What if our democracies would evolve to a Tinder-alike swipe system that promotes citizens to direct decision-makers? This all-too-imaginable techno-future makes the perfect playbook of ‘Disco Sour‘. Wietse Van Ransbeeck (Founder of CitizenLab) interviewed the author Giuseppe Porcaro about the underlying theme of Internet democracy.

DISCO SOUR: Synopsis

A politician addicted to dating apps embarks on an existential odyssey to save democracy from being swiped away.

In the aftermath of a continental civil-war, nation-states have collapsed, the European Union™ holds on, preventing anarchy. 

Bastian Balthazar Bux is a leading member of The Federation®, the European network of civil society and local governments. Bastian has just been unexpectedly dumped through an app, the BreakupShop™ service. Heavy hearted, he just wants to drink, get on with work and forget his romantic woes. 

However, he discovers that Nathan Ziggy Zukowsky is planning to sell Plebiscitum®, a dating-style app that is meant to replace elections with a simple swipe, at the same conference he is invited to attend in Chile. Haunted by the ghosts of his recent relationship, he finds himself without his all-important Morph® phone, just a few hours before embarking on his trip to try to save democracy. 

Will he make it to his conference on the other side of the world? Will he stop Zukowsky from selling his app? And will he ever find a way to deal with his breakup?

DISCO SOUR has been awarded the second prize “Altiero Spinelli Prize for Outreach: Spreading Knowledge about Europe” from the European Union.

Wietse Van Ransbeeck: Hi Giuseppe, let’s jump right in. Where did the inspiration to write this highly political book come from?

Giuseppe Porcaro: “The inspiration came from both the political and technological trends I have experienced over the last years.

In the run up to the European elections in 2014, I had the chance to participate in the communications for the European Youth Forum for a pan-European campaign to get people to vote. You could feel the tensions in Europe and all signs were there for what we call history today: Brexit and the rise of populism.

At the same time, we experienced the rise of a new sort of political movement. While the traditional parties were doing yet another social media campaign, movements such as the Five Star Movement in Italy were five steps ahead by using the web in a totally different way. During the US presidential campaign, Tinder suddenly released their “Swipe the Vote” app — an app that lets you swipe on issues in order to match you with the most appropriate candidate.

And suddenly, the book was not as science fiction anymore as it would have been without this series of events.”

On top of that, you were also influenced by the research you had done earlier, isn’t it?

“Indeed, that was the last element that inspired me: my research on the Internet of Things (IoT) and the impact it would have on the democracy as an industry.”

“If you can have a Smart Home, if you enjoy algorithm-recommended movies on Netflix or music Spotify, why could democracy not be automated with similar algorithms?”

“The book holds this futuristic question at the heart: what can be next that we cannot even imagine today?”

You introduce the concept of issue-based direct democracy in the book. Why does it fit into this politically dystopian story?

“One of the often-heard arguments to introduce direct democracy is that our representative democratic system is broken, since our politicians are corrupt. In my opinion, this is a false shortcut to justify direct democracy.

What is not often understood about direct democracy, is that it can be very manipulative — and yes, even if you put it on a blockchain (laughter). Just think about all the fake news with the Brexit referendum. These referenda are polarising in their very nature, leaving the voter only with a yes or no choice.

Related to that, my main critique on direct democracy is that it leads to the individualisation of democracy. Participation in community life makes political life, but somehow technology threatens this whole idea. The online filter bubbles that got us all locked up, risk to manipulate the population with fake news and, thus, steer the outcome.

In the end, reaching the final outcome is not the only goal of political participation — the process to get there and finding a compromise between different views is definitely as much the goal.”

How could technology be used to the benefit of our democracies?

“Let me first stress that I don’t want to critique technology in itself in the book.”

“Whether technology is good or bad, depends on the people who create it.”

“Technology is always designed for a certain purpose. To put it simplistically, Facebook has been built to be a growing advertisement machine.

However, I strongly believe that technology can also be designed to facilitate citizen participation and foster community discussion. We do need to ask ourselves how such an online democracy should get shape in order to avoid that we build these platforms for the mere purpose of helping politicians get votes. It comes with a great design responsibility.”

That leads us to another interesting question. Disco Sour introduces the idea of automating politics. Why do we need politicians in the first place?

“Politicians are able to make a synthesis on the vision and the end goal of what we want to achieve. It would an extremely dystopian scenario to think of democracy as merely the sum of votes. Democracy is not about the rule of majority, but getting an optimal outcome for the whole.”

“A digital democracy should be more than merely the sum of votes.”

“From a more practical point of view, it isn’t desirable that citizens are asked to vote all the time, which would turn us all paradoxically enough into full-time politicians. Some decisions also require technical expertise — think about legislation for example — and soft skills such as negotiation as well as the great ability to find compromises. These are skills a human can master, but a machine cannot.

It is hard to deny though that there isn’t a growing lack of trust vis-à-vis politicians these days. Populist movements, such as the Italian Five Star Movement for instance, tap intelligently into this empty space.”

To what extent served the Five Star Movement as an inspiration to write this book?

“Well, let me be clear on that: the rise of the Five Star Movement worries me, a lot.

Internet democracy
Rousseau — the Internet democracy platform of Five Star Movement.

Their storyline of “We need to get rid of politicians and the old class. Citizens can reign, so why do we need corrupted politicians anyway?” is very misleading.

The party doesn’t have a formal structure: it doesn’t have a secretariat, nor an elected executive committee. It only exists on the net. Yet, what’s behind this online structure, is basically a company structure.”

To that extent, is the book also a wake-up call towards our policy-makers?

“It certainly is. Our politicians need to modernise the way they are thinking about political parties.

But not only that, they should also prepare for the democracy of tomorrow, and make the technological and data governance frameworks evolve along. They need to start thinking of innovative ways to mobilise the people in political life, using technology.”

Last but not least, the book also touches upon many other themes, amongst which the analogy with dating.

“Indeed, the central role of technology in this book is not only linked to how it affects politics, but also how are human relations are gradually taking another shape. The book is about break-ups for the Tinder generation. In that respect, the dating theme is more than just a romantic aspect I wanted to add to the book.

The problem of the atomisation of human relations is a metaphor for our political problems. In the book, the protagonist being totally self-stuck after a break-up, is somehow a metaphor for how democracy has got stuck.

There has been a break-up. There is a clear lack of confidence of citizen trust. However, break-ups are needed to have a relationship. Let’s think about how to fix our relationship with democracy, rather than giving up on it.”

Do you prefer listening over reading? Here’s the totally unprocessed conversation I had with Giuseppe Porcaro:

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