Electronic Democracy

Paul Orban’s illustration of electronic democracy for the 1955 short story “Franchise” by Isaac Asimov

Time for an update on the PhD, methinks. This blog has been a bit fallow, but I’m going to try and post more regularly now that I have a clearer sense of what I’m working towards: a transnational history of ‘electronic democracy’ networks from the 1960s to the 1990s. Specifically, I’m tracing the global diffusion of telematics-based models of ‘teledemocracy’ and the subsequent transition by the end of the period to Internet-based ‘cyberdemocracy’.

For the last six months, I’ve been reading and familiarising myself with the historiography of electronic democracy, transnational telecommunications, participatory and deliberative democracy, as well as the broader historiography of computing and communications technology in the 20th century. My research plan was just approved today, so I have a clearer idea of my project now (though I’m sure there will be more changes to come as I start actually visiting archives, conducting oral histories and writing everything up).

What is a transnational “electronic democracy” network? Perhaps a good first step might be to talk about the key concept of “electronic democracy” – a term that, after 1994, was gradually replaced by “e-democracy” (itself now being overtaken by “digital democracy“). As an introduction to the genealogy of the concept, I found this 2006 paper by Thierry Vedel helpful and I recommend it as a good starting point. The militarised “cyborg discourse” of the The Closed World by Paul Edwards, which “yielded up new possibilities for… political action within a total Cold War operated by global information and control systems”, as well as countercultural ideas of non-hierarchical “democratic creation of order from below” described in Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture are also both particularly relevant.

I’ll try and unpack the concept of “electronic democracy further on this blog. However, one fascinating early reference is from a science fiction short story by Isaac Asimov called Franchise, and I thought I’d start by blogging about that.

First published in the August 1955 issue of If magazine, Asimov’s story presents a future where elections are no longer conducted through mass voting but instead rely on the detailed statistical analysis of a single median swing voter’s preferences and opinions, extrapolating outwards from there the predicted vote of the entire US electorate. Each election cycle, some statistically super-representative male voter (and we’re told it’s always a man) is selected by MULTIVAC, a colossal supercomputer “half a mile long and three stories high”.

The name MULTIVAC is patterned after an actual historical computer mainframe called UNIVAC (Universal Automatic Computer) that was widely reported to have “predicted” the 1952 US Presidential election on live television news. Ira Chenoy, who has studied the 1952 UNIVAC prediction, cautions us to be aware of all the technological hype surrounding computers at the time (something we should still be acutely aware of today):

“While live use of the new technology was a risk taken by broadcasters and computer makers in a quest for attention, the underlying methodology of forecasting from early returns did not represent a sharp break with pre-computer approaches. And while computers were touted in advance as key features of election-night broadcasts, the ‘electronic brains’ did not replace ‘human brains’ as primary sources of analysis on election night in 1952.”

In Asimov’s imagined future, the more nuanced historical human-machine relationship that Chenoy suggests is entirely absent. Instead, electronic election prediction is presented in Franchise as almost fully automated. The mainframe computers of Asimov’s fictional timeline grow larger and larger after the UNIVAC election prediction of 1952, while the sample size they need to accurately anticipate the electorate’s desires shrinks smaller and smaller until, inevitably, a sample size of a single voter is all that’s necessary.

The protagonist of the story, Norman Muller, a middle-class married man from Bloomington, Indiana, is chosen to be “the Voter” for the 2008 Presidential election and is taken, at the end of the story, to a hospital near his home to be subjected to a battery of biometric and opinion research tests. At the end of the text, after the tests are complete but before the results have been announced on live television, Norman reflects with satisfaction that by submitting his personal data to the machine he has done his democratic duty:

“In this imperfect world, the sovereign citizens of the first and greatest Electronic Democracy had, through Norman Muller (through him!) exercised once again its free, untrammeled franchise.”

Yet Norman was never actually asked directly by MULTIVAC which candidate for President he preferred, nor did he ever cast anything resembling a vote. Instead, he answered a series of mundane opinion research questions, such as what he thinks about the price of eggs (he responded that he didn’t know the price of eggs). Electronic democracy is presented ironically by Asimov as somehow more real than old-fashioned democracy because it uses computer technology to scientifically and rationally understand and predict the essence of democratic desire.

For Asimov, then, electronic democracy is democracy as a sophisticated computer simulation. This recalls Baudrillard‘s argument that opinion polls are simulations of voting, and in Franchise the simulation has completely replaced the original. It’s no longer that the map precedes the territory, there is no territory left at all. Elections have become an aleatory game (i.e. a game of statistical probability) that annihilates the “political as will and representation, the political as meaning, precisely through the effect of simulation and uncertainty”.

This is perilously close to what Paul Virilio termed “automatic democracy”:

“Behind the libertarian propaganda for a direct (live) democracy, capable of renovating party-based representative democracy, the ideology of an automatic democracy is being put in place, in which the absence of deliberation would be compensated by a social automatism similar to that found in opinion polls or the measurement of TV audience ratings.”

Asimov’s story is clearly satire. However, in the 1960s social scientists (such as Ithiel de Sola Pool) did indeed conduct research into the “automating of opinion research” through computer simulations of electoral democracy. More recently, Dominic Cummings, former Chief Adviser to Boris Johnson, has claimed to have experimented with “‘synthetic focus groups’ and ‘synthetic polling’, i.e running focus groups and polls with ‘synthetic’ voters inside Large Language Models”.

This, however, is just one conception of electronic democracy. In future blog posts, I will explore the evolution of the concept from the 1950s to the ’60s, and early attempts to make the cybernetic “governing machine” more participatory and responsive to citizen feedback.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *