Seeing democracy itself as a technology

This is a very interesting read with the technology minister of Taiwan reporting on how Taiwan engages Corona. The key sentence is that this government appears to see democracy as a technology, a social technology in itself. Found that an idea worth spreading.

Sorry - it’s a Google translate of an interview in German:

Having just read its entirety, I hasten to caution against the connotation that democracy is what’s being called a technology: in their framing, I see only participation and means to achieve it qualifying for their description, as I understand the term “technology” to be something which exists for a utilitarian purpose to which it is tuned. Tinkering with democracy from this perspective would place its aims on equal footing with its means, which would be a mistake, IMO, for its allowing methodology to potentially erase the acceptability, or perhaps more importantly lack thereof, of outcomes. This is why bills of rights have to undergird democracy, which in its purest form is “mob rule”. I decided to say this because in the mouths of tech maximalists like Elon Musk or especially Ray Kurzweil, the push to “optimize” society through “democratic” means could IMO prove devastatingly destructive.


I think it is more a case that, for them, democracy is a tool that is still being moulded and it is being shaped along with other technologies to fit a modern world.

Think back to the US constitution and the amendments. The US didn’t get their constitution right first time, it was amended. If the US were still using it as a tool, it could be amended to cope with the modern world.

The bits of the Taiwanese democracy that really stick out are the transparency and getting people involved in government. If it is really as open and transparent as described in the article, you wouldn’t have the cronyism / graft that haunts a lot of western governments, especially the UK in recent months.

Just look at the meals for kids scandal that is developing in the UK over the last couple of days, billions wasted on a track and trace system that was ill conceived and the contract handed out to a cronies who had no idea what they were doing, other than syphoning money out of the government and into their own pockets.

The same for masks, company “created on Friday given a contract to supply masks on Monday”. No real employees, no real capital, but given a multi-million pound contract to supply PPG2 masks.

If western democracies were handled the same way as Taiwan seems to be doing, this sort of thing would be much harder to accomplish. The President/Prime Minister handing out contracts to friends, instead of competent parties would quickly become apparent.

For them, democracy is a new and wonderful thing to be cherished. Many politicians in other countries see democracy as something standing in the way of graft / cronyism.

It would also be difficult for your example of Musk trying to subvert the country “through democratic means”.

I always thought the simplicity of Frank Herbert’s government in God Emperor of Dune was a good start:
There are only two deadly sins: Corruption by a functionary and the attempted corruption of a functionary.

But that would probably leave most capital cities around the world very sparsely populated these days.

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Maybe. I cannot argue against the facts of cases of corruption, however I still remain pretty optimistic that there’s a good share of respectable politicians. I know - it seems to be a nonsensical observation in light of many scandals as well as the general assumption of those in power over long or short always getting corrupted.

The reason for the optimism is, simply, that we’d be doing a horrible job at voting. If most politicians would be, in fact, corrupt, the only way that could come to pass is that we don’t really care that much. In that case, corruption might simply not be too much of an issue any more since bending the law has become the favourite pastime.

However, I really enjoy your take and focus on the subject of the article that Taiwan is only a 25 year old democracy. This really appears to bring forward the inventiveness and eagerness to forge the systemic iron while it’s still hot. Most democracies in the west have cooled down to the degree that you cannot shape it without shattering it.

I wonder whether our Western democracies will go through a process of re-heating and change? What Amy said in the beginning of TWiT 805 about the problem being a fluid development of technology and innovation during a stagnant state of political and regulatory structure made much sense to me.

Should I ever go for another academic field, I’d love to do a second degree in socio-technology on the subject of how political systems can better adjust and gradually learn to steer innovation in the sense of their citizens instead of leaving it all to the commercial machinery. Societies should build capabilities to adjust their mode of operation to not only avoid being prodded forward by tech firms, but, other way around, develop meaningful technology directives that tech firms can apply to implement for their citizens. Think New Deal, but not for roads and dams but systems, platforms, and processes. This being “green” would be simply a sine-qua-non, but not the somewhat underwhelming (in terms of “here” and “today”) core element.

Just in case someone stops by to suggest it: no, this is not the red and horrible ghost of socialism. Having a society be actually capable to self-govern is not a bad thing. It’s simply a robust foundation. A foundation that also companies like to build on. If the only foundation is commerce - at least in my mind - the outcome will become pretty harsh, inhumane, and dire. Let’s come back, in our minds, to the time, when many, many, many people built something together and were, rightfully, proud of it. A state could be that. That’s why I like your highlighting of the role to involve and invite the public so much.


