In today’s episode, we are joined by Gianluca Sgueo, associate researcher at the Center for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra (Portugal), and a New York University Global Professor (Florence). He holds administrative positions at the Sole24Ore Business School (Italy). In the governmental sphere, Professor Sgueo is a policy analyst in the European Parliamentary Research Service. He previously held high-level positions in the Italian government, including Head of Communications and Citizens’ Dialogue. His work examines the effects on democracy of topics such as gamification, civil society groups, and lobbying.
Specifically, we discuss:
- The relationship between technology and democracy
- Is there a trade-off between privacy and efficiency in governance?
- Estonia’s surprisingly progressive digital governance system
- Is technology in government inversely correlated with privacy and security?
- How technology influences our choice environments and our social interactions within them
- The shift from the information age to the reputation age—if we trust the source, we share
- Intelligent government design: How do we design governments to tackle the most pressing societal issues, efficiently and effectively?
- Using behavioral science principles to make the participatory channels of our democracy more engaging and attractive to users.
Redefining democracies to account for disruptions
“Most of human life has developed a way of understanding the world with stability. [Today] we’re going to face increasingly disruptive events like pandemics for example. We should be rethinking completely the way that we understand democracy.”
The privacy-efficiency trade-off in government
“Shall we give up on a certain level of privacy and let governments through technology to track what we’ve been doing and therefore be more efficient in handling with this disease, with this pandemic or shall we defend the idea of being secured in our private space? In our case, the debates will be, do we want to have a more efficient society and more efficient government and therefore give up on our privacy?”
Estonia’s progressive digital governance allows you to “watch the watchers”
“In the Estonian digital government system, all of your data sets are linked, your tax data is connected with your health data [which] is connected with data collected by all kinds of different ministries. When governments want to pull data and want to use data to understand the effects of policies, that makes those kinds of analyses much easier. Whenever a government employee queries data about your file, you receive a notification about it…a text message that says, “Government employee name number such and such just requested these and these and these pieces of information from your file.” That allows you to “watch the watchers” as the famous sentence goes. Now, in reference to George Orwell’s famous book, people said, “This is a little bit different than Big brother. This is actually your little brother because you get to watch them. Every once in awhile it’s important to go and beat up your little brother every once in a while just to make sure that they don’t take on a disproportionate power.” I bring that up as an example of using technology also in a positive sense that there’s a cognizance of the potentially negative impacts that can arise through the impacts of technology on democracy and that we also have some technological solutions that we develop to try to counteract those effects.”
Our “like, re-share, comment” behaviours have changed the way information is communicated
“The way that people consume news through social media is that most people like, re-share, and promote pieces of news that they don’t actually click through. They see the headline, they see often the image that’s associated with the headline, and based on that information and also who is sharing it, they will make their decision about whether to like, re-share, comment, or these things. It’s actually very seldom that people will go and read the article that is behind the splash that they see on their screen. This affects the way that politicians craft their message because they know that if their message doesn’t fit conveniently into that splash on the screen, it won’t propagate effectively.”
We’re all broadcasters today
“Now today each of us is a broadcaster. The average time of sharing a tweet, it was based on Twitter, it was 0.10 seconds, meaning that people would not even care to read all of it. [If someone] tweets something that I just think it’s right, I will retweet it immediately no matter what is the content. This is so empowering if you think about it, but it comes with the dilution of the quality of information.”
From the information age to the reputation age
“[Before you would] never in your life move to another [political] party or the other way around. But today it’s easy that you have people that have voted for the left, the right, the centre, the extreme left. It’s so varied because we trust and we give credit to the single politicians, not the message or the values anymore.”
Designing for technological inclusion in democracies
“If you want to make democracy more inclusive, as we say before, if you want to overcome this social exclusion, if you want to have even more effective democracy, the matter is, “How can we make it more engaging, more attractive for users?” Obviously, there is a lot of possible answers. We go again in behavioral sciences here. The point is you can design the interactions in a way that citizens will feel at least a little bit more rewarded by sharing opinions and ideas with a public.”
Re-building trust by making democracies friendlier
“Can trust be reestablished? I don’t know, maybe you can reestablish trust by going back to talk to each other. And how do you talk to each other? Well, maybe [through showing] some friendliness in the way that [they] approach topics. What’s happening everywhere in the world is that people didn’t trust their politicians in the first place. And so, until the moment in which measures were taken, people were crowding restaurants, bars, you know, with, like, you know, this typical irrational approach of “well, this is happening, but I’m going to survive to this.”
Democracies must be friendly and technologically inclusive
“Our technological developments in the last few years have created new challenges for being friendly within our ecosystem. You know, algorithms that create echo chambers around us can make it very easy for us to be friendly with the people that are already like us. But it separates us even further from the people who aren’t like us. And ultimately the friendliness needs to extend to everybody, not just to the people that we identify with. And if we take that seriously as the major challenge that our democracies are facing now, we need to think about how to shape our democracies and technologies themselves around that kind of issue.”
Articles, books and other items discussed in the episode:
- Reputation by Gloria Origgi, 2017 (Book)
- The science of the artificial by Herbert Simon, 1969 (Book)
- The Digital Party: Political organization and online democracy by Paolo Gerbaudo, 2019 (Book)
- The Politics of the Anthropocene, by John Dryzek and Jonathan Pickering, 2019 (Book)
- Improving Public Policy and Administration: Exploring the Potential of Design 2019 (Article)
- Lessons from Estonia on digital government (Article on Policy Options)
- Estonia, the digital republic (Article on The Newyorker)
- China’s social credit system (Article on Wired)
- The Sciences of the Artificial by Herbert Simon
- The practice of democracy – A selection of civic engagement initiatives (Academic study, 2020)
- What if government was a game? (TedX Talk, 2019)
- Games, Powers and Democracies (Book, 2018)
- Digital Democracy is the future of civic engagement online? (Briefing EPRS European Parliament, 2020)
- Using technology to co-create EU policy (Briefing, EPRS European Parliment, 2002)
- ‘Regulatory gaming’ – A look into European Union’s attempts to engage citizens with playful design (journal article, 2020)
- Gianluca’s Academic articles
Brooke: Hello everyone and welcome to the podcast of the Decision Lab, a non-profit think tank dedicated to democratizing behavioral science. We conduct behavioral research and consulting projects with clients such as the Gates Foundation, the World Bank and governments and non-profits around the world. Helping to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, research director at TDL and I’ll be your host for the discussion. My guest today is Gianluca Sgueo, associate researcher in the Center for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, NYU Global Professor and policy analyst in the European Parliamentary Research Service. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about the influence of technology on democracy. Gianluca, welcome. Please introduce yourself.
