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 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Flexible armors

Copolymers as a potential (and promising) material basis for flexible, ultra lightweight armor.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Einstein's Brain

Snapshots explore Einstein’s unusual brain : Nature

'via Blog this'

Einstein's brain is one of the reasons I love writing science fiction.

OK, strange statement, maybe, but the differences between the luminary physicist's brain and the gray matter of normal people like me is pure inspiration. It makes me wonder what both society and individual lives would look like if the technology for customized brains was available.

The quirks of our brains' layouts and wiring can impact our lives in ways that are so bizarre as to feel like science fiction or fantasy. There are brains that can't see faces. Individuals with lesions or born with unusual wiring within the brain's fusiform gyrus, who cannot recognize faces ever. For them, there is not only a lack of identity associated with faces, but the individual features never make a recognizable whole. It's akin to being able to see individual terrain features on a map, such as the representation of a mountain or forest, but being unable to resolve those components into a coherent landscape, or match it to a section of the physical world.

But alongside those whose brains make it difficult to perceive or conceptualize aspects of the world that most people take for granted, are those with super human talents. Savants who can perform huge calculations quickly and entirely in their heads. Photographic memories and people with almost no artistic training who can reproduce scenes they have only glimpsed before with uncanny accuracy using pencils and paper. Synesthetes whose cross-wired sensory cortices allow them to experience the world in ways that sound alien but wonderful to the rest of us: Sounds that have color, or evoke physical sensations, words that taste, and other variations of linked senses.

And then there is Einstein. A genius with a brain that had unusual features associated with the visual-spatial reasoning areas that are a locus of mathematical ability.

So what would the world be like if we could change our brains at will? What if we could write talents into the living tissue of thought that would allows anyone to master a skill set at the limits of human ability, or perceive the world through the lens of genius. What if we could tweak the pattern recognition filters that construct our awareness of the world to see abstract patterns in events that are invisible to ordinary humans? How about the ability to perfectly recall every day of your life at will, as though reliving it?

What if we could erase traumas like the PTSD syndrome associated with war and childhood abuse?

How perfect could we make our brains. What kind of conflicts, dysfunctions, might arise from adding too many talents. As I've written about before, savant talents are often associated with neurological deficits, some caused by injury, other by genetics and accidents of birth. Our brain is a mass of engineering compromises, and the demands of processing complex social environments and abstract cultural information may have lead to the loss of some talents or mental abilities.

Or, what would happen if advanced technology allowed us to change the brain without limit? Might different configurations of talents and augmented perceptions lead to minds with unique abilities or worldviews? Differing paradigms that lead to conflicts over finite resources needed to realize an array of conflicting potential utopias?

There are so many cool concept possibilities, and such much room for story telling in this kind of idea space.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Europa Report

This one looks like it's got potential to be an entertaining, hard science fiction film.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Moving day

Moving and without internet at the moment. However, the next States and Nations will be up on Thursday.  


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Names and Faces: Veterans Day

Names and faces now etched on a wall
Names and faces in long marble halls
Those names and faces once gave all

Names and faces glimpsed on the news
Names and faces in uniformed hues
Such names and faces paid heavy dues

Names and faces interred in the dark
Names and faces forever apart
Such names and faces illume in your heart

Names and faces on this autumn day

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Fall, again

Beaverton, Oregon, on the western side of the Portland metropolitan area.

On the northern edge of the city. Thanks to urban growth boundaries, the cutoff between the city and its surrounding farms is a sharp one.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

With malice toward none...

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

~Abraham Lincoln 

Friday, November 02, 2012

Ars Technica on counter hacking

How Georgia doxed a Russian hacker (and why it matters) | Ars Technica:

'via Blog this'

Ars Technica has an article up on how Georgia's national information security team may have counter-hacked a Russian state hacker, who had had been altering online news articles in the Georgian media. As the Technica journalist acknowledges in the article, verifying the truth in international hacking incidences is nigh impossible. That said, the Georgian response of name 'n shame, along with publishing a detailed account of the technical means employed by both the hacker and the security services involved, is now becoming a common response model.  One that Google and other internet savvy firms have used in response to hacks that appear to have originated in China.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

States and Nations 3.0: Expert system enhanced democracy

Cyberdemocracy is still a concept that is very much under development. Proposed models for the use of cybernetic systems in governance run from setups in which citizens vote directly on important issues via specialized networks, to political schemes in which human involvement and democracy as most people understand it is minimal. Expert system enhanced democracy is a term that covers a broad  array of potential political setups on this spectrum.

At one extreme of expert system democracy, elected officials implement plans generated by AIs or expert systems to solve problems as they arise -- or even beforehand, if the systems' ability to model real world events outstrip that of human beings. So far in the real world, expert systems have lagged well behind humans in performance when it comes to diagnosing problems and generating solutions. Which is no great surprise given that it was only this year that we finally modeled an organism down to the molecular level, and that creature happens to be the simplest known single cell bacterium on the planet. However, with Moore's law showing no signs of stopping; with laptops holding the processing power of a human brain on the twenty year horizon; and super computers gaining the ability to model complex real world systems, this is a scenario deserving of serious consideration.

There are also variations of this political system, which impart increased degrees of control to human beings. In one, elected representatives prioritize implementation of expert system generated solutions based their own priorities or ideologies, rather than following a machine-generated order of execution. Another kink has solution implementations prioritized by civics network upvoting on the part of ordinary citizens.

In another step down with greater human control, problems are addressed after being chosen by elected representatives or through direct referendums. Only then do expert systems model the issue and generate a solution. In still another model, citizens are randomly chosen to serve a set term of office, and assisted by expert adviser systems in carrying out their duties.

Doing away with the law - Constitution as source code

Under these political systems, law as we know it might cease to exist. In its place, a series of vastly simpler guidelines would  shape the output of expert systems. A kind of DNA of basic rights and responsibilities used to generate complex arrays of dynamic responses. This could serve as a mechanism for rebooting legal systems that have become so choked by statutes that even mundane business tasks require consulting a lawyer.

Of course the decision to reboot a legal system in the real world is normally a dramatic one involving revolutions, or in the past, founding new, remote settlements. Tomorrow we'll look at some of those conditions  in a science fiction context, as well as at social network driven democracy.

Next: Social Network Democracy