Limits to Democracy

A Society & Governance Mismatch

The thirty years, we can all agree society has changed, but what about our governance? Businesses from Amazon, Facebook to Uber, to organisations like ISIS and Al-Qaida,  and technology like smartphones to autonomous drones demonstrate how the world has changed and adapted.

But has democratic governance changed? It hasn’t. We still have elections to elect representatives. We still demand on having a free media, informed voters, and representatives that can shape policy. But the sooner we realise how government policies and voters are being mismatched against increasing complexity and social media induced information-overload the better.

Policies v. Election Cycles

Issues such as immigration, the environment, energy, social security, healthcare and a host of other key issues are increasingly multi-disciplinary, trans-border, multi-cultural and even multi-generational.

Such issues require a long-term multi-disciplinary approach. Yet, a democratic system relies on short election cycles – typically 2 to 5 years – to formulate, propose, implement, and monitor such policies. This presents a profound mismatch between the ability to create a comprehensive policy against an arbitrarily limiting timescale.

Smartphone Zombies: From the US to Asia
Smartphone Zombies: From the US to Asia

Informed Voters v. Social Media

Beyond the 15 minutes of fame and CNN sound-bites is the era of Facebook posts, Instagram photos, and WhatsApp conversations. The 15 minutes of fame have been replaced by a continuous stream of unending media.

Fake news and “post truth” spread through Facebook, as seen during the US 2016 presidential elections, are just a tiny fraction of the central issue: information overload.

Our overload of information and addiction to novelty, short-circuits our ability to digest and process information with a critical eye. Instead, we resort to:

  1. Tribal Identity to sort truth from fiction
  2. Emotion and outrage to identify what to focus on
  3. Snap judgments to assess fact and opinion

In Myanmar, where the Internet penetration rate jumped from 1% to 20% in just two years, we are seeing what it means for society to be introduced to the internet without critical thinking, without media literacy:

“Less than 1% of Myanmar had internet access until 2014. Now the country is getting online at an astonishing rate — but so is fake news and anti-Muslim sentiment.” (via Sheera Frenkel at Buzzfeed)

We now have a mismatch between having more information but with a higher signal-noise ration and far less critical thinking to process them. Democracy requires informed voters, but social media allows us to confuse immediacy of news with being better informed.

A Governance Crisis

These issues are not new nor are they unique to democratic systems. But in a strange twist, the more technocratic focused forms of government such as in China or Singapore have a better set of capabilities – mainly long term planning and the ability to plan with less social media scrutiny – to handle complex policy problems.

Democracy and its requirement for Freedom of Speech have strengths that also clearly its shortcomings. Democracy’s focus on the short term – thanks to election cycles – and its tolerance of disinformation and misinformation will give democratic nations a crisis in governance. The quicker we acknowledge this, the quicker we can reinvent democracy for the 21st century.


  1. Flickr, Department of Foreign Affairs, “2009 Elections, Indonesia






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 + 5 =