As you know, I like to talk about our collective need to “make new maps” to better navigate this age we live. Another way to think about this same need is to question the fitness of our “social technologies”.

An economist and historian at Columbia University, Richard Nelson, points out that we humans employ two types of technology: physical technologies (which is all the stuff we normally think of when we hear “technology”—things like steam engines and semiconductors); but also social technologies, which are the ways we organize ourselves to do things—ways like settled agriculture, the rule of law, money…and democracy.

These two classes of technology evolve with each other. This co-evolution is easy to see: just look at how the list of subjects taught in universities changes over time. In an earlier letter about artificial intelligence, I gave the example of mass manufacturing—a new physical technology that challenged society to deal with a new scale and complexity of inputs, outputs and money flows. Our accounting systems couldn’t cope, and so in response, we evolved a new social technology—finance—to help us to help society to cope with, and more fully leverage the possibilities of these mass production systems.

But sometimes this co-evolution falls badly out of sync. Lately, we’ve been innovating our physical technologies very rapidly (or, as I argued in Age of Discovery, at a revolutionary pace reminiscent of the Renaissance). But our social technologies—our legal frameworks, tax systems, education systems, political systems and so on—are adapting at an evolutionary pace. That is a very simple, intuitive way to explain the widening anxiety that has been observed across the world’s advanced countries today.

Democratic obsolescence?

One branch of social technology where the need for innovation is urgent, but not urgently pursued, is in our politics—and specifically, in our democracy.

Democracy in its modern form has been with us since Magna Carta, an agreement signed in 1215 between King John of England and his feudal barons, which recognized that the powers of the king had limits. (As a pure aside, I’ve seen one of the few surviving copies of Magna Carta several times during my years at Oxford University. It’s gorgeous. Magna Carta is often trotted out when VIPs come to town. When it’s not on display, it’s kept deep underground in a nuclear bomb-proof shelter, along with a Gutenberg Bible and other precious artifacts.)

Magna Carta, the American Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution and other seminal moments set the basic features that define all liberal democracies today. And the most basic feature of this social technology called “democracy” is the idea that (A) we choose our representatives, who are then (B) accountable to us for how well they protect, and advance, our well-being.

A still works. B makes less sense with every passing day.

The basic problem is that 21st-century humanity is tangled together now—and not, as people say, “connected”. The distinction is crucial to understanding what ails democracy today. In a tangled world, cause-and-effect are hard to see; goods and bads flow globally; and we can’t disentangle ourselves from risks and shocks that originate elsewhere.

In reality, humanity’s well-being is all tangled. But in our politics, we gather in discrete national groupings to choose people to advance our group’s well-being. The people we nominate (our elected representatives) make promises to our group: to grow the economy, to create jobs, to keep us safe, to clean up the environment. But given our tangled reality, in many situations they lack the power to deliver.

Take, for example, the US president. Donald Trump’s presidency is an example of…well, it’s an example of many things…but it is also an example of the widening gap between the promises our democratically elected leaders make to us and their capacity to fulfil them.

Across the world’s democracies, the US president is arguably the elected representatives with the most power to shape the world according to the interests of his national group. But that power is proving illusory. Take just one big example: jobs, specifically jobs in the US coal industry. Donald Trump got elected in part because he promised voters in key states to save the American coal industry. And yet, since he was elected, no new coal plants have been announced or opened in the US. Instead, 10 more coal plants have announced they will shut down. Trump is powerless to deliver on his promise to create new jobs for American coal miners, because scientific consensus about climate change, because advances in clean energy and electric vehicles, and other broad trends that entangle the coal industry overpower any actions one country might take on the issue.

What aspects of public well-being can our elected officials deliver on? The list keeps shrinking. Public safety and security? Such promises are challenged by the online radicalization of our own neighbours, or by anonymous hacks to steal our data and identities.

Public health? It’s only as secure as the weakest link in the world’s quarantine capabilities. Remember SARS? We were all lucky that the easy-to-spread pandemic hit Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore and Toronto first—all cities with very strong public health authorities. Remember Ebola? The public health authorities in those West African countries where it struck were quickly overwhelmed. The rest of the world was just lucky that Ebola, unlike SARS, can’t spread through the air.

This coming winter’s flu season is likely to be severe across the northern hemisphere—not because public health officials are asleep at the wheel, but because southern countries like Australia, whose winter ended a couple weeks ago, have just endured one of their toughest flu seasons on record. And right now, those strains of flu virus are spreading globally through our airports.

Obviously, many determinants of our well-being remain local. The world isn’t flat; it’s more mountainous than ever. And local government policy (say, over housing prices, public transit and migration) does a lot to determine how high its residents can reach.

But many of the biggest determinants of our well-being are now beyond the power of our own political community to decide: environmental change, pandemics, tax avoidance, industrial growth and collapse, commodity prices, technological change, personal privacy and the integrity of our public discourse.

What, then, is the contract we are making with our political leaders when we elect them? Across the democratic world, trust in political institutions fell sharply after the global financial crisis. Did our politicians betray our trust? Or did we make the mistake, by believing that financial stability was within their power to maintain?

Calling all innovators

Now is the next critical moment in the long story of the social technology we call “democracy”. To help us face many of the biggest threats to our well-being, we might need to give our political leaders more trust, not less. More authority, not less. But we can’t do that, because it demands a trust we don’t feel.

Can we innovate this social technology, democracy, to suit the new world we find ourselves in? Tune in next week…


Three links to help navigate the now:

  1. Follow Geoff Mulgan. He’s the Chief Exec of Nesta, one of the world’s biggest policy innovation labs. Also a writer, social entrepreneur and policy geek. Everything he retweets is a “must-read”.
  2. Watch a brilliant, one-hour debate hosted by The Guardian between Jeffrey Sachs, David Miliband and Ngaire Woods on the question, “Are we facing a crisis of democracy?” (Or, if you only have two minutes, here’s a brief highlight and another.)
  3. Read Eileen Donahoe’s essay on whether government, or the big tech companies, should be in charge of protecting our public discourse from fake news. It begins, “Democracies face an existential threat: information is being weaponized against them with digital tools…” (Eileen works on global digital policy at Stanford.)