The Wisdom of Crowds

July 2016

In this blog, Dr Lynch discusses the impact of an e-democracy and whether polling stations in our pockets would lead to a fairer society.

I have written many times about how we carry supercomputers in our pocket, capable of making intricate calculations at a much faster speed than desktops a decade ago. Furthermore, as we have repeatedly discussed, our smartphones can see and hear, and as applications such as Siri show us, are learning how we like to interact with the world and anticipate our needs, giving us a weather report when the alarm goes off, or the traffic report promptly at eight in the morning when we usually leave the house. But there is something else these supercomputers could do: they could become polling stations in our pocket.

In these days of heated debates around how we transition to a post-EU governance, or what we should make of the rise of populist figures like Donald Trump or nationalists like Marine le Pen, there are voices that start to favour polling the public a lot more frequently than every four years, or holding rare transcendental plebiscites. If the technology exists to enable an e-democracy, should we not embrace it? Would frequent public consultation would lead to a fairer society?

Could it be that easy?

The British Parliamentary democracy enables its adult citizens to elect an individual to represent them in Westminster. These lawmakers do a lot more than a viewing of Prime Ministers' Question Time might suggest. They hold regular meetings with their constituents and, when appropriate, raise their concerns in Parliament. In addition, they sit on committees and study drafts of laws, ensuring that these are enacted in the most effective and fairest way possible. In the main, MPs are dedicated individuals who have opted for public service and take their work for the country seriously.

Drafting the laws of the land is a tedious, laborious and iterative process. It isn't decided in a pub with your mates, and it usually requires making choices. Adopting option A can mean shutting off option B, there isn't always a hybrid solution. When the people voted for Brexit, they voted to limit the free movement of people from the EU. In doing so, they put an end to EU funding for economically underdeveloped areas such as Cornwall, and they put an end to EU farming subsidies. There was no question of giving up one, without giving up the other.

It has become fashionable to question the experts, but would you fly in an airplane that hasn't been made by aeronautical engineers? These days, when you can find out pretty much anything from a quick web search, you can probably get instructions for building an airplane and it might even be able to fly. But what if an airline decided to do away with experts and relied on search engines to solve engineering problems? My guess is that they wouldn't find many passengers willing to pay the fare, let alone pilots ready to enter the cockpit. Crowdsourcing an airline is a bad idea, crowdsouring democracy might be too.

Even assuming you could create a fraud-free voting system that allowed every citizen to weigh in on every debate and have a direct influence on every law, would you really want to?

Let's for a minute assume that e-democracy exists. How does it work? It might, be for example, that your MP sends you a text message at 10:30PM, just as you are about to order your last pint in the pub. Should she approve investment for a high-speed railway line between Leeds and Manchester? Oh, and if you approve that we can't afford to keep your local hospital open. What do you want her to do, she has to vote in 15 minutes. Or perhaps we do away with MPs altogether, relying instead on a software programme in Whitehall to create laws by sending a text when it is faced with deciding between various options, or making a budget allocation. As a citizen, it is tempting to approve spending for railways, hospitals and schools. But where would the funds come from? I suspect citizens – you and me – would struggle with this juggling act as much as MPs do.

Proponents of e-democracy suggest it would have a positive impact on voter apathy. Turnout among 18-24 year-olds was 36%, while 83% of those over 65 voted. There is no guarantee that allowing young people to vote from their phones would increase their engagement with the democratic process. Those who are interested, turn to the internet for information, but not for that are they more informed. The EU referendum was notable for the scaremongering from both sides and its aftermath has laid bare the unpreparedeness of the "leave" campaign for victory. One thing is for certain, were e-democracy to be a serious option, the public need better access to the facts of a debate – and to the consequences of decisions taken. Otherwise, the wisdom of crowds might show itself to be no better than the wisdom of clowns.