Gianluca: Hello everyone. Thanks for hosting me here. It’s a very peculiar moment. One in which we are recording and I guess this would be also part of our conversation but for the time being, I’ll just like to say that I’m very happy to be here. We’ve been knowing each other for a little while now and it’s amazing to work with you guys. You do amazing work. I’m a big fan of your activities and in your field of expertise.
Brooke: Thanks very much. Just to clarify, because this is obviously not being recorded live. The peculiar moment that Gianluca is referring to is the COVID-19 outbreak. Currently, I’m sitting at home trying to find a room without too much echo and I think Gianluca is sitting at home as well. In my case in Montreal and Gianluca’s case in Rome. We are today the 17th of March. Right now it’s very intense days for the outbreak in Italy. In Canada, luckily it’s still pretty tame for now but we’ll see what the next days have in store for us. Let’s get down to the topic that we had agreed to discuss before a much more interesting and important topic came around and imposed itself on us. What we had talked about previously and wanted to discuss today is this idea of technology’s influence on democracy.
Brooke: One of the statements that really I think illustrates this is this idea that social media is tearing apart democracy and those kinds of ideas are ones that we hear about all the time. Societaly, we often talk about technology as though it’s a new thing. As though there was never technology before and now we have technology and so there’s this kind of step change. We say that it has unprecedented effects on the economy or on social relationships or in this instance, on democracy. What I want us to explore today is whether that’s really a credible view and what stance we should take towards technology, especially in its relationship to democracy.
Brooke: Some examples that you and I have explored around this Gianluca and maybe you can start us off by exploring these a bit further, are for instance the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the way that this is changing our perceptions of Facebook and how people engage on Facebook, the Chinese Social Credit Score. Can I just get the ball rolling and ask you to take it from here?
Gianluca: Sure. The first thing that I would like to say on this point is that I’ve been studying this topic for a while and these very days I’m working, I’m writing the new study for the European Parliament. It’s a review of civic engagement practices all over the world. Obviously, technology plays a central role in most of these practices. But there is a part, a section that I’m still writing, in which I’m asking myself, “Okay. Exactly what you say.” So technology, digital technology is pretty new. It’s changing the way that we are thinking, about our work and the [inaudible 00:06:04] itself. However, if you look back over the last century, you will see that we have had all the time, this same approach. Every time that some disruptive innovation has become used by large society, scholars, particulars, politicians have asked, “Okay, is this going to bring more benefits?”
Gianluca: Or some of them have said, “Okay, this is going to be to change completely for the best. The way are for the better. Sorry, the way that we’re going to use, we’re going to do this as compared to how we did it before.” And others were claiming, “Okay but wait a second, we’re going to have issues here.” You can trace this back to television, radio. Even when the mass communication was not invented but when communication became a matter of global sense. The first thing that I’m trying to do when I study technology and democracy is to try to keep rational and knowing that probably in 10 years time, hopefully we will say, “Okay, 10 years back we were so scared, so worried about digital and social networks and I mean, hopefully we still have democracy that works.”
Gianluca: On this point, I also have a book here close to me. It’s a very nice book, it was published recently by Oxford University Dryzek and Pickering, the two authors. The title is very interesting, that these geographical, It’s not geographical, geological age is the Holocene. I hope I pronounce it correctly. However, there is another way of calling it. That is the Anthropocene. It’s the age of humans. The theory of this book, which is a very interesting one is, politics and tools of democracy that we have now, were created after almost 12,000 years of stability.
Gianluca: Yes, there have been some disruptive events but most of human life has developed a way of understanding the world with stability. In these very years we’re going to face increasingly disruptive events like pandemics for example. We should be rethinking completely the way that we understand democracy. This is the scary part of it but still I’m trying to also to be confidence that not much will be changed.
Gianluca: I’m moving to your two examples. Cambridge Analytica is very interesting but I will actually mention the Facebook case per se. We’ve been asking, “Okay, what’s happening with Facebook? Is Facebook really influencing the way that we conceive our democratic position in the society? We as individuals are we changed if we use Facebook to the extent that we use Facebook.” I’m not entirely sure about that. What I know is that Facebook has simplified to the extreme the access to information that is not accurate and therefore that is impacting on our way of understanding our society. When I talk to my students and I’m talking of NYU students, a prestigious university, most of them, even students in media studies, they have as an information diet, Facebook in the first place. The problem is not Facebook per se.
Gianluca: The problem is how Facebook has changed the way that we process the information. After Facebook now you can take other examples, Twitter or other social networks. That’s the first thing. About the other example, the Chinese example. The point is that Chinese government is still experimenting these system according to which they will rate citizens according to their social behavior. Obviously, this is done through the use of technology and it is done in a sense that depending on how you behave, you can be awarded or deducted certain points. So your score will change. Again, I’m trying to be actual in this very moment. This is the same debate that we are now having in Europe. Shall we give up on a certain level of privacy and let governments through technology to track what we’ve been doing and therefore be more efficient in handling with this disease, with this pandemic or shall we defend the idea of being secured in our private space.
Gianluca: I know that already between Europe and the States, there is a big difference in terms of how we understand privacy but that’s exactly the same. The way that I see the Chinese Social Credit Score, it’s even an amazing, I would say experiment of governing. But the main point here is Chinese do not have the chance to decide what are the boundaries of their privacy. Therefore, the government can decide to use technology to map everything that every Chinese citizen does.
