Engaging in the Democratic Process with Infomocracy

Infomocracy is based in the late 21st century, in a future when democracy has evolved into micro-democracy and governments compete for dominance across tens of thousands of tiny jurisdictions in a global election. Any centenal of one hundred thousand citizens can vote for any government it wants, and governments knit their scattered constituents together with virtual technology and common laws.

It’s an alluring idea. Each community can pick the government it wants. No need for pitched battles between groups with completely different interests in countries that span time zones, climates, and vastly different histories. It’s a vision of customized democracy that aims to increase voter engagement and information that tries to reduce the problem of oppression by majority, if not completely remove it.

Nonetheless, the characters who populate Infomocracy find that this system is far from perfect. Voters still fall for style over substance, propelling all-celebrity political parties into the top tier. Issues are still complex and voters don’t manage to be well-informed about all or sometimes any of them. In name recognition studies, voters pick serial killers over real politicians (aside: I tried to Google this to see if this has been tested recently, and found this L.A. Times article instead). Some governments still use the legitimacy they can claim from the ballot box to oppress and exploit some or all of their people, and others use identity politics to divide populations and provoke violence.

Infomocracy is set in the future, but the problems its characters struggle with are challenges that we face today. I want my readers to engage with hard questions about democracy while they’re reading, but I also want them to feel that they can engage with these issues in the real world. That’s why I will be donating a percentage of my profits from Infomocracy to Accountability Lab, an organization that supports citizens to build integrity. I chose Accountability Lab because their focus on accountability and grassroots civic engagement closely reflects the concerns of the book. They have a bottom-up approach, working with people on the ground to build accountability mechanisms for their own governments. Their interventions are creative and engaging, using narrative, music, and participatory contests to change the way people think about corruption, civic responsibility, and good governance. Integrity Idol is one such program. It is a global competition that now receives thousands of nominations for honest civil servants—nurses, school principals, clerks—and then creates videos of the finalists, with citizens voting for their favorites. They honor the nominees, and rightly so. We should be idolizing these people as much as we idolize pop stars. The Lab also runs an Accountability Incubator, which supports the ideas of local changemakers for greater accountability and transparency. This program has led to a film school, partnerships with Liberia’s “Hip Co” musicians, and community mediation teams, among many others.

Full disclosure: I went to school with Blair Glencorse, the executive director of Accountability Lab. That’s not why I’m donating to the organization, although it is how I know about their work. The fact that Accountability Lab is relatively new (founded in 2012) and unknown is another reason I want to support them: to make people aware of their programs. There are many other organizations doing important work in these areas such as Transparency International and Global Integrity, for example. What the Accountability Lab does differently is build a new generation of people with integrity through bottom-up, low-cost and high-impact ideas that are shifting the way people think about the role of decision-makers.

Political systems can be so ingrained in our lives that the effects of their particular quirks and configurations become invisible, and the systems themselves seem immutable. Exploring the activities of these organizations is a useful reminder that there are concrete ways we can keep working to make our democracies better. It’s not easy, and there are many different ideas about how it should be done and what directions we should be moving in. Some of the characters in Infomocracy are idealistic believers in micro-democracy, while others are deeply committed but more cynical about its possibilities. Some actively work against the system, because they believe the negative consequences, intended and unintended, outweigh its benefits. Donating a percentage of my profits from Infomocracy to Accountability Lab is a way of connecting my readers directly to some of the efforts to strengthen democracy; where they take it from there is up to them.

infomocracy-thumbnailMalka Older is a writer, humanitarian worker, and Ph.D. candidate at the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations studying governance and disasters. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more than eight years of experience in humanitarian aid and development, and has responded to complex emergencies and natural disasters in Uganda, Darfur, Indonesia, Japan, and Mali. Infomocracy is her first novel.

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