Petr Špecián argues that democracy would benefit from experimenting with alternative institutional designs in simulated digital worlds. Providing a ‘playground’ with well-calibrated stakes could accelerate innovation and help navigate democracy through the challenges of the 21st century
Institutions are societies’ building blocks. Their role in shaping and channelling human potential is crucial. Yet the vast space of possible institutional designs remains largely unexplored.
Nowhere does our static institutional landscape appear as strikingly as in the background of the explosive development of digital technologies.
Are we prepared to bet everything on the capability of our venerable political institutions to manage the next pandemic? The volatilities brought about by climate change? The AI-driven social upheaval? The resumed geopolitical arms race?
If not, we need to unleash human ingenuity in institutional design.
Like Alice in Wonderland, one occasionally needs to keep moving just to stay in the same place. Such is the case with political institutions.
The requisite patch can often be applied by implementing marginal tweaks to the existing system. However, such improvements eventually become exhausted. One becomes stuck. Quite possibly stuck without achieving sufficient institutional robustness, as the next emergency may demonstrate painfully.
In the institutional landscape, there are plenty of alternative designs to explore. Some of them, such as replacing elected representation with sortition, look promising. But if they appear only faintly through the mist of uncertainty, their implementation would be an overly risky endeavour. We need more data to get a better idea of our options.
To explore alternative designs for the institutional landscape, we first need more data. I propose testing new institutional designs in a 'digital playground' of democracy
Currently, the multitude of reform proposals overwhelms the modest capacities available for their empirical testing. Only those most prominent — such as deliberative democracy — command enough resources to enable serious examination.
And the stakes are momentous. What if a radical reform of the political institutions proves disastrous? Clever speculations combined with scant experimental evidence cannot dispel reasonable doubts.
This is where my proposal for democracy’s digital playground comes in.
Democracy’s digital playground is an artificial world in which institutional mechanisms are tested and compete against each other.
In some ways, it resembles massive multiplayer online games that emulate many of the real world’s crucial features. These games encourage people to work together to overcome challenges, which then motivates them to create political institutions conducive to their efforts. They can also migrate between communities, revealing their preference for alternative modes of governance.
A 'digital playground' of democracy emulates real-world features. It encourages people to work together to overcome challenges, thus creating conducive political institutions
That said, digital game-worlds in their current form have limited use for democratic experimentation. Their institution-building tools are crude, since much of the cooperation and conflict resolution happens outside the game environment itself, through forums and chats. Nor do these communities accurately represent the diversity of populations in real-world democracies. Players are predominantly young males with ample free time. And the games’ commercial purpose hinders the researchers’ quest for knowledge, too.
But perhaps these digital worlds can be adapted. Compared with the current methods used to test institutional mechanisms, they offer many advantages. Transparency is one such: a human-designed world is less opaque than the natural world. Easy participation represents another: regardless of location or resources, diverse people may join the community.
However, most important of all is the opportunity to calibrate the digital worlds as an optimum risk environment.
How threatening is the prospect of failure of collective action?
Testing institutional mechanisms requires careful calibration of risk. Set the stakes too low, and people do not take their task seriously enough. Make the consequences too severe, however, and they become anxious not to jeopardise the status quo. The ideal lies somewhere between these extremes: sufficient risk to inspire earnest engagement but not so much that it deters experimentation. Only with balanced stakes may the innovative designs receive a fair trial.
Risk can be calibrated in digital worlds. Failure can be made consequential, but not catastrophic. Trial and error — both essential to progress — can be encouraged to the right degree. In a playground, a child may scrape a knee yet remain shielded from mortal danger. A digital world may also let people learn crucial skills with no serious downsides. Optimising risk would foster innovation. That is why the digital world is an ideal environment in which to test institutional mechanisms.
Trial and error are essential to progress. In a digital world, people can learn crucial skills without the serious downsides of real-life failure
I imagine the playground as inherently democratic. Although democracy comes in abundant shifts and shapes, setting some limits to creativity may not be unduly burdensome. Which constraints should be placed upon institutional experimentation? Inclusiveness and non-imposition appear good candidates for 'minimum consensus values'. Let us provide each participant with an effective voice, enable the community to choose free of outsiders’ guidance, and see how things play out.
Real-world exploration of institutional mechanisms will always be costly. But the advances in digital technology enable us to create more efficient testing grounds.
While my proposal is still in its infancy, I believe it has the potential to shape the future of institutional innovation. There are few principal constraints digital worlds would place upon an ambitious institutional designer.
Practically speaking, it is important to start small and feel one’s way. One possibility could be to create an educational application for undergraduates — or maybe even middle-schoolers. This may diminish the problems around lack of representativeness or intrusive commercialisation. Young people would test their mettle in a collective task, selecting some of the pre-set scenarios with, say, alternative voting systems. Doing so, they could learn a few things about democracy. And so could we.
The proper scale of ambition for the project of democracy’s digital playground cannot be determined a priori. But one thing is clear. Although our capability to guide democracy’s ship safely through the stormy waters of history is limited, we should still avoid sailing into the tempest blindly. Establishing democracy's digital playground in a way that embraces experimentation and acknowledges human fallibility could help us chart the course.
💊 Sixth in a Loop series examining how political scientists, and citizens, can take practical steps to strengthen democracy, and change the world for the better
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