Bruce Schneier Wants to Recreate Democracy

Arguing that American democracy has been hacked, the computer security expert doesn’t want to just fiddle on the margins when it comes to re-envisioning what a new 21st-century American democracy should look like.

Like many people cooped up at home during COVID-19, Bruce Schneier had a pandemic project. In this case, it was a new book called A Hacker’s Mind, which encourages readers to apply the hacker mentality to our various social, political, economic, and legal systems. Schneier’s work on the book sparked deeper thinking about the suitability of our centuries-old democratic processes and institutions and whether they were still up to the task in our ever-increasing polarized and fractured political climate.

“Democracy has been hacked, mostly for the worse,” Schneier, a computer security specialist and privacy expert who is a faculty affiliate at the Ash Center, is quick to note. “Our democracy in the United States is really just not suited to the task anymore.” But if American democracy is no longer up to snuff in Schneier’s mind, the question quickly arises: What should a new American democracy look like?

“I don’t have the details, but we need to set about building newer, more resilient democratic systems that are better suited for our current technology,” he says.

To better tackle the challenge head-on, Schneier opened his voluminous address book and invited dozens of scholars, practitioners, advocates, and writers for an interdisciplinary series of conversations at the Kennedy School in December to discuss how, in essence, to recreate American democracy.

Schneier revels in bringing together thinkers from all walks of life to tackle seemingly intractable political, policy, or technology problems. “I wanted to have political scientists, law professors, other social scientists, and academics. They all bring important perspectives to this question. But I wanted to hear from individuals you wouldn’t traditionally associate with a Kennedy School workshop, like science fiction writers who have their own unique way of looking at problems and imagining solutions.”

The conversations, which covered ground far beyond the typical academic confab on democracy, examined fundamental questions about the structure of our democratic institutions. “I wanted to have discussions centered around issues that aren’t typically in the spotlight, but get at the fundamental nature of our democracy, such as whether we should even have elected representatives, or maybe just vote for ideas and goals.”

To frame the exercise, Schneier urged participants to “imagine you’ve landed on a foreign planet and need to govern yourselves. How would you set it up?” He admits that it may be hard not lean on preconceived notions of what contemporary democracies should look like, but the exercise is intended to get people to think about a different set of ideas. “What we’re missing now are ideas. We know what to do with our current system, whether it’s reforming the electoral college or making election day a national holiday. But if we could sweep the board and start from scratch, how would you do it? That to me is what’s interesting.”

Participants considered proposals for building new democratic spaces that could take the place of the sclerotic governing institutions that many argued are no longer capable of meeting the needs of modern society. “What are the alternatives? Citizen assemblies? How do we build an enduring system of collective governance,” Schneier recalls. “We aren’t talking about democracy 2.0 or 3.0, we’re looking well ahead to 6.0 and 7.0.”

As a public-interest technologist, Schneier is quick to note that the challenges facing our democracy can’t just easily be chalked up to technology. “I don’t think it’s entirely a technology problem. And there was this tension in the room about whether technology is part of the solution. And I think it has to be. We live in a technological world.”

To illustrate how assumptions about technology are embedded in the bedrock of American democracy, Schneier points to the very nature of representative government itself. “I came in with this thought that the modern constitutional republic is the best form of government mid-18th century technology could invent. Because travel and communications are hard, we need to pick one of us to go all the way over to a capital city and pass laws in our name. But that paradigm has been erased. Congress, statehouses, and town halls over the last three years suddenly realized they don’t need to physically convene in a building to debate and pass laws. Now that travel and communications are easy, are there other ways?”

Looking back, Schneier is quick to note the enormity of the challenge laid out before participants at the workshop. “People have been thinking really smart thoughts about this for thousands of years, whereas social media is only a few decades old,” he admits. “Humans haven’t changed, even though technology has changed. And we’re still searching for solutions. And that is very sobering.”

Yet, Schneier is confident that there are solutions to be found. Another interactive and facilitated workshop is scheduled for May with additional future sessions already in the works. And he doesn’t want the conversation to start and stop in Cambridge. To help others imagine the possibilities for recreating democracy, Schneier is already imagining what a public “Atlas of Democracies” might look like.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.