“Politicians don’t know the difference between a server and a waiter,” declared Andew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, at Hybrid Reality’s recent salon on the emerging revolution in governance technology. The servers he was referring to, of course, are those that store, process and provide digital data and applications. But if government doesn’t understand technology, then how can technology change government?

The political media ecology is undergoing the most rapid transformation, a trend accelerated by citizens rather than politicians. In the 2008 presidential election, only one-tenth of the 1.8 billion views of online videos referencing Barack Obama or John McCain were actually generated by the Democratic or Republican parties. The social media and other technologies now being applied to government reform and innovation are still experimental, and 20th century analogies don’t capture the potential scale of change. In the past, the content communicated over the radio or television and published in books was owned by someone. Today, anyone with an IPhone effectively has their own printing press and TV studio in one. Government seems as prepared to respond to and regulate these technologies as the record industry.

Not only are political perspectives and opinions being formed ever more through social interactions rather than one-way official communications, but citizens are banding together to deliver public services in what Andrew Rasiej calls "We-Government" or “We.gov.” One notable example is SeeClickFix which allows residents of over 50 American cities to photograph potholes or other damaged public infrastructure and send them into the mayor’s office where they are instantly plotted on Google Maps and slated for repair. The mayor of the 21st century will leverage citizen innovation and resourcefulness to get things done more efficiently than today’s bureaucrats.

Digital democracy could mean drastic changes in the old habits of politics. Why do we need polling stations in America, for example, when even the Philippines just had electronic voting in its elections? And why take a whole day off on the first Tuesday or November to go and vote, when it can be done with one click online? With information disclosure through websites like data.gov, citizens can also begin to create apps that empower citizens to use that data proactively and in ways to improve government transparency. In 2008, “Twitter Vote” all but eliminated improper delays at polling stations as 10,000 citizens across the country rapidly logged reports of hold-ups. Citizens having more information about government and greater ability to express their views are two pillars of more accountable governance.

There are at least two reasons for concern, however, when it comes to the intersection of accelerated techno-politics. The first is the “filter bubble” phenomenon of partisan cable news television magnified to the scale of the Internet. If citizens only choose to listen to like-minded voices, we could wind up with more fiction than fact in political life, and more politics without better policy. Related to this, our education system hasn’t kept pace with technological developments, let alone their impact on politics. Might we return to the world of the Founding Fathers, who for this reason envisaged a more limited democracy? There are undoubtedly risks as we enter this experimental phase of techno-politics, but that is all the more reason to nurture the next generation to become Citizen 3.0 instead of arm-chair “slack-tivists." 

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.