We talk a lot about technology, and its ability to transform and improve the world. But technology is more than just transistors and algorithms. Those are just patterns on silicon. The technology that really drives the world are the patterns in your head. Those are the patterns that give rise to the patterns in silicon, the patterns in our society, and our whole concept of reality. Change those patterns, and you change your world. Maybe not overnight, but like steering the rudder on a great ship, a small change now makes a big difference later.

—Paul Buchheit, taken from a talk given on July 26, 2014 at Startup School Europe.

In the last couple of years, it has become increasingly clear that the Digital Revolution is having a significant impact, not just on the way in which we conduct our individual daily lives, but also on how we relate to each other as members of organized societies.

We have known for a while that information technology was reshaping our lives. Yet it is only more recently that awareness has grown of the negative consequences: these include information overload, Internet predators, forms of social isolation, and media saturation. There is a clear parallel here between the Internet and printing. Gutenberg’s invention underpinned an extraordinary flourishing of learning that unleashed at the Renaissance. Yet the sixteenth century also saw a dramatic increase in violence, with the Reformation, itself not a little helped along by the wide availability of printed books, causing scores of innocent men women and children to die in pointless wars of religion.

There is something equally ambidextrous in the Information Age: the immense progress represented by the availability of almost any information ever created is countered by mounting evidence of alarming side effects.

Technology, by making news available immediately and providing tools—essentially social media networks—has enabled ordinary citizens to share that news in real time. This has strengthened democracy in some ways. Unfortunately, it has also had a disastrous consequence: it has pushed the vital political issues—those that need to be approached from a long-term perspective, with due regard for their complexity and also to the sensitivities and interests for all those involved—outside the space that gets our daily attention.

This is demonstrated by how political debate and reflection—to the extent that they can still be called that—unfold in the Information Age: the sharing in abundance of unverified news on the Facebook and Twitter walls that two thirds of adult citizens visit every day, with many relying exclusively on them to access information, has seriously damaged the democracy which we had always taken for granted. The ferocity with which those who take sides lash out at one another is reminiscent of the intolerance that characterized the Wars of Religion.

And clearly, since the summer of 2016, there has been a growing sense that something was very badly broken in the way politics was being perceived and treated.

The campaign preceding the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom was marred by the horrific murder of Remainer MP Jo Cox.  In the United States, the presidential election was characterized by an unprecedented lack of civility.

What has been especially troubling has been that this descent into political barbarity has been, on the whole, a feature on on pretty much the entire political spectrum, and that it has been documented, not just in the great democracies of the Anglosphere, but in others, too.

Facebook apology
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the Cambridge Analytica scandal with ads in multiple US and British newspapers (March 25, 2018). © Jenny Kane/Associated Press (with permission)

The founders of this site refuse to accept that civility and reasoned discussion are gone for good, just because of a wonderful invention that has transformed our lives in so many wonderful ways.

Because we believe there is nothing inevitable about the deeply perverse side effects of the Digital Revolution, and that technology can be harnessed for a good and moral purpose, we are today bringing you Policymakr: we’re well aware of the difficulties, of the pitfalls and the opposition that our idea will induce: if only for those reasons, and also for many others, it’s in beta, and will remain so until it properly launches in its first country.

But we will be working from now on to make it into a tool designed not to compete with existing online social media, but to harness a new technology that cannot be disinvented for good, rather than for profit. A tool that can be shaped to teach citizens, especially the younger ones who have never known anything other than the symbolic violence that pervades everything in the Information Age—the value of civility, of dialogue, and, above all, of realizing that sometimes, one must be open to the possibility of changing one’s mind.

It will use the latest and best of what tech has to offer to provide the missing layer between citizens and governmental institutions. It aims to give its users with an independent platform on which they can analyse information engage in debate both with their peers and with elected officials from their own and other countries.

We really hope that the longer-term perspective opened up by this approach will establish Policymakr as a platform on which policy can again be shaped by citizens and elected officials without being subject to media or political pressure. Tools will be provided for groups to engage in informed debate and political action, away from the pressures and superficiality characterizing existing social media.

Facebook UK Parliament debate
Facebook UK Parliament debate: an example of how social media stultifies policy debate

Superficially, Policymakr will have some points in common with classic social media networks: members will open accounts and have profiles.

But the differences will be crucial:

  1. firstly, Policymakr will be nonprofit: its corporate objective will be serving the public interest in an unbiased, transparent way, not making money;
  2. there will be no wall of useless chatter, distracting members from their work on long-term projects;
  3. zero-tolerance for inappropriate behavior will be enforced strictly;
  4. members’ identities will be systematically verified using trusted techniques pioneered by the sharing economy (Airbnb in particular), making trolling impossible;
  5. Policymakr will have no ads and will be financed only by member subscriptions and by voluntary donations.

The whole point of Policymakr is that it is scrupulously neutral, fair and open to all political persuasions, except those that demonstrably pursue hate or extremist ideologies.

We’ve been working flat out for the past month getting this vision off the ground. The next steps, we hope, as outline on our landing page, will be:

  • the opening of an Ideas Lab;
  • a Kickstarter campaign to get us traction and some funding;
  • the start of work on our first Project;
  • the formation of Our Supervisory Board;
  • the launching of a fully-fledged Policymakr, in our first country.

While Policymakr is in beta, you can join today: membership will be free so long as we remain in beta. We hope you will want to be a part of what we believe can reset a compromised situation and bring back trust and functionality to the Democracy we all cherish.