'Touchscreen democracy': how technology can recast politics

The tools to shape democracy will evolve in the touchscreen era. Here's a glimpse of what could lie ahead. 

Chris Keane/Reuters/File
Civic tech is about turning your phone into a political toll for something more than selfies.

American democracy began as the initiative of a handful of European-bred landowning men whose primary tool of communication was a horse-and-buggy postal system. Today, we are sprawling society of more than 320 million diverse individuals with cellphones who all feel entitled to be heard. There is no way we can participate in democracy – not just vote or protest, but fully engage – without a revolution.

Part of that revolution is “civic tech” – the emerging space where the visions of Steve Jobs and Thomas Jefferson join together. In 2000, there were 16 companies in the field, according to a report from the Knight Foundation. By 2012, there were 121 – and it's continued to skyrocket since then.  

The heart of civic tech is not just profit or technology. It is about infusing democracy with a problem-solving vibrancy that goes beyond stale partisanship – about empowering individual citizens with tools to defend and expand “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“Once I entered the field of software development, I experienced a culture of open collaboration that I hadn't seen anywhere else,” says Lucas Cioffi, CEO of QiqoChat, which helps build online communities. “I built this site to help bring this type of collaboration to other fields where the answers are less black and white and where working across disciplines can yield tremendous results."

Civic tech comes in a variety of shapes and sizes and with different goals, from encouraging dialogue to honing it for political action.

Civic Tech 1.0 is the basic stuff: teleconferencing technology that allows citizens to gather for conversations in large numbers.

“I believe we have an unmatched level of interactivity,” says Brian Burt, CEO of MaestroConference. “It’s far more powerful than the one-to-many, top-down communication tools we’ve grown accustomed to.”

But he has even bigger dreams than just bringing people together. He wants to bring them together for a purpose – “to engage in meaningful conversation that moves them toward a shared mission or cause.”

Civic Tech 2.0 goes further, creating interactions between collective citizen voices and public officials.

For generations, citizens have sent letters to their representative in Congress. But PopVox gives that message a boost. It makes sure that representatives know that users are not cranks, but real constituents, and the site “guarantees delivery of your message.” Through both individual efforts and aggregated comments PopVox offers a public record of advocacy.

Similarly, Change Politics provides voters with information about candidates and creates new avenues for their voices to be heard. By lowering barriers to voting and giving voters an independent, neutral information source, the site intends to shift influence away from partisanship and money and toward a more representative and responsive government.

"I believe that our platform is perfectly designed for helping citizens make informed decisions in elections,” says one of its founders, Nick Troiano.

Civic Tech 3.0 takes a further step: it turns voters in to policymakers.

TheChisel, based in New York City, helps citizens transcend partisanship by helping them to engage with nonpartisan organizations and multi-partisan coalitions. Informed by these well-chosen experts, users can contribute their views to finding consensus-driven solutions to issues facing America. And then, TheChisel works with these organizations to send these proposals to Congress.

“We’re educating and entertaining our users with nonpartisan substantive, with easy-to-understand content,” explains Founder & Chief Citizens’ Officer Deborah Devedjian. “We are also engaging them with our community of experts and fellow citizens, and empowering them with a voice. Citizens are not just voting, they’re chiseling!”

Democrasoft has a similar goal. It enables citizens to assemble online around issues of national importance, transcending the standard left-right gridlock by focusing citizen input on issues instead of parties. Unlike political parties, which maximize differences, Democrasoft has designed and begun implementation of a state-of-the-art “national infrastructure for civic engagement.”  Specifically, Democrasoft wants to build an “online National Town Square, where citizens can come together in a single location, to cast authenticated advisory votes on issues that affect us all,” says CEO Richard Lang.

These enterprises are just a taste. You can track the latest developments by going to Civic Hall or attending its annual mega-gathering Personal Democracy Forum. Behind each venture is a glimpse of how democracy itself is evolving. But the tools of the future depend ultimately on what we, the people, choose.

With civic tech, that begins by simply choosing a link — and then click.

Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, us the author of “The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide

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