The Tools We Build in Silicon Valley Represent the Best Hope for Fixing Our Democracy
Less than 24 hours after President Trump’s immigration order, tens of thousands of people assembled at dozens of airports around the country in protests that have continued into this week. Days before, more than three million people marched in what may have been America’s largest-ever single-day protests. What is unique about these gatherings is the speed, efficiency and scale they achieved, due largely to the power of social media and smartphones.
Never before have people been able to self-organize and multiply for offline action almost instantly and with such little financial cost and planning effort. This awesome power — facilitated by free, ubiquitous and mobile tools for many-to-many communication — creates new possibilities for the grassroots to drive electoral and legislative outcomes, whether by rejecting establishment candidates or bringing people out into the streets to protest government action.
We’re witnessing an important reminder that the tools we build in Silicon Valley can meaningfully shift sources and forms of political power. And as with all technology, whether it is leveraged for good or bad is ultimately up to those who use it.
Recent events make clear that the revolution in communication ushered in by digital technology is entering a new phase of maturity. While this phase may risk the “excesses of democracy,” as the Founding Fathers fretted, new technologies also represent our best hope for fixing democracy. Few would argue that it isn’t in need of fixing.
For decades, Americans’ understanding of government, trust in political institutions and participation in elections has been declining. Lack of broad-based citizen education and engagement has increased polarization and gridlock. In turn, candidates have become more reliant on large donors who provide the funds required to reach and mobilize ever-narrower slices of low-information and skeptical voters. In short, our democracy is failing to scale in its current form.
But as bleak as the macro-political picture appears, I believe this dysfunction only proves that we need to embrace a new generation of tools for political participation and accountability. The complex problems we must solve to repair our democracy — low trust, low information, low engagement — demand the curiosity, humility and creativity that Silicon Valley exhibits when we are at our best (which is not to say that we don’t also have our own warts or weaknesses).
This spirit is alive and well in the civic tech space, which is increasingly pointing to better models of engagement. Consider some of the breakouts of the 2016 election like Vote.org and VotePlz (easy voter registration), CrowdPac (crowdfunding for candidates), Hustle (peer-to-peer outreach) and Brigade’s social ballot guide, which provided personalized voting recommendations for more than 13,000 races.
As an emerging sector, civic tech is beginning to improve the machinery of democracy even if our scale hasn’t yet transformed ballot box outcomes in the way that the Internet and iPhones have transformed the speed and scale of protests.
Perhaps the best place for these new tools of democracy to focus is at the state and local level, where a new battleground is forming and where voter turnout is especially low.
Republicans currently dominate statehouses and governor’s mansions, yet a majority of America’s 100 largest cities have Democratic mayors. Many of these offices will be up for grabs in the next year or two, and our industry can build better tools to register, educate and turn out voters.
As crazy as it may seem in an age of near-ubiquitous digital connectivity, last year’s election and last weekend’s protests have only scratched the surface of what’s possible. We’ve nailed the fast and free forms of mass communication that enable mass mobilization and reduce the power of elitist institutions; now it’s time to build deeper tools for learning, direct action and accountability. Let’s get to work.
Originally published February 1, 2017 in Recode