who have not entered into a heterosexual marriage and ensure that any child born either way would share the same opportunities. Even without a marriage equality act, this achieved much of its purpose, determined, as Tang put it, by “bylaws instead of in-laws.”

This case is a good illustration, she says, of how deliberation aimed at identifying a common value among diverse stakeholders “is not just about compromise, but about innovation.”

Also in Noema this week, David Stasavage and Nathan Schneider see the digital democracy of the future utilizing new technologies to return to the pre-modern idea that rule through the consent of the governed is about far more than periodic elections but entails the very kind of ongoing engagement of citizens that Audrey Tang has fostered.

“Advanced online democracies,” they write, “may end up looking very different from modern democracy — which is, after all, largely a product of 18th-century ideas. Governance hackers are experimenting with opinion polling through artificial intelligence, cryptographic juries for resolving disputes and the dynamic selection of delegates in real-time, issue by issue. Someday, online communities might be able to design a custom democracy for themselves as easily as installing apps from an app store. Rather than simply replicating modern democracy, we have an opportunity to develop previously untried forms of democracy.”

When the light bulb of collective intelligence is hooked up to the currents of wired connectivity, the possibilities of innovation abound. The breakdown we are witnessing around us today is the generative space out of which this new politics will be born.