merely to make people’s lives more
convenient but to make their lives richer, including their ability to contribute
to the common good.
Democracy is—and always will
be—a work in progress. It is by definition imperfect. At its core it is an artifact of rules and procedures animated
by human beings. It is necessarily both
open and closed, constrained and free.
It necessarily includes non-sanctioned
activities such as peaceful protest and
civil disobedience. Let’s use Shapiro’s
ideas as provocations, hypotheses, or
proposals as we move forward. But if we
use the ideas and approach he proposes
and advocates in his “Point” column (or
any single proposal) as the blueprint,
we will miss the opportunity to improve
the governance approaches we need for
current and future realities. It is a critical time for this community to engage
in deep and ongoing discussion and activism on the roles of computers—and
computer professionals—in society.
1. Barber, B. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for
a New Age. University of California Press, 2003.
2. Davies, T. and Gangadharan, S.P. Online Deliberation:
Design, Research, and Practice. University of Chicago
3. Dias, N. Hope for Democracy: 25 Years of Participatory
Budgeting Worldwide. In Loco Association, São Brás
de Alportel, 2014; https://bit.ly/2Jw4hdy
4. Fishkin, J. S. and Luskin, R. C. Experimenting with
a democratic ideal: Deliberative polling and public
opinion. Acta Politica 40, 3 (Mar. 2005), 284–298.
5. Foa, R. S. and Mounk, Y. The democratic disconnect.
Journal of Democracy 27, 3 (Mar. 20106), 5–17.
6. Kang, C. F.C.C. repeals Net neutrality rules. The New
York Times (Dec. 14, 2017); https://nyti.ms/2Ck TbRR
7. National Constituent Assembly France. Declaration of
the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789); https://bit.
8. Schuler, D. Creating the world citizen parliament:
Seven challenges for interaction designers. ACM
interactions 20, 3 (May+June 2013).
9. Schuler, D. Cultivating society’s civic intelligence:
Patterns for a new ‘world brain’. Information,
Communication, and Society 4, 2 (Feb. 2001), 157–181.
10. Smith, G. and Wales, C. Citizens’ juries and deliberative
democracy. Political Studies 48, 1 (Jan. 2000), 51–65.
Douglas Schuler ( email@example.com)
is faculty emeritus at The Evergreen State College in
Olympia, WA, USA.
Copyright held by author.
system based on a set of requirements
and switching it on. Democracy requires
participation and the design and development of participatory systems are
best undertaken with participation. He
suggests “e-parties” will “export their
participatory practices of their inner
workings to real-world governments”
but this is a narrow view of social innovation (and our experiences with e-parties
thus far have not been entirely reassuring). It is relevant to note that women in
France—but not all—were only granted
voting rights in 1944, a full 155 years
after the 1789 Declaration that asserted
the equality of all.
I appreciate Shapiro’s focus on foundations. My critique could be seen as
providing additional foundations including political realities, critique, and
provisos. I fear Shapiro’s discussion
on technologies goes beyond the foundation orientation into the realm of
technological determinism or fetishism. Thinking that democracy can be
reduced to a computer problem can
be a dangerous distraction. The reality
is that many of the “answers” we seek
can only be determined through seeing
how new systems are used, and this use
is likely to vary from cultural context to
But this critique is not intended to
discourage new citizen approaches,
including ones that use the new affordances the Internet provides. On
the contrary, many initiatives such as
participatory budgeting, 3 deliberative
polling, 4 online deliberation, 2 citizen
juries, 10 and many others suggest promising directions for transforming our
democratic systems incrementally.
To get this right we must experiment. Our systems must evolve and this
means engagement with real people.
While the technological contribution
is necessary, civil society, librarians,
artists, government officials, activists,
and “ordinary” people must also as-
sume important roles. In an article I
wrote for ACM Interactions, 8 I proposed
a “global parliament” as a suitable
grand challenge in which the commu-
nity of computer professionals could
collaborate with many others to design
and build a system (or systems) that
facilitated global citizen communica-
tion. Computer professionals need to
keep in mind the broad social goals—
foundations—such as strengthening
social and cultural support and inter-
est in democracy; increasing access to
information and dialogue and deliber-
ation; and giving voice to marginalized
people. This means working to ensure
the right mixture of people, policy, in-
stitutions, processes, education, and,
of course, technology.
The media landscape at the time of
the Declaration bears little resemblance
to the ubiquitous, monopolistic digi-
tal empires of today with their global
reach, massive data mining, and influ-
ence on public opinion. And govern-
ments of the 18th century did not hire
hackers and digital mercenaries. Thus
more control over the existing media
and more access to and support for
publicly owned media will be neces-
sary for genuine democracy in the 21st
century. I agree with Shapiro that Face-
book is not an appropriate platform for
this, nor could any for-profit, propri-
etary, closed system. A project of this
magnitude requires a deep, long-term
commitment by civil society, govern-
ment, professional societies, and oth-
ers. The first principle of the ACM with
its “obligation to protect fundamental
human rights” suggests it should be in-
volved. And a project of this magnitude
would require sustained support.
Good democratic governance
should not be confused with “thin
democracy,” 1 where citizens assume
minimal roles. We need systems that
help people be more engaged, better
informed, and more adept at public
problem solving, a capacity I refer to
as civic intelligence. 9 The point is not
that cannot be