Introducing My New Book, Accelerating Democracy

Relentless and accelerating technological change is the fundamental fact of our time. Your smartphone today is more than a thousand times powerful and a million times less expensive than all the computers at MIT in 1965. This exponential increase in computational power is continuing. It represents both a boon and a danger to society.

Such accelerating power creates ever greater scope for innovation, as more and more technologies are brought into the domain of computation and then partake of its exponential progress. But accelerating technology also will create dangers abroad (such as new weapons of mass destruction) and turbulence at home (such as the displacement of workers by machines). As a result, technological acceleration also demands better governance.

Fortunately, the computational revolution also supplies new tools to allow our political system to make smarter decisions. The key is to use the power of our new information technology to better assess past policy and predict the consequences of future policy. Information about the best policies is the master public good without which all other public goods cannot be well provided.

In the next posts I will describe how we can unleash specific legal technologies like prediction markets, empiricism, and dispersed media to help democracy make better decisions. But in the remainder of this post, let me make two larger points about the advantages of the synergies from these technologies and preempt one objection.

The new information technologies permit us to reject a top down model of the creation of social information. The usual idea of a technocracy depends on information handed down from above by experts and bureaucrats. But technologies like prediction markets permit knowledge to bubble up from below— from more dispersed sources through more competitive mechanisms, thereby sustaining a more decentralized structure of social discovery. We can have expertise without being so beholden to particular experts and their biases.

Better and more accurate information about social policy disproportionately helps encompassing interests as opposed to special interests. Most citizens would like to organize and vote for encompassing goals, like better economic growth and education. But the policies to achieve such goals are often unclear.

In contrast, special interests constantly seek to use government for their own interests–often under the cloak of serving the public. New information technologies of the day, like the printing presses of yesterday, help redress this balance by giving more power to encompassing interests. Better information about public goods can give wing to the better angels of our nature.

Finally, let me be clear that even improvements in our information politics will not create any kind of democratic utopia. Many citizens will still not pay much attention to policy information and politicians will continue to dissemble. But just as the printing press helped constrain the rulers of its day, so too can new information technologies help constrain the special interests of our day. It is no argument against reform that governance will remain imperfect, if reforms can help us forge better policies even if only incrementally and initially at the margin.