22 December 2022

From digital citizen participation in Taiwan to political turmoil in the UK; from big data dystopias to the history of data visualisation: here are the books, podcasts and TV series which inspired the Democracy Technologies team and our colleagues at the Innovation in Politics Institute in 2022.

The Every by Dave Eggers (Book)

Reviewed by Helfried Carl, Founder and Advisory Board Member of the European Capital of Democracy

This book, a sequel to Dave Egger’s The Circle, is the not-so-fictitious dystopian tale of an Amazon/Facebook/Google conglomerate seizing world power by (mostly) peaceful means. Whereas Cambridge Analytica worked for clients, the Every works only for its own profit. This data-driven world produces data-driven individuals robbed of their own judgement and creativity: as with the Borg, “resistance is futile”.

The Every’s assumptions about Social Media conglomerates are eerily funny in their realism, and the fictional outcomes are as credible as they are horrible. It is easily conceivable that social media polls on the most important works of art will soon become more relevant than experts’ opinions, as the book suggests. And why not, one might ask? But a step further, the book shows what “big data capital” wants to achieve: to dissociate ourselves from the real world to profit even more from us in the digital one. 

I would like to recommend this book to everyone who still thinks that technology is just what we do with it. Eggers demonstrates what it does to us. 

This England, developed by Michael Winterbottom, Kieron Quirke & Revolution Films (TV Series)

Reviewed by Ronny Zuckermann, President of the Innovation in Politics Institute

London, late July 2019: In the midst of Brexit negotiations, Boris Johnson succeeds British Prime Minister Theresa May at Number 10 Downing Street. With his usual disheveled hair, Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Kenneth Branagh) steps in front of the cameras and promises prosperity and opportunity in light of his country’s impending exit from the EU. Just a few months later, the controversial politician’s assurances seem to be invalid, as the next crisis is looming. The first wave of the coronavirus overtakes the country and Johnson’s skills as a crisis manager are in demand. 

This Sky Original political drama series follows Boris Johnson’s turbulent tenure as prime minister post-Brexit and through the coronavirus pandemic. Kenneth Branagh (“Henry V”) hilariously portrays Johnson’s dishevelled narcissism; director and head writer Michael Winterbottom (“The Road to Guantanamo”) deftly weaves the proceedings at Number 10 Downing Street with the lives of the people affected by them. 

The historical accuracy of events, as well as it is achieved here, is not the point of this project. The classically British mini-series tells us a cringeworthy yet funny horror story about a few out-of-touch egomaniacs with tunnel vision destroying a functioning country and democracy in months, if not weeks. 

I would recommend this to anyone who believes in false political prophets. 

Two Interviews with Taiwan’s Digital Affairs Minister Audrey Tang (Podcasts)

Reviewed by Laura Giesen, Chief Editor of Democracy Technologies

Taiwan’s institutionalised digital citizen participation had a central role in the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, which occupied the parliament to prevent a trade deal with China. Audry Tang was a member of the movement and became Taiwan’s first Minister of Digital affairs. In two interviews, with How to Citizen with Baratunde and 80.000 Hours, she talks about her experiences. 

With her practical expertise in digital citizen participation, Audrey Tang is refreshing to listen to. I enjoyed learning about how Taiwan uses Polis to find a rough consensus between thousands of people and why the absence of a reply button is essential in Polis; and about g0v (gov-zero), a loose community of developers and ordinary citizens who develop alternative versions of Taiwan’s government online services. 

I would recommend Tang’s interview on How to Citizen with Baratunde to anyone interested in digital political innovation, the one on 80.000 Hours to those who want to continue learning afterwards. 

History of Information Graphics, by Sandra Rendgen (Essay Collection)

Reviewed by Maddalena Landi, Intern at Democracy Technologies

This collection of essays takes the reader on a journey of the history of data graphics. The book shows how humans have always used graphics to make sense of our world and the impact that data visualization can have on history and society. Along with many other undiscovered treasures, highlights include Martin Waldseemller’s well-known world map, Andreas Cellarius’s cosmic charts, and Ernst Haeckel’s painstaking nature studies.

I’m endlessly fascinated by how we can reduce complex statistics to immediately perceivable data. This book’s simplicity, entertaining stories, and quirky historical anecdotes surprised me. Did you know that Florence Nightingale used data visualization to show that epidemic diseases affected British soldiers more than battle wounds? Me neither.

I would suggest this book to anyone who likes looking at graphs, maps and charts – and wants to immerse themselves in a visual journey through history. 

The Drunkard’s Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow (Book)

By Daniel Mackisack, Editor at Democracy Technologies

The Drunkard’s Walk takes us on a streamlined tour of ‘randomness’ — a concept which, like quantum mechanics and so many other topics at the edge of understanding, confounds conventional reason and has us scratching our heads. It is easy to forget how complex the universe is, how many orders of infinity stack on top of one another to output everything from micro- and macro-scale cosmic events to even more complicated patterns of thought and social dynamics. 

Leonard Mlodinow writes about this complex topic with an impressive clarity and wit. The book is an informative, thought provoking and humbling read that reminds us of the sheer complexity in which we exist, and so too the limits of our perception, the errors in our judgements, the inaccuracies in our assessments and yet, the unmistakable beauty and importance of it all. 

I would recommend it to anyone interested in a deeper and more holistic understanding of how probability governs our existence beyond the statistics of individual events.

Adapt! On a New Political Imperative, by Barbara Stiegler (Book)

By Graham Wetherall-Grujić, Editor at Democracy Technologies

The world is changing at a dizzying pace – and the pressure is on for us to adapt. In her book, Barbara Stiegler calls this modern political imperative into question. To do so, she reconstructs the early 20th century debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. Lippmann argued that the public could not be relied on to adapt in the face of an ever-changing world, instead claiming the need for a political elite to act on their behalf. By contrast, Dewey was convinced that democracy has to be a bottom-up affair.

It was fascinating to see how many elements of the debate between Dewey and Lippmann continue to shape the discourse on democracy today. For me, it highlighted the fact that Dewey’s vision for a more open democracy is being put into practice via new participatory and deliberative practices. The digital age represents a new opportunity for his idea of a citizen-led democracy to be realised.

I would recommend the book to anyone interested in the background to contemporary debates on deliberative democracy.

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