Monday, October 29, 2012

States and Nations 3.0: E-democracy threats and promises

Our societies and governments have gotten more complex along with our tools. Over the past ten thousand years emergent technology packages have gone hand-in-glove with that increase in complexity, and the creation of new forms of human social organizations and governance. An example: Advanced paleolithic stone tools were so effective at allowing our ancestors to obtain more food and fuel that they helped lead to increased population densities. As more people lived in closer proximity, more cooperative endeavors became possible, and tribes formed from disparate family bands woven together into larger societies. Chiefdoms and states likewise appeared after similar technology shifts, and I suspect that the same will happen in the future. While advanced biotechnology and human brain augmentation may one day change how we organize and govern ourselves, the advent of information systems holds many near-term potentials for either transforming modern states and nations, or giving rise to an eventual successor form of organization.

Currently there are three broad forms cyber democracy, each with their own balance of potential strengths and weaknesses:
  • Electronic direct democracy
  • Expert system-assisted democracy
  • Social software engine driven democracy

Electronic direct democracy is my least favorite of the three. Empowering citizens with direct governance strikes me as a romantic, but singularly bad idea. My inner historian looks back at the durability of the representative Roman Republic and parliamentary democracies, and sees a stark contrast with the instability and short-lived natures of direct democracies, like that of Classical Athens. Whether it's the history of angry mobs voting out and exiling effective military commanders such as Pericles and Alcibiades, or Californians strangling their state with a combination of referendum-passed tax caps and spending mandates, direct democracy in practice is far removed from the beautiful theoretical picture painted by many of its boosters.

Think about all the ranters you've ever seen at city council meetings, or the trolls in the comments section of news articles. Now imagine handing them legislative power. Not a pretty image, and that's not even getting into questions of expertise or knowledge of existing bodies of laws.

This form of governance might work on a small scale, or in an environment where constant survival considerations are an entrenched part of the culture. However, if I were to depict a large e-democracy in science fiction, chances are it would would resemble its troubled real world historical predecessors, baring any major changes in human nature.

Next in States and Nations 3.0: Expert Systems Enhanced Democracy

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