Democratic Design for Digital Publics

Overview

Communication technologies are essential to forming political conditions of possibility: they provide the means for discourse, connection, organizing, and decision-making. They can also be tools of surveillance, repression, and misinformation. In order to understand and reimagine political structures, process, and associational life, we must simultaneously critique and reconsider our communications tools.

This book project considers new and alternate possibilities for the relationship between emerging distributed digital communication technologies and the practices of political organizing and self-governance, aiming to outline a set of protocols for the use and design of communications tools that truly serve a democratic public. This conclusion is derived by critical analyses of two objects of study: the (very analog) communications and consensus protocols developed in recent democratic social movements (the “movements of the squares”), and an array of cutting-edge, alternate, nonhierarchical communications technologies growing from or used by these movements and their legacies (mesh networks, distributed hash tables, voting algorithims.) In doing so, this book asserts the potential that emerging peer-to-peer communication tools provide in a moment when representative democracy is compromised, while critically pointing out urgent concerns about the ways in which illegitimate power and control could be inscribed into these communication tools at lower layers.

Research Questions

  • What are recurring and enduring characteristics of democratic, nonhierarchical communication protocols?
  • Can localized democratic practices “scale up” if supported by communications technologies that embody these characteristics?
  • If so, how? What would a “requirements elicitation” for democratic digital design look like?
  •  If not, when? What aspects of self-governance cannot be digitized?

Process

Research for this project began with ethnographic work (long form interviews, participant observation, surveys) with five of the “movements of the squares”: the Egyptian Revolution (2011), the Spanish 15M movement (2011), Occupy Wall Street (2011-2012), the Gezi Park Occupation in Istanbul (2013), and Paris’s Nuit Debout movement (2016).

The first part of the book analyzes the analog and embodied communication and decision-making protocols developed in these assemblies, and their difficulties. The section concludes with a survey of some of the digital communication tools these movements developed in order to circumvent surveillance and shut downs, and to enact their political processes.

The book then performs a close read of the design of three families of technologies emerging from, developed in, or used by these and similar movements: mesh networks, distributed data storage and verification (leading into a discussion of Distributed Hash Tables, Shamir’s Secret Sharing Algorithm, etc.), and finally, at the platform layer, apps and algorithms for collective discourse and decision making (liquid democracy, etc.)

The third section of the book brings together political theory and STS to constructively critique these emerging protocols in order to consider their promises and perils for democratic publics. distribution of power; participatory governance processes; and diverse, open, and empathetic public discourse.

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