Gianluca: In our case, the debates will be, do we want to have a more efficient society and more efficient government and therefore give up on our privacy or do we prefer to have privacy? There is this very famous movie from few years ago, I don’t remember the title. It’s a movie about the main actor, he’s a witness of a murder and so he then gets the… by chance he gets a record of the murder, which involves U.S. Senator. At the very end of the movie, he actually, he can make it, he can save himself. There is the sentence, we can’t afford privacy anymore. That’s the point.
Brooke: It’s enemy of the state I think is the film you’re thinking of.
Gianluca: Yes. Okay. So that’s the sentence I always quoted in my class is because it’s so interesting. Can we afford privacy today?
Brooke: If I can turn this a little bit to the other direction. One of the things that I find often in discourse around this topic is that the people who are asking themselves about the implications of technology, are often the ones who are focusing on the negatives of it, where generally the people who are more excited by the positive aspects of technology emphasize that this is just the natural course of things, that we’re always developing new. They actually try to minimize the discourse about what is changing to allow that force to just draw us along towards over the next tail of technology if you will. But I think there are also some really interesting discourses going on about the positive impacts of technology on democracy.
Brooke: There’s one example that I want to bring up there, which is the government of Estonia. The government of Estonia is actually extremely progressive. I note that with surprise only because Estonia is not the kind of country that we expect to see coming up in the news very often. It’s a small country, it’s one you don’t hear about very often. Then if you start paying attention to discussions around digital government and this kind of thing, all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, Estonia storms up from the back and they are the ones really leading the world in some respects.
Brooke: I want to acknowledge that yes, sometimes little countries that you don’t hear about are also ones that are leading the charge in some respects. One of the things that I have really appreciated about Estonia is a bit of a twist that they put on the kind of government surveillance and government watching and the impact this has on private life. In the Estonian digital government system, to the extent that I understand it, all of your data sets are linked, which means that your tax data is connected with your health data is connected with data collected by all kinds of different ministries.
Brooke: When governments want to pull data and want to use data to understand the effects of policies, that makes those kinds of analyses much easier. Which as you mentioned earlier, is a very valuable tool from the perspective of more effective governance or government, I should say. On the other hand, there’s this worry about privacy. The system the they’ve built in Estonia is that whenever a government employee queries data about your file, you receive a notification about it. For instance, you’ll receive a text message that says, “Government employee name number such and such just requested these and these and these pieces of information from your file.” That allows you to Watch the Watchers as the famous sentence goes. Now, in reference to George Orwell’s famous book, people said, “This is a little bit different than Big brother. This is actually your little brother because you get to watch them. Every once in a while it’s important…”
Brooke: According to the people who turned the phrase this way, “It’s important to go and beat up your little brother every once in a while just to make sure that they don’t take on a disproportionate power.” I bring that up as an example of using technology also in a positive sense that there’s a cognizance of the potentially negative impacts that can arise through the impacts of technology on democracy and that we also have some technological solutions that we develop to try to counteract those effects, that actually there are good outcomes there. It’s not all social credit scores, having these chilling effects. It’s not all fake news. Cambridge Analytica meddling in elections and these kinds of things. There are really positive case studies as well.
Gianluca: I totally agree with what you’re saying. I am exactly in the middle as someone who’s studying the technology and democracy, I see some issues but I also see a lot of potential benefits. Actually, not just potential benefits, actual benefits. What I was thinking when listening to your description of Estonia, which is completely true, I happened to mentor a number of students one year ago in Brussels from all over Europe. There were students in their college age and they had been selected to spend a couple of days in Brussels and familiarize with the union. They had to think collectively about solutions on how to make the European union more democratic. I precisely remember these debates. It was one astonishing girl and she was so… for her, voting online, which is a big issue now. Okay, we vote online, how can we secure the vote?
Gianluca: How can we be sure that would not be attempt from hackers or other governments to influence the vote? This is what you normally read. As the title of newspaper, this is what has made online voting or these kinds of experiments with digital voting, let’s say, not applied, not implemented in many other countries. However, Estonia, this is the normal rule. For her was even difficult to explain why this should be the way of using it. But what I remember I told her and what I was thinking before two minutes ago, these actually happened to work when we have small communities. The case of Estonia is a very interesting case but exactly as you said, we are talking of a country that is pretty small.
Gianluca: I don’t remember the number of Estonians living in Estonia but it’s definitely a very small number, a very small community, a number of a few cities that are little bigger than a village. So beautiful cities, by the way. It’s a beautiful country. But the thing is, can we escalate this? That to me is when you see the problematic side. I can even tell you, even in Italy, which is my country but it definitely is not the most advanced in terms of using technology for government. The municipality of Rome, these very municipally, this government of the city has introduced a lot of services online. We are not advanced to the point of having information when the government, the municipalities using our data. But we have much more services today that we can do online.
Gianluca: I recently needed a certificate and now we have a certified email. With a couple of clicks on an app, I could get into my computer much easier. I didn’t have to go anywhere. But that works, it’s still very piecemeal and it only works at certain level. The point is, can we have a country like Italy or the United States or Canada entirely technological working like that. That is the problem of escalating these use of technology. That is where you have an higher risk of security breaks or of social exclusion of certain communities.
Brooke: Let’s talk about the… I think social exclusion is an interesting pivot point here. Let’s talk about how these systems actually influence behaviors. From a behavioral perspective.
Brooke: What they do is they change your choice architecture. You have a number of options in front of you, and the way that those options are articulated, and even the structural pros and cons of those options, will be modified by technology. In a very simple, behavioral sense, if you’re filling out a survey and some of the questions have a default answer, you are much more likely, statistically to choose those defaults than to choose anything else. If you have some prefilled options and then another option, you are statistically much less likely to choose the other option. We tend to walk down the pathways that provide the least friction for us. Technology has an interesting way, even in physical environments of, changing the degrees of friction that we feel along various pathways.
Brooke: One example of this that I came up with a number of years ago is actually to do with buses. When buses first come on the roads, people get on and when they want to get off, they tell the bus driver that they want to get off. Then buses become very popular and they become very crowded. When it’s crowded, it’s hard to signal to the bus driver that you want to get off. And so, someone has this brilliant idea that what they’ll do is install a bell on the bus with a rope and all you need to do is pull the rope and the bell will ring. This is how the bus driver knows to let you off.
