In his 1955 short story Franchise, Isaac Asimov imagined how American democracy might be radically transformed by the digital age. In the story, set in 2008, Americans’ political will is exercised not by individual citizens who stand in line to vote, but by a massive supercomputer—the Multivac—that processes an ocean of public data with inscrutable algorithms to reliably predict the outcome of this messy, partisan, costly, and all-too-corruptible process.
The story works on many levels, but above all it evokes the technocrat’s dream (or dystopian vision, depending on one’s perspective) of using new technology to smooth out the wrinkles in our aging analog democracy.
Today, those wrinkles are looking more and more like cracks, while new technologies—from social media and predictive search to digital surveillance—seem to be doing more to destabilize our fragile democratic institutions than to reinforce them. What can we do? I suggest we look at why our newest digital tools—until recently, celebrated as bearers of a new age of democratic wisdom and civic health—have largely failed to deliver on those promises. The causes are complex, and any brief account of them doomed to inadequacy. But chief among them is the technocrat’s error of building ever more powerful systems and platforms for democratic life, while entirely neglecting the need to cultivate robust civic habits, norms and virtues among the peoples who will use those systems.