Very interesting!

Maybe, a better way of putting it might be: even though incompletely, democracy could be described as a technology.

However, just looked it up in Encyclopedia Britannica, I found

Technology , the application of scientific knowledge to the practical aims of human life or, as it is sometimes phrased, to the change and manipulation of the human environment. technology | Definition & Examples | Britannica

This seems apt and would suggest quite a good fit to democracy, no?

However, if I read you correctly, you’re missing a normative note?

I think I got your point after re-reading and getting the chills at the term…

Participatory self-surveillance


Yes, I’m not saying that all politicians are corrupt. There are some very good ones out there, but those in the limelight are often scary.


I agree; it is just very difficult to find them (in any party)

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I highly recommend Robert Hockett’s thoughts on the matter, although I disagree with his blitheness about implementation via the Fed rather than Treasury:

You did, indeed. My mark was the perjorative, popular understanding of the terms. Perverting what democracy is and its aims seems all but impelled in a discussion framing technical potential as its font, even if merely rhetorically.

I do, however, share your enthusiasm for Taiwan’s seeming erstwhile philosophy of eliciting civic vestiture affectively deployed through means possible only via technology where no better means may be had.

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Fascinating read - thank you! The described NIA uncannily resembles our KfW (KfW – Responsible banking), the development bank in rank more or less with our federal agencies and steered by our parliament. Certainly a useful tool if its services are not provided otherwise!

However, I wonder if there are other interesting tools beyond steering resources. I am thinking innovation and quality management in teaching; improvement of administrative processes; motivation of cultural input on societal development. I know, sounds soft if not risky - but I wonder if society can really only be pushed forward through allocation of resources as if we were donkeys and the only way to move us was diverting the stream of carrots.

To give myself a partial answer: those things do cost money. But still - somehow, inspiration is lacking. Sure, the future does not need to be rosy, it merely has to work. Still, having an idea to get behind would not hurt (and might help costing less). That’s my key gripe with the Green Deal - what’s on oder is “let’s not kill the planet and die in the process too soon “. While favourable, it could take some additional lightening up.

Ron T. Kim and Hockett’s “inclusive ledger” concept might prove a bit of a catalyst socially in the way you describe:

Here is where blockchains and digital wallets, seems to me, could actaully find legitimate purpose, if carefully implemented in a distributed and privacy-maximal fashion, but distributed infrastructure is still in its infancy, unfortunately, largely due to the incentives against its development/deployment thanks to traditionalist lock-in, and implementing it centrally is liable over time to strangle it all via political means of making everything too easy to aggregate and target.

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True, especially if you factor in soft factors like diligence, good spirited, person to get behind.

What I fear is losing those good women and men due to the pressures and nastiness of the system. If we end up devoid of impressive and substantial people and are left with the rest - that’s it. This is also my prime concern with last Wednesday in the US: who in their right mind and with some capability would want to subject themselves to this kind of work environment … and not get the sense of: oh well, I have to endure a lot, so let’s cut some corners in my favour. Both parties. It would be a surprise to me if that thought did not cross people’s minds.

I mean, I would not want to go into politics, simply because I would not want that type of combative lifestyle.

Thanks, again - you’re a treasure trove of literature recommendations! :slight_smile: Do you have a background in economics research? It seems so.

What I really like is the combination of technology and NOT the global, but the regional if not local market. It seems that this is where technology can adopt a clear goal and thus avoid the problem you started before of means=ends.

So we might say that in a kind of a technology doctrine based on this thread, we’d propose:

  1. Technology is a mean, not the end. Tech being the end is dangerous since it lacks normative orientation and, left to its own devices, will create adverse effects.
  2. Ends require clear definition. There are multiple types, levels, and qualities of valid ends. A robust approach to increase the chance of defining a meaningful end is to decrease the scope to a context in which discernible problems become clear and effects measurable enough to be pursued by technology.
  1. Requisite baseline conditions for both people and polity: technological instrumentality must be participated in on an individual basis by parties undergirded in that participation by inalienable rights of mutual respect both amongst one another and betwixt themselves and the state. (e.g. bill of rights & constitution as well as reasonable limits on hate-speech)
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