Brooke: Now we’re living in the year 2020. You get onto a bus and perhaps it’s outside of peak hours. The bus is not very full. You’re sitting at the back of the bus, minding your own business, listening to your music and you want to get off. You could walk to the front of the bus. There’s no crowding that is preventing you from going and asking the driver to stop, but you still pull the rope. Part of it is habitual. That’s just what you’re used to doing. But part of it is also that the change in the choice environment has created a degree of social friction that was not there before. It was easier and smoother to go and speak to the bus driver before because there were lower levels of anonymity. Now we’re each so much operating in our own bubble that to break that bubble and to go and have an interpersonal conversation with a complete stranger in private is actually, for many people, it’s abnormal or it’s out of the ordinary for them. It may not be comfortable for them.
Brooke: Luckily we have pandemics that break these bubbles of normal. And so, strangers do speak to each other once again. But let’s talk about how these different pieces of technology change the choice environments that we operate in. Let’s think about the social credit score, for instance. What are some examples that you see of the social credit score changing the choice environments that people are in, changing the implications that they see to making one choice versus another?
Gianluca: Well, it’s a very good question in terms of opening two different ways of analyzing, providing an answer. I think here you can easily go one direction or another, the opposite direction, and you still have a chance to be very right in what you say. You can either go for very optimistic and so describing these aligned spaces, digital spaces as optimal spaces for engaging citizens. Or you can actually see it from the other side. Is a government, is a public actor entitled to nudge you through aligned spaces in a direction or another? I will get in a second to the Chinese systems, the social credit score. Before doing that, I was thinking about in this moment in Europe we have this big debate about the so-called conference on the future of Europe. The conference of the future of Europe will be a two hears conference. It doesn’t look like a conference where you go and you sit down and you listen to speakers. Not exactly. It’s called conference, but it’s a composition of events and debates happening all over Europe.
Gianluca: This is the one of the priorities of the new commission. The idea is that at the end of the two years, we will have a wide European community engaged that has suggested ideas. And so, the European Union knows how to change the rules in order to make new policy making more interactive, more inclusive. And so, ideally, I don’t know if this would be postponed, but according to the plans, the conference should be starting at the end of May. I don’t remember the day, but there is even a day by the end of May. In this very moment, all the debate is about how to design these conference. What behavioral approach we should be using? Shall we go only online that would probably engage a lot of young users, young citizens? What about going to the territory? What about meeting local communities? To what extent we want citizens to be influential?
Gianluca: What is interesting, you see very different perspectives according to the institutions. The coalition has said, “Okay, the more technocratic power, yes, we are ready to open debate but then we will be charged.” The parliament is pushing much more for “let’s integrate citizens in the policymaking. Let’s go for this meaty public idea.” Citizens that are selected randomly and they are included in the policy making process. Technology is there. How much technology should we have? I think that my first reflection here is that inevitably when you design participation, when you design democracy either with technology or not, you are, in a way, structuring it in a way that will foster a certain result or another. That brings me to the Chinese example.
Gianluca: I’ve been asking myself, “Is this effective? Are citizens responding better?” There is a lot of not very qualitative literature or needs that is only pushing on the negative aspects. But actually according to the interviews, Chinese citizens, which never experienced the full freedom, are quite fine with it. They actually see this as an opportunity to get extra credits to buy food, for example. All these ideas or you can be forbidden to travel, it’s true if you don’t behave correctly. But at the end of the day, many of Chinese citizens will never leave their country. They don’t really see this as limit.
Gianluca: I have two things that I remember about this that I also connected with this answer. First, maybe I mentioned this with you in one of our previous conversation. This was a student of mine in the class that I teach on gamification in Brussels, which I have a class dedicated to Chinese case. I remember the student very honestly suggesting, “Okay, but if you are a good citizen, whatever it means, why are you telling this as a problematic aspect? Why are you describing this as an issue? If I behave as a good citizen, if I drive under the speed limit, if I meet my parents, my family, if I do not spend much time online, all these things, why should I be worried?” That’s the first thing.
Gianluca: It’s correct what you suggest. You can influence the behavior, but at the same time, the model is actually trying to propose something that citizens already know. It’s not introducing a bell in the bus of the Chinese government. Citizens already know that when it’s the moment to stop, you just put in front of the doors so you avoid have cuing with other people, and this is just the first thing.
Gianluca: The other example, the other thing, sorry, that I have in mind is that on the other hand, there is one part of this system in which one day a week they show on TV those citizens who have been deducted points because they crossed the road when the traffic lights is red. They have this special recognition technology so often they can actually have names of the citizens. This is a very successful program, and apparently from the data we know that citizens have been at started to behave more correctly with this naming, shaming strategy. Again, I wanted to be clear, you can see again the bright side, you can say this is actually not meant to change any collective behavior, or you can see the, let’s say, dark side and, in fact, that meet that when you introduce technology. But in general in democracy you can try to push citizens in one direction or another and therefore, you can question if this is what we expect from our politicians in our government.
Brooke: Yeah. If you know that this naming and shaming on television exists for jaywalking, when you see the red lights and you pick up your foot and consider stepping out into the street, you don’t ask yourself necessarily the same question in your internal monologue that you asked before this program existed that the wages of stepping out into the street to have changed. I now ask myself not only, “Well, do I want to be taking on this kind of risk of disrupting traffic, subduing bodily injury, or getting a ticket or something like this,” I also ask myself, “Do I want to potentially be publicly shamed for what I’m about to do?” We’ve seen technology change those choice environments before.
Brooke: Some of the examples that come to mind are, for instance, the introduction of televised debates for politicians over just radio debates. There’s this very famous example in U.S. history of how Richard Nixon appeared on television or on the radio. Whether people thought that Nixon had won the debate or lost, those who listened to the debate on the radio apparently thought that he had performed very well. But he was sick on the day of the debate and he was looking very unwell. He was sweaty and disheveled, and people who saw him on television who saw his physical appearance, they thought that he had performed very badly based solely on his visual appearance. That was the only difference between the radio and the television broadcasts. For politicians then, there’s a new choice environment that they are in now that, well, with televised debates that changed the decisions politicians were making about their physical appearance when they were going into these debates.
