There’s not too much we can agree these days. But two sweeping statements that could garner broad support are “We need to fix the technology” and “We need to fix democracy.”
It is increasingly recognized that rapid technological development produces society-wide risks: state and private surveillance, pervasive labor automation, ascendant monopolistic and oligopolistic power, stagnant productivity growth, algorithmic discrimination, and catastrophic risks. posed by advances in areas such as AI and biotechnology. . Less often discussed, but in my view no less important, is the loss of potential advances that lack short-term or market-readable upside. These include the development of vaccines for emerging diseases and open source platforms for basic digital means like identity and communication.
At the same time, as democracies falter in the face of complex global challenges, citizens (and increasingly, elected leaders) around the world are losing faith in democratic processes and being swayed by autocratic alternatives. Nation-state democracies are, to varying degrees, plagued by gridlock and hyper-partisanship, little accountability to the popular will, inefficiency, weak organizational capacity, state, inability to keep up with emerging technologies and corporate capture. While smaller-scale democratic experiments are proliferating, locally and globally, they remain far too fractured to handle consequential large-scale governance decisions.
This puts us in a bind. Clearly, we could do a better job directing the development of technology towards collective human flourishing – in fact, this could be one of the greatest challenges of our time. If today’s democracy is so riddled with flaws, it does not seem up to the task. This is what rings hollow in many calls to “democratize technology”: given the litany of complaints, why submit one seemingly failing system to the governance of another?
At the same time, as we deal with everything from surveillance to space travel, we desperately need ways to collectively negotiate complex value trade-offs with global consequences and ways to share their benefits. It definitely looks like a job for democracy, albeit a much better iteration. So how can we radically update democracy so that we can navigate successfully towards long-term shared positive outcomes?
The case of collective intelligence
To answer these questions, we must realize that our current forms of democracy are only early and very imperfect manifestations of collective intelligence— coordination systems that integrate and process decentralized, agentic and meaningful decision-making between individuals and communities to produce the best decisions for the collective.
Collective intelligence, or CI, is not unique to humans. Networks of trees, activated by mycelium, can exhibit intelligent characteristics, share nutrients and send distress signals in times of drought or insect attack. Bees and ants exhibit swarm intelligence through complex processes of selection, deliberation and consensus, using the vocabulary of physical movement and pheromones. In fact, humans aren’t even the only animals that vote. Wild dogs, when deciding to move, sneeze to determine if quorum has been reached, with the tipping point being determined by context – for example, lower ranked individuals need a minimum of 10 sneezes to reach this a higher-ranked individual might get by with just three. Buffaloes, baboons and meerkats also make decisions by quorum, with flexible “rules” based on behavior and negotiation.
But humans, unlike meerkats or ants, don’t have to rely on the pathways to CI that our biology has hard-coded into us, or wait for the slow, invisible hand of evolution changes our processes. We can do better on purpose, recognizing that progress and participation must not be compromised. (This is the thesis upon which my organization, the Collective Intelligence Project, is founded.)
Our progressive innovations in CI systems – such as nation-state representative democracy, capitalist and non-capitalist markets, and bureaucratic technocracy – have already shaped the modern world. And yet, we can do much better. These existing manifestations of collective intelligence are only crude versions of the structures we could build to make better collective decisions about collective resources.