Why Digital Democracy Is about More Than Tech

Dawin Meckel/Ostkreuz

Katja Jaeger has researched the potential of digitization for democracy at the Berlin-based betterplace lab. She believes that while technology certainly brings limitless new opportunities, the democracy of the future, most importantly, starts with taking a good look at yourself as a human being. 

When speaking about digitization, I tend to rattle off all the good I see in it to make the world – and democracy in particular – a better place: thanks to digital tools, you can educate yourself with the most niche knowledge, advocate your political opinions with like-minded people in a heartbeat, and serve as your government’s watchdog without even leaving your couch.

But whether digital or not, democracy is so much more than “just” a political system. In my understanding, democracy goes far beyond politicians, parliamentary processes, or a political decision made at the ballot box; rather, it’s much more about what happens before, in between, and after. For me, democracy is a system of values, a mindset, a cultural state. This desirable ideal state of democracy constantly needs to be reevaluated and renegotiated; it is a journey that ultimately needs to recognize and include each individual as part of society.

To spur this, I ran a project fostering digital democracy for more than two years: Through demokratie.io, a project initiated and run by the Berlin-based think-and-do tank betterplace lab, we researched and experimented how digitization and democracy come together in practice. We found that computer games can enrich democratic education, that mobile apps can support a more diverse discussion, and that platforms can pave the way for access to information that had previously not been publicly available. We concluded that digitization has a lot of potential to enrich different aspects of democracy, such as empowerment, participation, and transparency.

Betterplace LAB

betterplace lab

The betterplace lab is a digital-social think-and-do tank. Based in Berlin, the team does research at the intersection of innovation and the common good. They spread knowledge, inspire through stories, and strive for a digitalization that benefits humanity. The betterplace lab's services range from workshops, webinars, conferences, analyses, and publications to the implementation of apps and platforms.

But when we look at today’s world, talking about the potential of digitization is only half the story. Don’t get me wrong, I personally believe in the benefits of access to knowledge, broader participation, and more transparency. And I believe that a digital democracy is the future. But I also think that it’s not all that needs to be looked at. When digesting recent findings on how society is deeply divided (be it in the United States or Germany) or trying to get a grip on the theory that a lot of people actually want the chaos that is evolving in the world, I find that the most promising look to understand what’s happening this day and age is inward. And I am not alone in this.

Author Hanzi Freinacht argues that we need to take into account the subjective dimensions of life and how they fundamentally shape society and reality. In his book “The Listening Society,” he claims to look into the developmental psychology of people – be it political leaders or “regular” citizens – and understand them as truly multi-faceted humans. He calls for striving for a listening society – and he means that literally – where no one is left outside the conversation, where everyone is heard and has their needs met. He argues for a deeper kind of welfare system that includes psychological, social, and emotional aspects. In this society, the inner state of individuals is just as, if not more, important than their contributions to society from an economic point of view.

What would a society look like that puts the soul, not the ego, center-stage? What kind of political shift do we need to promote this kind of mindset? Do we dare to ask and try to answer these questions?

The “Spiritualise” report by Dr. Jonathan Rowson of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) gives an answer while calling for more spiritual sensitivity to address the challenges of the 21st century: It argues that spirituality – a term itself hard to define – can help us strive for a society with a better balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic values, such as a growth mindset, materialism, and an ego-centric lifestyle, today manifest themselves in the climate crisis, and the need to break free from a scarcity mindset is evident. Most matters of the public sphere have spiritual roots that have yet to be accepted and addressed. Ronan Harrington – the founder of Alter Ego, a yearly gathering of cultural and political visionaries – calls out the shortcomings of the neoliberalism tale (“salvation lies in work and materialism”) and asks for a new story of spirituality that needs to be told.

All these authors are onto something: They argue that the narrative of what it means to be human needs to be retold within the framework of a digital world. What we as individuals alone and as a society collectively have defined as commendable (from materialistic to post-modern values) needs to be scrutinized. Finding our blind spots as a society calls for each and every one of us to look at our individual blind spots. Challenging your own beliefs is a scary thing, it is a vulnerable place to be in. But luckily, science backs up that being vulnerable is the one thing that makes connection possible. And what we desperately need is to reconnect – with our environment, with other sentient beings, with ourselves.

If we want to reimagine democracy, we must pay closer attention to the inner world of the individuals that are part of it. Digital democracy is not simply about sharing technocratic arguments about how to digitize political processes or take participation into the digital realm. We cannot ask people to be engaged in politics or society, if they are struggling to deal with the everyday hassle of their inner lives. Because frankly, how can I feel the world, if I cannot feel myself? I simply cannot. We should refocus on the essentials of being human that go beyond rational thinking, and elaborate strategies and activities to support our cultural-psychological development – as individuals and as a society. Strengthening our capacities for reflection and using our minds to find one’s own purpose in life are the actual tasks of democracy in the digital age.

Needless to say, we require a system change as a whole – the current debate around democracy should give us leeway to rethink the interconnections of democratic concepts, from direct to representative and from participatory to deliberative democracy. But it is crucial to begin with inner development.

There are some innovators dealing with adult development, offering new paths for societal development as a whole: Perspectiva strives to inspire our (political) leaders to approach today’s problems with a deeper appreciation of the influence of our inner worlds; the School of Life is serving as a resource in our quest to finding fulfilment through self-knowledge; and last but not least, organizations that experiment with new forms of leadership and distribution of power provide practical examples, such as the organization I work for: the betterplace lab.

Can digital tools play an important role in helping us rewire how we as individuals and society reflect on and create meaning? Possibly yes. Since technology brought us into the position of being idle consumers, it might as well help us find a way out again. Will technology be our remedy? Definitely not. It is our individual responsibility to do our best to reconnect to the world, ask ourselves the big questions – How do I create a meaningful life for me and the world? Am I on the right track to do so? What makes me human? – and start the conversation with our inner selves. And then expand it to include our families and friends, colleagues, bosses, and even our political adversaries.

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