Brooke: But now the game is changing again with social media, for instance. You were talking about fake news earlier and about the spread of misinformation and this thing. Now information spreads more easily when it fits conveniently into 280 characters. Information that is simple is easier to propagate because there is now such a strong filter for short headlines for very crisp soundbites and these things. The research that I’ve looked at in the way that people consume news through social media is that actually most people like, re-share, and promote pieces of news that they don’t actually click through. They see the headline, they see often the image that’s associated with the headline, and based on that information and also who is sharing it, they will make their decision about whether to like, re-share, comment, or these things. It’s actually a very seldom that people will go and read the article that is behind the splash that they see on their screen. This affects the way that politicians craft their message because they know that if their message doesn’t fit conveniently into that splash on the screen, it won’t propagate effectively.
Brooke: Similar things happen in the U.S. when television was becoming very popular and all of a sudden advertising could be more targeted because they started to develop political ads for local television stations as opposed to only the nationwide broadcasts. That allowed them to create policies in a different way. This idea of boutique policies where you’re selling a very small change to a very small group of people that you know it will resonate with in order to go and capture these various pockets of voters. That’s something that’s only feasible if you have the technology to go and target those specific voters. That started out with local television stations in the United States, but social media is just that idea on steroids, right? It’s micro-targeting to the extent that people could not even dream of with local television stations.
Brooke: The reason that I bring up those examples, with the advent of television and social media now, is to show that these pieces of technology change the environments in which we’re making decisions. But also that while these individual pieces of technology are new, technology as a whole is as old as humanity itself. Democracy did not exist in a technological vacuum before, and it’s now existing in a technologically enriched environment. Democracy has always existed in one technological environment or another. What we’re looking at now is a rapid change in that environment not from a non-technological one to a technological one, but from the technology we had before to the technology that’s emerging now. This is creating new opportunities for citizens to engage with democracy, as you mentioned with the future of the EU conference. It also creates challenges for people to engage with democracy. You mentioned some of the challenges around inclusion. Could you expand a little bit on those?
Gianluca: I can. Quickly, just three comments on what you just said. I totally agree with your vision and again, since you inspire me, I took some notes about three things about the way that we share the information. He’s an amazing scholar, Ethan Zuckerman. I think he was at MIT Media Lab. I think he still works there, and he is very good at summarizing interesting concepts. One of those is, how did we change from what he calls the Broadcast Model, which is very vertical. And so, you have a producer of news, a consumer, and a distributor. Now today each of us is a broadcaster.
Gianluca: Exactly what you said. There is research that has been done in Italy, but there’s many other researches on other countries that proved that the average time of sharing a tweet, it was based on Twitter, it was 0.10 seconds, meaning that people would not even care to read all of it. If Donald Trump or Barack Obama, I’m going to America. Let’s make also some of European examples, tweets something that I just think it’s right, I will retweet it immediately no matter what is the content. This is so empowering if you think about it, but it comes with the dilution of the quality of information.
Gianluca: The other great scholar that has analyzed this is Gloria Origgi. Gloria Origgi, she’s Italian but she’s been teaching for quite a while in France and she published one or two years ago, I think, this book called Reputation. Really worth reading. What she says is, “Okay, why do we share content so quickly? Don’t we think?” Yes, this is empowering but why don’t we take the time? I’m not saying to certify the source because that is the job of journalists, but at least to check if what we read is accurate. She says, “But yeah, that’s not happening because we have moved from the information age to the reputation age.” What we are happy, let’s say able to share is what we consider as worth our reputation. This can be in the best case scenario of firsthand reputation. I know you, I trust you. I think that you have, in my opinion, a good reputation. I will share your content. This is firsthand.
Gianluca: But think about climate change. She makes the case with climate change. I think 95% of people in the world don’t know anything scientific about climate change. We only know that we are facing this risk. When we share content either in favor or against it, this is a secondhand reputation. We consider trustworthy the journalist who has summarized and described some research from other scholars, from other scientists. We don’t even go to the first source. We actually accept the filter and that, again, is extremely powerful, but it’s also very risky.
Gianluca: Very quickly, the third comment is, what effect this is having on politics? One great scholar is also Italian but living abroad teaching in the King’s College in London is Paolo Gerbaudo. He wrote an amazing book called The Digital Party. It’s a book about how party have been digitalizing, political parties. But the most interesting part of his book is what he calls the Hyper Leaders. He says, “Leaders of political parties today are sometimes more famous than the party itself, but they are very short lead.” They can get extremely successful for a very short amount of time by living by the moment. Really be micro-targeting and being present at the very moment. But by doing this, they are losing the capacity of engaging large communities. In politics, we are going to exactly to what you suggested: micro-targeted borders.
Gianluca: Exactly to what you suggested, micro-targeted borders. And the second thing is borders that will be ready to move to one party to another. Migrant parents will be from the left, even communists that was the principle. You will never in your life move to another party or the other way around. But today it’s easy that you have people that have voted for the left, the right, the center, the extreme left. It’s so varied because we trust and we give credit to the single politicians not the message or the values anymore. So having say that you wanted to have more precise reaction on how this is changing the society in terms of how we digest information that’s what you wanted to know?
Brooke: Yeah. What I’m looking for is, “How these technologies are changing spaces of inclusion or exclusion? How it’s redrawing those boundary lines.” I mean, there’s one sort of very banal, commonplace and obvious way that if you said, “Voting must be digital and online,” you would be creating additional friction for predominantly older voters to participate simply because they tend to be less comfortable in digital environments. They have lower levels of access to digital devices, these kinds of things. So there are those very well discussed and more obvious issues. But there are also less obvious issues around inclusion. And I was wondering if you could highlight some of those challenges.
