Democracy is an ever-changing social experiment, devised millennia ago in Ancient Greece. Over time, the ways in which it has been implemented have changed to fit the needs of the society employing it. However, one thing has not changed: democracy makes use of technology. For a long time, this aspect of democracy allowed democratic societies to prosper and thrive, but it may now be at a precipice: unprecedented technological advancement is challenging democratic institutions all over the world, making it difficult for governments to adapt quickly enough to continue to govern effectively. In the past these governments had room to fail and recover, but with the speed at which technology is changing in the modern world, they can no longer afford mistakes. In his book Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance through Technology, Dr. John O. McGinnis brings these issues to light and proposes solutions accordingly.


McGinnis argues that the greatest aspect of the exponential change of modern technology is the growth in computation. He cites Moore’s Law, which states that computation has been doubling every 18 months for the last several decades. Accordingly, McGinnis recognizes this increasing computational power allows for artificially intelligent systems to be developed and aid man in understanding the world around him to an unprecedented degree. McGinnis is perhaps a bit too optimistic with some of these predictions; he makes some exaggerated claims for future technology.

However, he also notes the drawbacks to all this progress, which has the capacity to bring about new problems that can cause irreparable damage to society. Accelerating Democracy therefore brings up the idea of regulations and how they would affect this technological revolution. McGinnis recognizes that there is ultimately no way to stop new technologies from appearing, so he instead suggests ways to mitigate the damage they can bring about.

According to Accelerating Democracy, government must transform itself by harnessing computers’ ability to analyze large amounts of data. Society now has enormous amounts of data about the world, due in large part to the Internet. McGinnis argues that we can use computing power to analyze this data, allowing us to better see the results of government policy. He refers to this form of government as a “consequentialist democracy,” because government can use all the data and computing power available to it to test out the strengths and weaknesses of its policies. This would mean fewer mistakes—and smarter decisions. To McGinnis, an integral part of this system is prediction markets, which can be used to more accurately predict these results before even implementing policy. These markets allow people to make bets on the outcome of events; through the power of the market, this would allow governments to see the likely results of social and fiscal policy changes. However, he fails to give significant evidence for the usefulness of prediction markets, especially in comparison to existing prediction systems. Throughout the book, he notes they are a powerful asset and cites that they are legal in Ireland, but does not provide quantitative or concrete examples of their strengths. Furthermore, he does not thoroughly address the privacy implications of government’s use of this data.


McGinnis posits that the main problem keeping democratic governments from adapting to modern technological change lies in its multiple biases. McGinnis brilliantly highlights these, and explains how to best resolve them. The most effective way is to make sure the people who are elected to office are closer to the center of the political spectrum, instead of being very polarized. In addition, having term limits is essential to making sure that elected officials are not too disconnected with modern times due to incumbency, which often results in some spending decades in office. McGinnies argues that the best method to achieve solutions to these problems is through federalism, which allows states to experiment, providing many possible avenues to fix these issues in federal governance. However, both the problems he identifies and his proposed solutions are tailored to the United States’ democratic system and not other forms found around the world. Although McGinnis brings up several other nations’ democratic systems in passing, he chooses to focus on the United States rather than engaging more broadly with the world’s other forms of democratic government.

The future of democracy is unclear in this fast-paced, technology-driven world, but Dr. McGinnis does an excellent job describing the possibilities in Accelerating Democracy. Despite some of the drawbacks in his analysis, the book is an excellent and enlightening read about technology and government in general. Though McGinnis notes Fermi’s paradox about the possibility that intelligent life is doomed to destroy itself, he offers some hope: “the only way to beat these possibly cosmic odds is to increase our capacity to make wise decisions.