Good morning on-demand world! You are better than my dreams, carefully curated into bite-sized chunks. You show me things I never knew I wanted (but still love), because you predict my preferences with the precision of artificial intelligence and with the strength of the swarm.
But heck! Whilst progress became so smooth, it seems democracy died.
The history of our time is brief. Social media, as they are today, were born in 2004. In 2007, they took Europe by storm, and two years later they started making money. The political structure of Arab countries crushed under their weight in 2010, and in 2012 social media listed on the stock exchange.
Social media were supposed to save democracy. They made community affairs accessible, created mass events and gave birth to urban pop-up culture. People experienced the strength of cooperation: formerly insignificant occasions became not only social media events, but also a part of the change towards a better, person-to-person culture and economy. This came hand-in-hand with a promise by social media when Facebook shares were first issued: through sharing, the world would become more dialogical and transparent and politics more accountable. The promise never came true. A business model for freeing people has yet to be found.
Democracy is more than the expression of one’s own, previously withheld opinion. The outcome of democracy is a surprise for everyone involved: rather than mere shilly-shallying between different options, democracy means collaborating to create something new, something where as large a proportion as possible feels that the outcome is a group effort. The creative process is painfully slow and often seems like floundering for the sake of compromise.
This is why democracy requires empathy. Floundering, inertia and compromises are unbearable unless one learns to regard the opposition with compassion. According to modern science, empathy arises from physical contact, and it is the physical world that gave rise to democracy in the first place. The same physical world gave rise to mass media that could be touched and watched together with other people. Mass media were few in number and they were annoying, because on their editorial boards someone (supposedly) smarter would decide what is important and what isn’t, what the masses are made aware of and what will remain exclusive to a small circle of insiders.
The buzz around the fate of democracy in the digital age is just beginning. The internet is rapidly becoming a part of the physical world, our homes, our streets and our bodies. Once sensors are everywhere, statuses are no longer mere written opinions, but deeds.
One thing’s for sure. We need to free ourselves of the bubbles created by social media, because right now, they pose the greatest threat to democracy.
The Demos Helsinki theses for defenders of democracy in the digital era:
- Remember that on social media, the people who read what you’ve written are mainly people who agree with you. Bubbles breed ignorant groups.
- Thou shalt not nag. Thou shalt not split hairs. Thou shalt not attempt to win over thy neighbour by proving that they are wrong. It doesn’t work. If you don’t like the conversation, change the subject.
- He who is wrong is always weaker than you. Standing up for the underdog is the moral duty of the righteous.
- Do not agitate against a group or an individual. Do not label groups. Do not attempt to create good vibes by playing up the superiority of your group. By doing so you’re merely driving those who disagree with you towards the other extreme.
- Keep in mind how few written conversations you had ten years ago. Most people’s ability to express themselves in written form is very constricted, and most people are limited to a single style of expression.
- Do not enrol your child in an elite school to protect them from coming into contact with other population groups.
- We lack evidence of democracy that works anywhere else but out on the streets, where different people meet each other.
- Go outside.