Can The Tech World Beget A Less Bad Form Of Government?

“Two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” “The terrible tyranny of the majority.” “The worst form of government, except for all the others.” A lot has been said about the ills of democracy, but as the last quote (commonly attributed to Winston Churchill) suggests, we are yet to come up with anything better.

But in light of myriad recent events, including Detroit’s filing for bankruptcy yesterday, I figured it was worth tinkering with a little thought experiment. What would happen if a group of people formed a new nation, not a nation under God, but a wikination driven by its own community? Where each person represents him- or herself rather than voting for a representative? What would it look like? How would it be gamed? Could it, in fact, work? And would it be any better than what we’ve got?



Answering these questions fully would require a much longer thought experiment by someone a fair bit smarter than myself, but it’s certainly a discussion worth engaging in. Surely I’m not the only one who looks around the Internet and thinks there are some principles that could be extrapolated to politics with positive effect?

Take, for example, the idea of failing fast -- certainly not exclusive to the Internet but wildly common among tech startups. This phrase doesn’t actually mean what it sounds like, in the sense of doing the “wrong” thing. It calls instead for a reframing of the concept of failure, in light of the fact that we are all dealing with imperfect and incomplete information. Therefore, it is impossible for us to make perfect, complete decisions. In the political arena, failing fast calls for a shift from, “This is the perfect decision, and if I change my mind it means I’m a flip-flopper,” to “This is the best decision I can make with the information I have, and if new information comes in I will be wise enough to update my position accordingly.” Imagine if our politicians were rewarded for admitting they have learned something new, rather than punished for not having known it in the first place?

Or take the Wikipedia example, of what happens when a community cares deeply about its environment and is empowered to take care of business on its own. In 2006, Aaron Swartz -- who took his own life earlier this year in the face of monstrously unjust treatment by our democratically elected government -- described the website as follows:
People are constantly trying to vandalize Wikipedia, replacing articles with random text. It doesn’t work; their edits are undone within minutes, even seconds. But why? It’s not magic — it’s a bunch of incredibly dedicated people who sit at their computers watching every change that gets made… The vandals aren’t stopped because someone is in charge of stopping them; it was simply something people started doing. And it’s not just vandalism: a “welcoming committee” says hi to every new user, a “cleanup taskforce” goes around doing factchecking… This is so unusual, we don’t even have a word for it. It’s tempting to say “democracy”, but that’s woefully inadequate. Wikipedia doesn’t hold a vote and elect someone to be in charge of vandal-fighting… Someone simply sees that there are vandals to be fought and steps up to do the job.

Millions of people use Wikipedia without ever contributing to its pages, just as millions of people either don’t vote or vote without a deep understanding of the many complex issues that are the purview of government. But the organic nature of Wikipedia creates a fundamentally different system, or, as Swartz puts it: “A dedicated community solves problems that official leaders wouldn’t even know were there. Meanwhile, their volunteerism largely eliminates infighting about who gets to be what. Instead, tasks get done by the people who genuinely want to do them, who just happen to be the people who care enough to do them right.”

I don’t think an open-source government would be perfect, anymore than Wikipedia is perfect. But maybe it would be less bad. Or, as Swartz said, “If the community wants to remain in charge, it’s going to have to fight for it… [and] this is something worth fighting for.”

How would you design your perfect government?
3 comments about "Can The Tech World Beget A Less Bad Form Of Government?".
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  1. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, July 22, 2013 at 5:11 a.m.

    Good government requires the consent of the governed, which is not possible in any meaningful sense if they don't know what government is doing. If things are misrepresented or kept hidden. So transparency is essential and the tech world can help with that.

  2. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, July 22, 2013 at 5:12 a.m.

    @Paula Lynn: off your meds?

  3. Bruce McDermott from Atom Valley, July 22, 2013 at 3:27 p.m.

    The perfect government through technology...

    1. Bring back Privacy. The only reason we have traffic cameras, drones, corporations tracking us through apps, and the NSA reading everything we write is because of fear, greed, and incompetence. 9/11 kicked the ball off in the wrong direction. After an evaluation was made, it came down to the FBI dropping the ball. So the logical reaction would be to correct the shortcomings of the FBI instead of putting the public on lockdown. We haven't strayed from that path, and it only seems to be getting worse. Watch out Congress, when you hit the tipping point, your going to see the 1960s all over again.

    2. Understand the Internet. The Internet has put a nation/world's public on one page with a single mind. Don't underestimate this even in a 'free' nation. Don't you think it odd that so many countries have their once submissive people rioting in the streets. It seems almost as if a contagion is passing from one nation to another. A clarity of mind which results in single solidified objectives. Can't you see the one common denominator that wasn't there before? Can you understand now why China is so worried about their Internet?

    3. Discontent is the enemy... get rid of the enemy. A person in India can sit down at an antiquated computer and make billions for his country by selling air (software) that has no shelf life, no shipping costs, no marketing costs, none of the restrictions placed on hard goods. Children in elementary schools in India are learning math and programming as I write this! There aren't any more guardians at the gates qualifying you for a loan, checking your credit rating, disqualifying you for your resume, pigeonholing you into a preconceived caste position. This is what lies ahead for the world's economies. Everyman having the right to make a decent living selling knowledge, ideas, and his/her culture without restrictions. All that is needed is a leader that understands how to leverage what has already been created and to jump start the economies by redistributing the wealth evenly at the individual level. The day is coming when technology will augment government rather than stifling its people with knee-jerk incompetence. Always remember that there are more of us then them, and that time and technology guarantee the public will ultimately dictate its own true path.

    ...back on my meds, lol.

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