Friday, November 30, 2012

States and nations 3.0: Social network democracy

Cyberdemocracy comes in three major flavors, including direct edemocracy and expert systems enhanced democracy. The third form is somewhat more complex, but also more dynamic and adaptive than the first two. In the first article of this series I briefly described the software engine driven democracy put forward by Daniel Suarez in his best selling novels Daemon and FreedomTM. At the start of this two-book story, a recently deceased billionaire's final command unleashes what looks like a automated terror campaign online and in physical space, using autonomous vehicles and cyberwarfare malware. As the plot progress, it becomes clear that there's far more going on.

CfA Salon | August 2012 |

The attacks are directed against a group of oligarchs who have been individually sabotaging the United State's economy for the sake of short term profits. They've recently formalized an alliance to subvert the federal government through K Street lobbyists, bribery, and the use of private security forces in order to further their private goals. At the same time, the cybernetic system behind the strikes targeting them has also been rapidly incorporating thousands of ordinary and selected extraordinary individuals into a network of communities. These towns and regional cooperatives employ local power generation technologies and advanced 3D printer manufacturing to create a networked society that is more locally self-reliant and far less dependent on ten-thousand mile global supply chains, and fragile, regional power grids.

This network is an extraordinarily democratic society. One in which members up vote or down vote potential solutions to major issues, allocate funding and resources Kickstarter style to individuals known for solving problems, and engage in consensual rule making.

The underlying platform is an engine and social community originally built for a massively successful Call of Duty style game, with millions of subscribers. Like game engines and game communities in the real world, the social governance software is designed to continue functioning, despite talented individuals regularly hacking or attempting to hack the system. Augmented reality glasses, linked to encrypted peer-top-peer networks running the engine, help to incorporate this social governance model into the daily life of its members by displaying shared data and offering 24/7 voice and image access.

Overall it's not a perfect vision of governance, and Suarez discusses some of its shortcomings, as well potential methods for sabotaging such a system in the video above. It's also an idea that's not yet fully developed.

The current discussion about electronic and social network democracies is reminiscent of debates about democracy during the 1500s through the mid 1600s - a long period when early natural philosophers and other thinkers living in European monarchies and North American colonies engaged in dialogs about theoretical, rationalized republics. The discussions, letters, and essays from this time contained raw and often unpolished ideas about hypothetical nations free from the tyranny of kings, superstition, and cruel or counterproductive medieval traditions. Many hoped for a form of democratic meritocracy in which rationality and public consensus governed. There were also incomplete and sometimes Utopian hopes and plans for a perfect state.

Many pragmatic and idealistic models were based on a romantic view of the Roman Republic, though sometimes tempered by a jaundiced look at Athenian democracy. The latter was commonly perceived as a failed state, in part for having ordered the death of Socrates after rampant nationalism and mob rule wrecked the city state's Mediterranean empire and military during a chain of disastrous wars with Sparta. Eventually, however, those early and sometimes impractical Renaissance models matured during the Enlightenment and evolved into the basis for our present day democracies.

Like those earlier, untested models, Cyberdemocracy is a also family of theories with a basis in existing local practices. Limited parliamentary representation during the Renaissance and Enlightenment was already being practiced in England, the Dutch Republic, and in New World's colonial legislative bodies. Today, a number of Silicon Valley start ups and other businesses are already using collaborative project management software on a daily basis. In these systems, company members post items or problems that need to be solved, and then assign a priority level. Others assign their own priority to the project, and a numerical consensus emerges. Sometimes individuals tackling parts of the problem use the program's social feeds and sites to coordinate or further subdivide tasks. Other times, online group chats snowball into being, as emails and texts are sent out through the network, and a dedicated site is established. The task is dismembered, and then the components of the solution are put together by the group in real time. Some departments in large companies have also begun to rely on collaborative project management systems for big projects.

Granted, at present these are very local, and purely private sector practices, but it's likely just a matter of time until someone attempts to apply these methodologies to governance in one fashion or another.

In a science fiction setting this could happen with similar project and task coordination systems evolving into a method of governing in a frontier community, high-tech post-apocalyptic scenario, or in orbital habitats, asteroid settlements, star ships, and other permanently inhabited space structures. It might require a generation or two for such a system to be widely accepted, and it could also be successfully scaled up at some point for use on a regional or national level.

In the real world, this could also take place as a generational process as people grow accustomed to using such software in the workplace. This would allow for both a gradually accruing sense of legitimacy as well as a body of built up practical refinements, just as the move to chiefdoms and nations required an evolutionary chain of developments to prouce functional, durable models. Or such a transition could take place in a matter of years or even months, since the forces of historical change seem to move faster and grind finer than ever before in our present age.

Maybe such systems will be remain purely local, existing alongside traditional national governments. Or maybe they will remake the existing political order entirely.

Chances are, if such social governance networks are ever implemented, they won't be perfect. And as a writer of drama, I don't want perfection. I want flaws and juicy exceptions to the rules that can serve as fuel for interesting conflicts. At the same time, as a citizen and a science fiction author of hopeful scenarios, I want something with a cool factor that's markedly more efficient than what we have now. That, and even more democratic. I'd like a system that builds on our tradition of spreading political power more and more evenly, and a system that will help lessen the impact of individual fortunes on politics, just as the transition from monarchies to republics did. And while the software networks of a social engine democracy will not be any more proof against sabotage than present day democracies or online networks, a body of safeguards and best practices like those used in online banking and ecommerce will hopefully produce systems that work more often than not, and that aren't prone to catastrophic failures.

Next up: The Defense of Cyberdemocracies 

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