This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 9, 2017.
For as long as people have been criticizing technology, they’ve been complaining that emerging tools make us lazy, stupid, unable to concentrate, and so on. It is easy to imagine that a certain technological advance, whether it is the printing press or the television, imposes some undesired quality upon humanity by its very nature. But the fact is that, while technology is by no means neutral, neither does it create characteristics in people that didn’t already exist. Rather, any technology has inherent qualities that can amplify or diminish pre-existing human tendencies.
So rather than asking “Is the internet good for democracy?” we ought to explore whether the human characteristics that tend to be amplified or diminished by the internet support a functioning democratic system.
One universal human trait is to seek out and connect with other people who have shared perspectives or experiences. The internet, because it inherently collapses geography, greatly amplifies people’s ability to make those connections regardless of physical location. People who have experiences or views that are not well represented in their local communities can form rich online relationships with others who do share their perspectives. This effect can have obvious benefits in that it allows people to connect, to feel less isolated, and to have a louder collective voice.
However, the American democratic system is structured in a way that effectively equates political interest with geography. Our interests as citizens are meant to be represented by members of our towns, cities, and states. This is the case because for much of history, geographic communities were people’s primary communities. Political interest was shaped by the people you knew (who were mostly local to you), the characteristics of urban or rural environments, local industries, and so on.
But the internet has allowed for communities of interest to form independent of geography. That creates dissonance because we don’t have a mechanism for our online communities to be represented in our political system.
Conversely, many political issues are still legitimately tied to location—whether they are national issues that affect regional economies, or local issues like community infrastructure and budgeting—and yet many technological interfaces obscure those geographic realities.
These tensions can and should be addressed from both angles. On the one hand, perhaps our institutions for representing the interests of citizens can better reflect our current society. One possible approach would be creating balance between structures that emphasize geographic community with structures by which political interests can be represented irrespective of geographic location.
That dissonance can also be resolved by designing technological tools in ways that allow for better communication and participation at a local level, tying us more visibly to our geographic communities. We already see some of this in practice, whether it’s online participatory budgeting or networked tools for local communication. But we can use more experiments in this realm, including more ways for people in a local community to connect with one another and better tools for understanding and participating in local government and politics.
The internet collapses geography and expands our concept of community, yet geographic community is a cornerstone of our structures for democratic participation. As a result, we live in a society whose current reality is not properly reflected in its political system. We need to either adjust democratic institutions to better reflect our connected society or we need to create better tools to make our geography something we can effectively engage with online, or perhaps both.
Alexis Lloyd is the chief design officer at Axios. Previously, she was a creative director at The New York Times.
This article is part of The Democracy Project, a collaboration with The Atlantic.