The Twitching of Democracy

by Tadhg Caffrey

Spotify Politics – Twitch plays Pokémon – Voter Engagement

In the wake of disturbing atrocities occuring in Ukraine, Venezeula and elsewere, The Economist has ran a study of the concepts underlying democracy that are being fought over and for in these countries. It is remarkable as a piece which questions values that seem inherently correct to those raised in a democratic system and also for its suggestions for solutions to the malaise surrounding proponents of the system.

In an unusually erudite moment, Conservative MP Douglas Carswell outlines the concept of ‘Spotify Politics’ without simply coming across as an effort to win the newly opened cabinet position of “MP for getting down with the youth of today”. Carswell believes that by forcing voters to consider prescribed manifestos they become disenchanted with the system. A voter may have to sacrifice their beliefs on say, fiscal responsibility in favour of a politician that aligns with their position on civil liberties. Carswell highlights Spotify – the digital music streaming service that allows users to create their own playlists from thousands of sources – as a paradigm for an alternative. Instead of signing up to a political ideology, or buying a set record from a band, voters should get the chance to combine the policies they agree with in their own political playlist.

The practicalities of this approach are not so simple and Carswell hardly seems bothered by them in his interview. Elected officials act as representatives of their constituencies yet will always have their own perspectives and inclinations. The only way to Spotify politics then, would be to do away with these officials altogether and call votes on individual policies rather than wider manifestos. With a global network system like the internet allowing the creation of Spotify, instantaneous connections and the ability to draw opinions together with haste, some sort of vast referendum network is not unimaginable.

In the last week there has been a large experiment based on this exact premise, albeit one packaged in a 1990s video game and dominated by ridiculous memes. ‘Twitch plays Pokémon‘ involved 70,000 people playing the classic video game Pokémon through an online emulator. Rather than placing one player in control or using a relay system, everyone viewing the stream could contribute to the decisions made in-game. By typing “left” or “b”, players voted for the buttons they wanted to press next. Two playing styles emerged, the original mode, named “anarchy” chose player inputs at random. If 70,000 people input a command at once the emulator would choose one at random. This was pitched against a rival mode “democracy” wherein players voted for the next command and the input with the highest number of supporters prevailed. The team had much success moving between these modes and eventually (albeit, with many casualties and ridiculous periods of inaction) achieved their end goal and completed the game.

Twitch plays Pokémon in action (and inaction)

It is tempting to read this experiment as the perfect example of ‘Spotify Politics’. Players were not given an opportunity to vote for an overriding strategy, instead choosing individual minute commands and this in turn shaped the outcome of the game and the direction chosen. The technology behind Twitch created an opportunity for instantaneous voting. Surely the US political system for example could benefit from such an approach. Rather than bothering voters with nebulous, misleading and irrelevant rhetorical debates about misused concepts like socialism and totalitarianism a digital grass-roots political infrastructure could allow citizens to decide what school programs to fund, how to deal with individual privacy issues and regulations for waste disposal in their local neighbourhood. Just as the ‘Twitch plays Pokémon’ faithful completed their quest, a ‘Spotify Democracy’ could create a harmonious state, devoted to the concerns of its own citizens without being hampered by corruption.

But it won’t. Politics and nation-states are nowhere near this simple and while Pokémon has a clear end-goal – to defeat the final challengers and be crowned champion – the aims of democracy are not so clear. Beyond the spin what does democracy truly aim for? Free and fair elections? The creation of civil rights? Protection from internal and external threats? Each of these are tensions wrought in the very nature of government and a vote on any one policy would have knock-on effects on others.

Without the entire population of a state gaining an extensive education in political science the ramifications of their ‘Twitch Votes’ would not be clear. This could very easily lead to a mob mentality, one that could shut down the banking industry following a crisis without understanding the eventual outcomes of the economy, one that starts a war on another culture without anticipating the likely humanitarian disaster or one that boosts the manufacturing industry at the expense of the environment. You could argue that this would be no worse than our present situation where politicians appear to make drastic decisions on whims, are caught in webs of lobbyist money and are more intent on their re-election than doing any good but democracy surely needs a more secure infrastructure than this false utopian promise.

The network created by the internet allows for Spotify playlists but these simply show preferences for music rather than dictating what musicians should actually create. Similarly, creating an electronic, bespoke manifesto for each voter belies a misunderstanding of the overall processes of government and results in an incoherent quagmire of policies that contradict each other and damage the nation. The connections fostered by the internet are far-reaching but they do not necessarily mean harmonious unity of purpose and goal. On the contrary they can equate to a disturbing homogeneity that crushes individualism.

Without being distracted by such grand designs, using the internet to establish more meaningful connections between citizens and politicians could certainly clarify the muddied political waters, offering a way to address the maddening grip of interest groups and lobbyists while diminishing the cult of personality and rhetorical manipulation endemic in democratic systems. If we can coherently and succinctly convey outcomes of voting options, policies and national strategies and disseminate them electronically there is no reason why we cannot approach a fuller, holistic iteration of democracy. Looking for anything more from an electronic network that has as many flaws as the humans behind it is a fatally dangerous fantasy.