A Digital Approach to Democratic Dialogue

The essence of a democratic act is the co-construction of a coherent understanding of a shared circumstance. All else flows from this constructed understanding. It has never been easy, and today may be much more difficult that it has been in the past. This is frustratingly ironic to many who turn to the Internet as mankind’s last best shot at a democratic global future.

As I see it, here is the rub. Modern internet technology makes gathering voices straight forward … if and only if the channel for expressing one’s voice is broadly shared. This means that a central URL (a universal resource locator) is needed which will provide a strong and sustainable forum or venue for democratic exchange. This wing of the problem is well within current reach, but not without its problems. As we feel our way forward toward a more perfect digital platform for democratic practice, we will see frictions among alternative efforts as they become constrained in an earnest traffic jam rushing toward a single destination. The best of intentions will collide. And in the race to recruit voices from the public, the reservoir of public bandwidth will be sucked dry. This is because the public has a finite capacity of energy to invest in democratic practice, and efforts to engage the public places pressure upon public attention – resulting in a form of dialogue fatigue. Unless the venue through which the public is created energizes the public in meaningful ways, that venue risks teaching the public to ignore urgent calls for collective engagement. The hunger for meaning that people instinctively feel as a sentient species will become satiated by stories that will be crafted without an inclusive voice – and delivered on plates that are ideal for swallowing stories easily.

The second wing that will lift democratic deliberations aloft is a cycling three-fold means of listening to all of the responding voices, recruiting unresponsive voices, and assembling a coherent picture of the understanding that links all respondents in a sense of common situation. These requirements for inclusive understanding have to be met before efforts to nominate or prescribe specific remedial actions are initiated. We cannot hope to collectively fix a situation if we do not first have a shared understanding of that situation.

Creating a shared, coherent view of a complex situation is a process that struggles toward an end-point. The end-point is an ideal destination, and the human effort is a pragmatic step toward that ideal destination. We cannot expect to get to 100% closure on a complex view of the future – however, we can hope to get full closure on a coherent statement of where the preferred future will be found. In other words, we can come to agree upon what we do feel we know, and at the same time recognize that there are important things that we can be watchful for but cannot yet fully know.

Before taking on a mechanic’s view of how to find closure on an incomplete yet coherent view, and how to translate that view into collective action, one might well ask if an effort to force a shared understanding is worthy of our time when we recognize from the start that any such understanding will necessarily be incomplete. The short answer is “yes” – most profoundly and urgently “yes.”

Agreeing upon a way to move through a jungle of uncertainty is essential when it is impossible to point to the one true direction out of that jungle with certainty. If we can agree how to meaningfully explore together, we can agree how to learn from our explorations together; and if we agree how to learn from our shared explorations, we can agree to find the best possible options for our futures. Now we all should realize that it was not too long ago when such a string of logic would be held to be absurd – and we should all also realize that in many parts of the world today this same logic is still reviled as foolishness. The singular authority of hierarchical leadership can and will ordain directions for others to follow. With near-term horizons, this is natural and proper … if we are to put out a fire that is roaring around us, we need a command-and-control response. If we are seeing the fire upon the horizon – even as that horizon draws ever closer – we are capable of more than a reliance upon hierarchical, authoritarian leadership. Hierarchical decision makers do rightly fear becoming bogged down in a quagmire of irreconcilable differences. Traditional leadership often lack experience where vastly differing positions are efficiently and powerfully intertwined into a coherent basis for action. Hierarchical process needs experience applying democratic process for dealing with diffuse and far-horizon action – just as democratic process needs skillful application of hierarchical process for dealing with management of focused and near-horizon action. Democratic process is not at odds with autocratic hierarchies. Autocrats have their advisors – the democratic urge is to include among those advisers equal voice from “all” perspectives of the governed.

Now for a mechanic’s view of assuring a shared construction of a coherent vision of a situation – as a prelude to a shared construction of a coherent imagining of real options for responding to the situation: v First, collect a large set of (unique) ideas that express matters of concern from an inclusively diverse pubic audiences regarding a specific situation. v Second, get a preliminary view of the specific ideas that the public broadly feels to be of most “highly important” to keep in mind when trying to understand the situation. v Third, begin exploring relationships among this set of highly important concerns in a pair wise fashion – searching for ideas which are judged to strongly influence the successful resolution of other ideas. v Fourth, display a model which will reveal the initial pattern of influence across the system of highly important matters of concern. v Fifth, use this initial pattern to search through other expressed matters of concern which might take up positions of still deeper and greater influence upon the emerging system pattern. v Six, reflect on the patter of influence for the situation being explored, and seek out additional concerns with even more deeply influence the successful resolution of the system of concerns. v Seventh, overlay ideas about possible actions which could address each of the concerns contained within the influence map of the situation. v Eight, in groups which self-nominate themselves as desiring to collaborate on resolving the situation, craft action scenarios that draw upon the action options overlaid upon the influence map of the situation. v Ninth, compare alternative scenarios and first identify actions which are common across all scenarios. v Tenth, engage reflection upon action options which are progressively unique to specific action scenarios, asking for clarity on why one specific course of action is advantageous with respective to an alternative (on possibly in combination with an alternative) action of a specific item of concern in the influence map of the situation. v Eleven, converge upon a small set of real alternatives for action, and develop narratives for the preferred action alternatives which will feature both their commonalities and their differences.

The mechanical process for constructing a coherent view from a multitude of individual concerns will be reduced to digital mechanism through iterations over time. The work has begun already and is largely nearing completion. Yet while two wings will lift democracy into flight, democracy requires one additional element to come to roost. Democratic initiatives need to be reflected broadly in the public dialogue. This will involve bringing the digital back into the first person world. Extending the mechanic’s view, three additional activities are needed to curate, survey and enact democratic decision making. v Mechanical step twelve places into a public venue both a complete, transparent, and (where possible) illustrated record of ideas of concern, patterns of influence among ideas, options for acting upon ideas, and a resolved set of real options for action. v Mechanical step thirteen captures (unique) statements in response to the public communication of the democratic process, and incorporates those public statements into the retained public communication of the democratic process. v And mechanical step fourteen calls for an informed electorate to express the will of the people through public vote.

The practice of democracy is more than a human right alone: it is also a human responsibility, and along with all sets of responsibilities come some rules of process. The mechanic’s tour of democratic process lays out a sequence of activities all of which must be substantially complete before the next task is engaged. For example, the democracy platform must segment “situation exploration” from “situation resolution” activities so that respondents can be assure that actions will be contemplated with, and only with, a shared understanding of the situation that calls for resolution. Orchestrating the construction of coherence from a multitude of highly different individual perspectives, traditions and beliefs is going to be difficult. In many ways, the way that we think is who we are. We self-identify with our approach to making sense out of the world, and we define our communities through our traditions for including or excluding others in our thought processes.

Today, as we straddle the physical world and the digital universe, we are developing new traditions through which we will come to know the community of mankind. Our digital technology can either liberate us or constrain us. The way that we choose to use this technology is within our hands. It is up to us to imagine together how we will implement digital democracy.