Imagine that government tracks your every move. Frankly, they can already do that, so this should not be an immense stretch of imagination. Then imagine that the establishment does the same for everyone you know. Does this wield an absolute power of those in control over the typical citizens? Not so fast. The answer is yes and no.
Now imagine this all-knowing government (or company) noticing a new pattern in their big data sets. Perhaps the citizens have changed their bicycling habits and now take a shortcut over a busy street, which based on the data seems to be a bit risky. Or perhaps the citizens have begun to talk in a way that the establishment needs to start thinking rewording a law on inheritance tax.
Would you say that this future is possible? Plausible? Desirable? I don’t know. But I do know that in human activity systems the power has more than one direction to flow to, although the flows are seldom in balance.
Something important about the role of the elections is revealed when we start to speculate that in the future vast datasets can help governments to do fair decision-making without the need for elections.
Technological development connects with political processes and vice versa. What if we connect technologies such as big data and all-monitoring sensor dust directly with political decision-making? Typically these technologies reveal the dystopian control society, but what if we consider the flip side of the coin: When we know that we are being monitored, we can use this information to impact on (automatic/algorithmic/human sense-making based) decision-making. As described in the previous example, if citizens want a new bicycle route, they could simply start cycling the route already and thus demonstrating the need. In other words while companies and governments can more easily follow individuals, groups of individuals can use their behavior to illustrate a point and create political movements. Of course, there still will be politics, but how and where they will take place is uncertain.
By measuring activities and behavior, much more can be perceived from well-being or mobility choices in cities than from political elections and surveys. Thus, in the post-voting society, since we have the capability to know exactly what people do, there’s less need to vote and speculate on certain things, as actions can be considered a vote.
How could this kind of development evolve? In the Demos Helsinki scenario publication the Future as told by the Garden and the Streets, it is via sort of a new deal on data that guarantees myData rights to people. Because of radical openness in public data gathering and public algorithms, people are well aware of how society uses the open company data, and thus they can affect societal decisions through their behavior. In the Garden scenario, behind this development is a relatively rapid decline of the representative democracy. The scenario speculates that when less than 45% of the population participated in the municipal elections after 2016, the Finnish government decided to concentrate on enquiring on changes in values in general elections and use more and more behavior-based data in everyday decision-making. Further, encouraged by social experiments supported by the government, the political parties started to move more strongly toward politics which is based on data. This development has led to a decrease in the purpose of the state as a platform for debate.
Based on this thought experiment on the development towards the post-voting society, we can speculate what we would be missing. In the Garden scenario, the true power is held by those who create the algorithms – even though they probably wouldn’t often consider themselves powerful (however, those who currently hold power positions would most likely agree that they have difficulties in identifying when they are actually using their power).
Another important aspect of voting would disappear as well: A part of the voting process is the ritual itself – a sort of a celebration of togetherness in the acts of an individual. Would there be something that takes the place of this ritual? How could people feel that they belong to the same entity?