Gianluca: Yeah, exactly. Sorry. Yes. The matter of inclusion. So having in the background this great opportunities from technology, but also the risks, what it means in terms of inclusion? Well, the first very big topic is the so-called digital divide. So who is digitally divided from us? Older people, people living in rural areas, people also with a lower level of familiarity with technology. We tend to assume that everybody is born with a mobile phone in his or her hands, but that’s not entirely the case.
Gianluca: Actually, what I think it’s relevant. There are two things that are usually underestimated. I think there are big issues. The first is that we have a certain tendency to exclude certain social communities that are not falling within the description of the digitally divided. So these can be people in their 30s or forties living in big cities… Even digital natives.
Gianluca: So people that are completely familiar with technology. However, their ideas are normally underrepresented in digital spaces and thinking about the LGBTQ plus community, that’s one example. It’s in this moment in Europe, we have this problem with migrants. So we have, imagine if you’re a migrant, you are arriving from another country and you are going to live in Europe. There is no way to represent you. We also have another, a little bit niche problem is people like me, expats. So for example, Brussels is one of the most democratic countries in terms of voting rights. You get active voting rights in at the municipal level after leaving I think two years in the city. It’s just automatic. You live in the city, you have a card of your residency and that is enough to get active voting rights. Obviously, they know they do this because Brussels is a city made of people living ethics facts.
Gianluca: Now, what is interesting is that the number of expats that engage into local politics is close to 2 or 3%. My example, I’ve been living in Brussels since 2014, so it’s been six years. I couldn’t name a single local administrator in Brussels. I have no clue. Literally, I have no clue. Well, the Flemish part because I don’t speak Flemish, but the French-speaking community, which is equally important in Brussels, and I speak French, I have no clue. I don’t even get a sense of how they work, how they are elected and that’s for a number of reasons, but mostly because you never feel that you need to be engaged in your local community at that level. And this is an example that with technology is entirely digitalized voting as never been for me, a nudge to modify my behavior.
Gianluca: So about this point, I think that the technology, again, can be an enhancer of having more people included. However, and this is what it’s common with democracy, it’s not the solution to the problem of inclusion. That’s why when you read these very emphatic sentences with technology, we’re going to make policy-making more participated typical from the EU… By the way, that’s exactly when I think this, there is a big bias here. You do not realize that most of the people would still remain these disengaged. So just one additional minute, I would like to mention… We just started EU funded projects is called prademo.
Gianluca: It’s Portugal, so where I’m from. There is a couple of Brussels civic organizations. And there is one… The University of Rome La Sapienza. And the idea is to create an app… An application for mobile phones to engage young expats living outside their native country in Europe. So you see there is some reflection on this topic. There is the attempt to do use technology to reach out these communities. If you think about it, what is interesting is that we are trying to solve with technology a problem that technology has not solved thus far.
Brooke: I’d like to push the envelope philosophically now a little bit. I’d like to think about democracy itself and other political subsystems, but for now let’s just focus on democracy as a piece of technology that’s looking to solve a problem. So the example that I want to use to illustrate this is the extension of citizenship to conquered peoples by the Roman empire.
Brooke: One of the challenges for an empire as it grows is to create social, economic, and political stability in the new regions that it conquers and that it brings under its umbrella. Democracy is something that lends itself very well to imperialism if you extend that citizenship to the newly conquered peoples, as the Roman empire did.
Brooke: This gives the new members of the community a sense of ownership over what’s going on. It gives them an opportunity to have their priorities reflected in a way that is not violent revolution. It gives them a lower friction path to create the ecosystem around them, in which they want to live, that doesn’t involve overthrowing the oppressors.
Brooke: In this respect, we can look at democracy as itself, a technology that exists to a problem. If we do that, we construct the best for ourselves this type of question, “What was the type of problem that the democracies that we live in now we’re set up to address in the first place? How have they evolved when new problems have arisen? And what are the new types of threats to social, political, and economic stability that we think are the major challenges now that we are facing? And if we were setting up a democracy now from scratch, how would we build it as a solution to that problem knowing that we have digital communication technologies are at our disposal?”
Brooke: One example of this in terms of democracy design, the date for the election in the United States is set following a formula. This story may be apocryphal, but I will put it on record anyway. If I understand correctly, the reason that the United States votes on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November is the following formula. It used to take about two days for people to travel from their local communities to Washington to bring the voice of their local community into the federal election.
Brooke: So the idea was after church on Sunday, in the first Sunday of November, you get into your carriage and you ride your carriage for two days to arrive at Washington D. C. in time to bring the message about your’s community’s vote. That’s how the voting date in the United States was set if the legend is true.
Brooke: That, of course, is dependent on the idea that first of all, it takes two days to make that journey, which obviously it doesn’t anymore. It’s dependent on the idea that you need to physically make that journey in order to transmit the information. But deeper than that, it’s based on the idea that the community needs to come to a consensus initially to then send its consensus message with one messenger.
Brooke: But with the communication technologies that we have now, we don’t need to rely on that bottleneck of information transmission to communicate our input into central decision-making. We wouldn’t necessarily have electoral districts drawn the way that they are. We wouldn’t necessarily have electoral districts at all. We might have much more direct voting into who will be the leader of a country.
Brooke: We also might have much more direct input into voting on policies. Even a representative democracy is structured around the idea that it’s technologically not feasible for each person to cast an individual vote for an individual piece of legislation, which for a certain technological environment is true, but it’s not true anymore.
Brooke: So if that information transmission was one of the major challenges that has led to many of the design features of the democracies that we live in now, we can ask ourselves, “Well, what are, what are the major challenges now that our democracies are facing? And what design features would we bring in to address those kinds of things?”
Brooke: And Gianluca, I hope that you will agree with me here. The day on which we are having this conversation with this pandemic outbreak swirling around us in the world as we speak seems like a very appropriate moment to be having this conversation. What really are the challenges that our societies are facing that we want our governments to be working on? How do we structure our government’s intelligently? How do we design them intelligently to really go after those problems that we’re the most worried about?
