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School of Transnational Governance

Writing the story of digital democracy

STG AI and Democracy Chair Prof Daniel Innerarity recently received Spain’s highest scientific award. We asked Innerarity about his views on the changing nature and challenges of democracy in a digital society.

17 November 2022 | Research

Daniel Innerarity feature digital democracy

“Democracy is a form of government in which those affected by decisions have a say in the decision-making process. As more and more decisions are made by algorithmic procedures, there is a need to shape such processes in such a way that we can see them as somehow the result of our will.”

Daniel Innerarity devotes his work to the analysis and exploration of politics, democratic governance and society. This recently earned him the most prestigious recognition in the field of scientific research in his home country, Spain. The honour was bestowed upon Innerarity because of “his contribution to the adaptation of the normative principles of democracy to current societies, which implies a better understanding of politics and a particularly relevant contribution to human coexistence, through his theory of complex democracy,” according to the statement of the Ramón Menéndez Pidal National Prize for Research in Humanities. In celebrating the laureates Diana Morant, Spanish Minister of Science and Innovation, said the awards highlight the importance of science “thanks to the work of researchers with exceptional careers, who dedicate their lives to generating knowledge and translating it into applications for society.”

Earlier in 2022, the Spanish Secretary of State for Digitalisation and Artificial Intelligence appointed Innerarity to investigate the relationship between democracy and artificial intelligence. As the first Chair of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Democracy at the EUI School of Transnational Governance, Prof Innerarity and his team study the impact of AI and the possibilities that technological infrastructure associated with digitalisation offers for improving democratic systems.

“An exciting panorama is opening up before us which, first of all, needs to be well thought out,” says Innerarity about the work of the AI&DEM Chair. “We will not provide good solutions if we do not define the problems well and this requires a conceptual renewal, because the concepts of the analogical world are not directly applicable to the digital world. We need to rethink what we might call the technological infrastructure of democracy with a technology that has different characteristics from the old machines. Automated environments force us to think differently about our ideals of free self-determination; the relationship between humans and machines is not well understood if we continue to think of it in terms of opposition.”

Born in Bilbao in 1959, Daniel Innerarity's professional path took him to several places within Spain and beyond. After completing his doctorate in philosophy, he continued his studies as a fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. He worked as visiting professor and researcher at several European and American universities, including the Sorbonne (Paris I), the London School of Economics and Political Science, the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris, Georgetown University and the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg. He has been part of the Consejo de Coordinación Universitaria proposed by the Spanish Senate; and is currently a corresponding member of the Academia de la Latinidad and a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, based in Salzburg.

Yet, the ties with his home region have always remained close, and today the Basque Country honours Daniel Innerarity as one of the region's most respected thought leaders. Among the numerous recognitions throughout his career, Innerarity received the Euskadi Literature Prize by the Department of Culture and Linguistic Policy for his book ‘Política para Perplejos’, in which he critically assesses the situation of uncertainty and perplexity in modern societies. According to the Jury, "Innerarity's reflection makes it possible (...) to understand why things are happening that we never thought would happen; or that they were going to happen again.”

The pursuit of combining the local dimension of the homeland with the study of contemporary society is also mirrored in Innerarity's work as director of the Instituto de Gobernanza Democrática in San Sebastián. The institute is a centre for reflection, research and knowledge dissemination. Its aim is research and training in democratic governance to renew the political thinking of our time.

Looking at the evolution of democracy over the past 40 years, Innerarity sees an erruption of the digital space in terms of its impact on democracy. The great expectations raised in the early 1980’s exceeded the reality of the networks, which are neither as open to all as they promised, nor have they automatically democratised autocratic regimes. "The pendulum is now at the other extreme", notes Innerarity, describing how the word ‘internet’ today seems to evoke phenomena such as hate or election interference. “The downside of this seesawing of expectations and disappointments is that it makes us see digitalisation as an irresistible force that we would contemplate as passive, euphoric or frightened citizens, and we cease to see it as an area to be shaped.”

Against this background, Innerarity and his team at the School of Transnational Governance train and equip policymakers as well as other stakeholders with the knowledge and tools they need to ensure that the benefits of AI are widely shared, and its risks mitigated. “How to democratise digitalisation is unwritten and will give rise to very different opinions, just as there are different conceptions of democracy,” explains Innerarity. “My theory that democracy must be thought of in terms of complexity attempts precisely to articulate all these dimensions and to offer a dynamic normative framework in which to accommodate a greater number of actors and values that must be taken into account today if democracy is not to be reduced to a simplification incompatible with the world in which we actually live.”

The evolution of Innerarity’s research in the field of political philosophy is reflected in the numerous publications he produced over the course of his career. He also makes his thinking accessible to a wider audience by publishing regular opinion articles in renowned national and international media outlets such as El País, El Correo/El Diario Vasco and La Vanguardia. In 2005, the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur included him in a list of the 25 greatest thinkers in the world.

When asked what the relationship between democracy and artificial intelligence might look like in the future, Innerarity considers himself optimistic, but differentiates: “I believe both those who think that algorithmic governance can take over the entire political decision-making process and those who fear that it renders democracy meaningless are wrong on the same point: in assuming that humans and machines do the same thing and therefore there may come a day when, for better or worse, humans are replaced by machines. The reality is that we have two kinds of intelligence and we solve two different kinds of problems. Machines tackle problems whose terms are clearly formulated and for which a lot of data is required; humans are better equipped to make decisions in the midst of ambiguity and with limited information” he explains. “Hence, the great challenge is how to combine their intelligence and ours to make a better democracy.”

Last update: 17 November 2022

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