Visual of How to design a digital democracy
Visual Essay

How to design a digital democracy

10 demands

With the rise of immersive technologies, the collective ecology of our media enters a new evolutionary phase. The merging of the physical and digital worlds raises urgent social and political questions. It blurs the boundary between people and computers, between physical and digital. Can we still distinguish fake from real? The following 10 demands propose a set of design requirements to fully immerse ourselves into the 21st Century—in which technology makes our world richer, not poorer.

We want to remain in control of our digital body

Immersive technology constantly collects intimate data, from voice recordings to gestures & face unlock. As technology colonizes our body and identity, it conversely means that our (bodies and) identities can be stolen, and used to commit fraud or damage our reputation. Public authorities must provide better legal protection for these data, particularly biometric data, so that citizens can have more control over their body and behavioral data.

Zach Blas' project "Facial Weaponization Suite" comprises of three different types of masks that he claims cannot be detected as human faces by facial recognition software. Credit: Zach Blas

We want to be able to remain anonymous

The use of speech and AR technology can threaten a person's anonymity in both public and private spaces. The identity of accidental passers-by can be traced ever more accurately and at ever greater distance by analyzing their face, walking behavior or voice. This is an unacceptable invasion of people's privacy and security.

Trashy Muse virtual avatar fashion show. Credit: Trashy Muse

We want control over our virtual identity

We express our identity through immersive technology. Just as we use garments or tattoos to distinguish ourselves in the physical domain, we do so in the virtual domain. Via avatars we are represented in VR and AR allows us to change our appearance. With some applications we can even change the appearance of others. It is therefore essential for people to gain protection from unwanted digital interventions on their bodies.

Jeff Koons’ augmented reality Snapchat artwork got ‘vandalized’

We want clarity on new digital property issues

Immersive technology raises new questions about ownership—of our properties in both the virtual and physical world. Who owns the data that is on social media? And whose property are the profiles based on this data? Whose property is a voice recording, an image, or information about our gaze? Is our property violated when someone in AR paints a swear word on the wall of our house? What applies offline must also apply online.

The application of face recognition technology in the criminal justice system threatens to perpetuate racial inequality.

We want to live in an inclusive digital world

The challenge of making our digital society inclusive, not discriminating on the basis of gender or skin colour, and not encouraging stereotypes, has long been discussed. This challenge applies particularly to the way in which immersive technology adapts our reality. Companies and developers should therefore put inclusion at the heart of the development and use of their applications.

None of these people are real, they are all AI-generated:

We want to be able to know when something is fake

Immersive technology can confuse users considerably. When speech assistants speak with lifelike voices, will you know that you have a robot on the line? Because immersive technology is producing increasingly powerful simulations, in the long run it becomes difficult for users to separate reality from fiction. With immersive technology, human experience can change so much that we no longer know whether we can trust our eyes and ears.

What does it mean to be monitored at all times? And how can this knowledge be used (against us)?

We want protection against manipulation and persuasion

Through immersive technology, people can be influenced and manipulated. The intimate data that they collect provides companies with numerous insights into a person's personality, behavior and preferences. With immersive technology, propaganda takes on new forms—you can deliberately make other people believe in a different reality.

VR therapy. Credit: USC Institute for Creative Technologies and UCL Barcelona

We don’t want our health to be harmed

Immersive technology can improve our health, but it can also damage it. It can teach people new skills, empower them, and speed up and reduce the cost of learning. But therapies with VR and AR are still in the early stages—there is still insufficient knowledge of the risks involved in using the technology, and of its long-term effects.

By arranging 30,000 photographs according to their categories on image databases, artist Trevor Paglen maps the questionable labels through which AI networks learn about human culture. Credit: Trevor Paglen, 'From “Apple” to “Anomaly'

We want a digital market with a fair balance of power

Over the last 20 years, a small number of technology companies have become powerful commercial giants dominating the internet economy. This also applies to the market for AR, VR and voice technology. They have power over newcomers to the market, which are often bought up. Their market power ultimately translates into political power: the international giants can strongly influence national governments and, with their social media, play a key role in the political debate.

An interactive carpet of LED lights detects human activity on the streets and displays interactive light patterns in response. Credit: Electroland, 'Enteractive'

We want public spaces to remain public

Immersive technology puts pressure on the communal character of the public space. Firstly, because people are given the opportunity to view public spaces through personal digital glasses. This undermines social cohesion and reinforces the social fragmentation that can already be seen. Secondly, commercial AR developers can release so many virtual layers and applications into a public space that it is no longer a place for everyone. Commonality must remain preserved. This calls for the development of a new social etiquette: how do we treat each other decently in this new world?

Written by Prof. Dr. ir. Rinie van Est, research coordinator Rathenau Institute. This story is republished from Rathenau Institute. The text is edited for online publication. Read the original article.