Gianluca: Well, that’s really an amazing question. I’ve been thinking about the idea of designing recently connected to my other studies on democracy and this design word has been coming up a lot. And I agree on all your analyses. It made sense for Romans to have the share and rule approach. In what, back then was the word. So imagine an empire that was actually reaching all the known ward except for some minor parts it would make sense to have these design giving the citizenship and asking you to pay your tributes and giving you some rights concerned with the city of Rome and the and the central part of the empire.
Gianluca: Now, obviously, you can answer your questions again from many different perspectives. I would like to mention just one that to me is very central. You might be surprised, but one of the very first scholars who has questioned the topic of, “How should we be using design thinking applied to public service?”, has written a book in 1969. I have to remember the title of the book. It’s somewhere here. So what I’m speaking, I’m trying to keep the articles that it mentioned is.
Gianluca: So one of the first orders that has mentioned this topic, it goes back to 1969. Yes. The author that I’m mentioning is Herbert Simon. He’s considered the father of the design science applied to policy-making. But for years, something like five or six years ago, the topic of design was, “How can we design policies in order to have policies that are more effective?”
Gianluca: Which is not the answer to your question. It’s actually not the answer. No. We’re not thinking about democracy to be more efficient. I think we all accept the fact that democracy is inherently not effective. A tyranny is definitely more effective in dealing with stuff, right? So that’s not a point. Designing things in order to have faster decisions.
Gianluca: To me, one of the possible answers to your question is, can we make the democracy friendlier to users? I’m using this word intentionally to citizens if you prefer. And why? Exactly. Because of technology. Again, for most of us the idea of engaging with technology with our mobile phones, it’s something that is extremely fast and rewarding. It takes a few clicks to order your dinner on an app. It takes a few clicks to buy a book or these days also food without mentioning any name that a lot of people prefer these very days to buy food online rather than… No, I’m not talking about either Just shopping for food.
Gianluca: It even takes a few clicks to find a partner. So to fall in love with someone, it takes a few clicks. And it’s so effective, swiping left or right for from a famous app, it’s the system to say, I like you, I don’t like you, let’s meet or let’s not meet. It’s very rare to find the same approach in our democracies, in our participation. It’s very rare because I think that as you suggested, the structures of democracy have not followed the same pace of technology.
Gianluca: So in technology, the big issue of designers is, “How can I make more profit with these objects? So how can I make this app that everybody wants to have because it’s so effective?” Think about getting a ride from point A to point B. Again, without mentioning any day, it’s so effective. But this is not been the point of democracy until now. Until now, the point was… There were other issues, other problems.
Gianluca: So the way that, in my opinion, democracies are participatory channels should be designed is to make them more attractive. And someone might disagree with this. So there is quite a few scholars who believe that it’s not a matter of being attractive or not… Actually, they say not participating, not engaging. It’s still proving that democracy works because you have that option. So you are not engaging intentionally, that’s your choice. I think this applies very well to the US system where you can decide not to register for voting.
Gianluca: Okay, fine. But still, I believe that if you want to make democracy more inclusive, as we say before, if you want to overcome this social exclusion, if you want to have even more effective democracy, the matter is, “How can we make it more engaging, more attractive for users?” Obviously, there is a lot of possible answers. We go again in behavioral sciences here. The point is you can design the interactions in a way that citizens will feel at least a little bit more rewarded by sharing opinions and ideas with a public powers.
Gianluca: That’s an amazing book. Actually. I was reading this article, you should look, look at this. You will find a lot of literature here, including this book is called Improving Public Policy and Administration, Exploring the Potential of Design. And it was published on policy and politics. Yes. And they mentioned these few orders, including this book that I ordered on Amazon, but I still have to read it.
Brooke: So you mentioned a number of points around inclusion, and I really like your point about making democracy friendlier, more inviting, more attractive. I’m not particularly swayed by the counter-arguments often from, in my experience, coming from technocrats saying, “Well, if people are intentionally choosing not to participate this is their right as well. And we shouldn’t see this as a bug in the system.” I find that argument far too self-serving, it allows to remain far too locked up among the technocratic elite who really drive these conversations. One of the flip sides of that, you mentioned that a dictatorship, that tyranny is more effective at reaching fast decisions and getting things rolling quickly. These days I wonder whether we’re seeing an example of democracy actually being very effective in that respect. Because I think that a lot of what we’re seeing right now with the spread of this COVID pandemic is illustrating the extent to which trust in our public institutions is important.
Brooke: In Canada right now, there are travel restrictions in place. But 24 hours ago, until I think even, much of that restriction was not hard regulation. In terms of social distancing, at least here in Canada and from what I’ve been following around the world, you know most countries have gone through a phase of this at some point before. Social distancing is very, very strictly enforced as a quarantine or as a lockdown. Often there’s this period where governments are asking people to self quarantine, or they’re asking people to isolate themselves, they’re asking people to cancel events, and to implement these social distancing measures. And if we don’t feel a sense of participation in our communities, we are less likely to see those kinds of soft asks actually receiving any traction.
Brooke: Maybe that’s something that it takes a crisis to notice. Maybe in a day-to-day way, governments aren’t softly asking us to do very much. Maybe a lot of what they’re doing is hard asks. Maybe this is something that we’re learning from this pandemic that there’s more space available for a soft ask than perhaps was appreciated before. But the asks have to be clear, and there has to be trust. This is something that I’ve heard emerge a number of times in discussions about what we can learn from this pandemic and the public response to this pandemic in terms of climate change. The first lesson that I have taken away from it personally is that what it is that we are being asked to do must be clear. When you have a politician who stands up and says, you know, this is a very, this is a very important time, this is a very exceptional moment. We need to come together, we need to be clear, and we need to have a shared focus about how it is that we’re going to tackle this. That is an important thing.
Brooke: I also very much like it when the next thing that they do is they step aside and say, here is the top doctor in our country who’s going to tell you what to do because they are the expert in this matter. You know, you didn’t elect me as the leader of this country to be a public health expert. You elected me to be a leader. And one of the effective things of a leader is to know when to step aside to let someone who’s an expert on a specific topic really go to work and do their job.
