Before asking the question of how technology can affect democracy, I’m going to ask: What is democracy for?
In a developed, post-industrial country at the start of the twenty-first century, one of the main functions of a democratic political system is to help us collectively manage living in a complex, global society. Our daily lives take place in a network of technological, socio-technical, and social systems that we barely notice, except when things go wrong.
To start with, there are the infrastructural systems that fill out the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid of needs: clean water on tap, the ability to flush away disease-causing waste, natural gas for warmth and food preparation, and raw energy in the form of electricity, for heat and light, to replace physical labor, and to power cooling and electronics. Moving up Maslow’s pyramid, these systems underpin communication, community and self-actualization: connections to the rest of the world in the form of telecommunications and postal mail, physical links in the form of roads and a subway that link to rail, airports, and more.
While they’re far from perfect, these systems work well enough that mostly we don’t think about them. When they do fail, especially as a result of lack of care or maintenance (like interstate highway bridge collapses or the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan), we recognize it as the profound and shocking betrayal that it is.