If the first two decades of the twenty-first century have taught us anything about politics, they’ve taught us this: democratic political institutions are ill-equipped to adapt to technological change. Media technologies change fast, democratic institutions are slow to respond, and out of the gap grows populism, information breaches, and instability. Can scientists help us gain traction on these existential threats to democratic governance?

In a recent essay at Aeon, a group of four SFI researchers (Doyne Farmer, Fotini Markopolou, Eric Beinhocker, and Steen Rasmussen) argue that if we study the co-evolution of social and physical technologies we can better respond to new threats to democracy. The first step, they argue, is to understand that physical technologies (like social media platforms) and social technologies (like governmental institutions) follow a Darwinian path. Like biological phenomena, social and physical technologies evolve in order to reproduce themselves. The second step is to address how the different rates at which the two technologies evolve make it difficult for social technologies to adapt.

When we start to understand the dynamic evolutionary relationship between social and physical technologies, we can begin to envision ways that information technologies can “enhance democracy rather than drive it into polarization and alienation.”

Read the essay in Aeon (February 11, 2020)

Read more about the "The growing gap between our physical and social technologies" project.