Brooke: In other countries we’ve seen more flip-flopping, more back and forth, where there’s a confusion of messages. People are saying, well, yes, this is important, but on the other hand, I mean it’s Okay, everything’s going to be fine, you know, we’ve got this. If you don’t have a clear message, you don’t get clear behaviors in response. That’s one of the lessons that I’m really pulling out of what we’re seeing from governments around the world right now.
Brooke: And the second, as I mentioned earlier, is this space to ask for things without demanding them as a government. To say this is a time when we need to change from the day-to-day that we’ve had up until now in order to address this threat that’s in front of us. We don’t want this change to be any more draconian than it must be in order to deal with the threat. And one of the first levels there is to ask you to engage in some kind of very clear, very concerted action. And we will ride that as long as we can until we feel that something more intense is required. Those for me are the major takeaways, and I think that those are big lessons that we can apply towards other types of issues in the future. And they’re also teaching us about where our democracy stands in the grand scheme of things, and it’s showing us how much faith we have in certain institutions in our government to lead us effectively through certain kinds of challenges.
Gianluca: I really like this, these two takeaways that you shared. I have to say, specific on one, I am a little bit more skeptic, so ask, not demand, that’s, that’s the big, you know, if you want to see like this as the more philosophical approach, that’s fine. But then you mentioned the idea of being clear in order to get the response that you expect. Yes, yes. I agree, that’s pretty much, probably this statement can be applied speaking of design, speaking of democracy, two minor issues, in my opinion. So obviously if you want citizens to be in compliance with paying taxes by the end of May, you really have to be clear in explaining what are the consequences, what are the deadlines, what are the documents that you need. And now, we are, and this is hopefully something that we are lacking. The only good thing that we are learning a lot out of these horrible experience, right?
Gianluca: And I think the point there is the lack of trust. So what happened pretty much everywhere, or at least in Europe, I can’t tell about Canada, but I can tell about Europe. I can tell about Italy, the same was in France, the same was in Belgium. I was even upset with Belgium because authorities were suggesting to stay home. It wasn’t clear to the point of you have to stay home because this is going to escalate, but data were there, so everybody was already obsessed by coverage about this. There is only space for this, there’s all the other events that are not important anymore. But the point is citizens do not trust the governments enough, most of democratic governments enough, that they will just believe this is right or this is wrong. And so that made the Italian government followed by today, pretty much all, I think the Dutch government is the only exception because, even UK now is changing the approach, is to take draconian measures.
Gianluca: So it’s not about, trust me, this is what we should be doing. Actually, you know what was a very trust based approach, the UK one. So we have a vision, we know that it’s going to be very honest, you’re going to lose probably someone in your family. However, we believe that this is the best way to prepare our health system because of our scientists. And that’s, so trust us. But then exactly the moment in which you made this such an investment of trust, three days after, you start considering closing schools and asking people to stay home as a rule and not as a suggestion. So you basically denied the idea of trust that you had tried to push.
Gianluca: And that’s the big issue of contemporary democracies, is the issue of trust. It’s what is fueling populous movements, which are based on the idea I trust my peer. So you can be a politician, I don’t trust the politician by career, I’m not saying that politicians by career have made this world necessarily the best world ever, but I also trust, I also believe that in order to do take certain responsibilities, you have to be prepared.
Gianluca: And for most of the people, this doesn’t exist anymore. So there is no trust in the public space, in the public government. Which brings me back again to the idea of design that you mentioned before. Can trust be reestablished? I don’t know, there’s probably many ingredients in this received, but one of those is maybe you can reestablish trust by going back to talk to each other. And how do you talk to each other? Well, maybe I will like to show you some friendliness in the way that I approach topics. It’s just a suggestion, it’s just an idea, maybe it’s not the way, but what’s happening everywhere in the world is that pretty much everywhere people didn’t trust their politicians in the first place. And so, until the moment in which measures were taken, people were crowding restaurants, bars, you know, with, like, you know, this typical irrational approach, well, this is happening, but I’m going to survive to this.
Brooke: Yeah, I really like that. And this conversation is very interesting, so I’m loathed to bring it to an end, but I feel like we have to cut it off somewhere. You know my main takeaway from this, I think the idea that you mentioned about making democracy more friendly is something that really sticks with me.
Brooke: And in terms of, you know, our main topic of the, the effects of technology on democracy, our technological developments in the last few years have created new challenges for being friendly within our ecosystem. You know, algorithms that create echo chambers around us can make it very easy for us to be friendly with the people that are already like us. But it separates us even further from the people who aren’t like us. And ultimately the friendliness needs to extend to everybody, not just to the people that we identify with.
Brooke: And if we take that seriously as the major challenge that our democracies are facing now, we need to think about how to shape our democracies as technologies themselves around that kind of issue.
Brooke: That’s a powerful takeaway for our discussion for today, but on behalf of TDL and all our listeners, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us today. It was an absolute pleasure. Before we sign off, is there any summative insight that you would like to share, or is there a topic that you wanted to, you had hoped would come into the discussion today but we didn’t end up touching on?
Gianluca: No, not really about this last question. I actually let the flow drive us in this conversation. So I share your comment, it was really, really nice. It was a real pleasure having this conversation. Hopefully will be the same for those who would be listening to us.
Gianluca: I think that the cost of simplifying something very complex, which is a democratic system. This moment I feel that we need an effort from democracy, so everyone that is part of democracy, of trying to interact on a simpler way. Exactly from what happens in our use, daily use of technology, we use technology because we believe that is making our life easier, better. Maybe it’s not like that, maybe our life are more miserable because of technology, but at the end of the day most of our activities are simplified, made it simpler by technology. So why can’t this be partially translated to democracy? And that’s something that I think there is a lot of space from reflection and for action like from institutions like yours. So spreading these reflections is already helpful to have people thinking about it.
Brooke: Well, thank you very much for that. And for you listeners out there, thank you as well for joining us today. If you’d like to learn more about applied behavioral insights, you can find plenty of materials on our website, thedecisionlab.com. There you’ll also be able to find our newsletter, which features the latest and greatest developments in the field, including these podcasts, as well as great public content about biases, interventions, and our project work. Thank you very much. And we hope to see you soon.