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Democracy 2.0

1 April 2013

Yes, let populist demands govern our societies. That clearly works a treat.

Yes, let populist demands govern our societies. That clearly works a treat.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the state of our societies lately, and in particular the way we govern them. Democracy seems to be the method of choice at the moment, something I mentioned a while back (years ago, actually) in The age of democracies. Even though I still stand by the views of that post, it was sort of a rant, with me complaining about how bad things are without really coming up with any suggestions on how to make things better. So, hence this post; what we need to do to achieve a more viable form of government; a Democracy 2.0 if you will.

The problem

For those of you who don’t care for jumping between posts or just feel a bit lazy, I’ll quickly recap what I see as the problems of today’s society:

  • People don’t think. Even though we arguably have the most advanced brains on the planet, we sure don’t like to use them a lot. It’s the four levels of ignorance – people don’t read, people don’t listen, people don’t think and people don’t care. This doesn’t bode well for a democratic society where everyone’s vote is equal, regardless of one’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of current affairs. Read more in my post The limbic society.
  • Modern societies are extremely complex. Today’s societies are suffering from a multitude of extremely complex issues, many of which are very long-term in scale. Our current method of government, with new governments being elected every three of four years, more or less guarantee that these issues will become marginalised and ignored. This was discussed in the previously
    I'd insert some joke about natural selection in action here, but I can't be bothered.

    I’d insert some joke about natural selection in action here, but I can’t be bothered.

    mentioned post The age of democracies

  • No one really cares. Again, this was mentioned in my Limbic society post, where I highlighted how difficult it is to get people to care about things, even if it affects them directly. If we can’t even get people to change their habits in order to save their own lives, what hope is there for us ever getting a working democracy?

So much for the problems. Whining’s done. Now let’s focus on the solutions. What can we do to change the world?

Long-term democracy

First thing is pretty obvious: let’s extend the period the elected government stays in power. Instead of changing the government every three or four years, we could let it rule for 25 or even 50 years. This would allow it to make less popular decisions like diverting funds to address environmental problems, or tackle unemployment and welfare issues efficiently, without risking being voted out of power and replaced by some extremist fringe party.

Yeah, no. Perhaps not...

Yeah, no. Perhaps not…

There are some drawbacks with this method though. Being allowed to vote only once or twice in your lifetime means that making the wrong choice could result in you being stuck with a rubbish (in the best case) or malicious (in the worst case) government, that has either no capability or incentive to make any improvements. If we’re not careful we’d end up with what is essentially a one-party state – including personal cults and government mind-control and propaganda – with no hope for change for another half a century or so.

Ok, so perhaps that’s not the best way to go. But the pseudo-dictatorship of long-term democracy could point the way to another possible solution: getting rid of democracy all together.

Enlightened dictatorship

The benign ruler his highness Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei.

The benign ruler his highness Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei.

Dictatorship is such an ugly word. It conjures images of cold-hearted tyrants, oblivious of their subjects’ lives and problems and with little or no interest in making changes for the better. But in the early days of European democracy, back in the 18th century, it was seen as a viable alternative to letting the unwashed masses in on the power. After all, what did a peasant from Cornwall know about the diplomatic issues between Germany, France and Britain? Or a goatherder from Lyon? No, it would be better if a well-educated and benign ruler took charge of the society, and – with the aid of advisers – ruled the country in the best interest of everyone.

This form of government does have its merits. With a single powerful person in charge, necessary changes can be made swiftly and efficiently. And if that sounds like the way successful businesses are run it’s no coincidence; they’ve all recognized that democracy is not the way to go when you need to get things done – a strong and dynamic leadership is required.

Dictatorship is not all sunshine and fluffy bunnies though. Get the wrong person in charge and you’re in for a lifetime of suffering. And, let’s admit it, there are plenty of wrong people around.

Robots to the rescue

It doesn't have to be actual robots. Software would be fine. If not as cool.

It doesn’t have to be actual robots. Software would be fine. If not as cool.

A third possible solution would be to get rid of human rulers all together and replace them with autonomous systems controlling all the complex aspects of modern society. If we could come up with computer systems clever enough to pass laws, manage the global finance and conduct diplomatic negotiations, we should have no need for humans in our governments. And, hand on heart, are we really doing all that good of a job ourselves currently? Or historically?

Technical issues aside (for one thing, making sure no one could maliciously add code to modify the system), this approach has some drawbacks. It would need to be a self-improving system, capable of learning from its own mistakes. And being an artificial system, people might have issues with it, not wanting to be governed by machines. (Humans are strange like that.) I can foresee an anti-machine underground movement, performing terrorist attacks against what they would see as an evil dictatorship, even if things would be better than ever. The perceived lack of freedom could potentially fuel a violent revolt, bringing us back to a world of scarcity and suffering.

The fix

As you can see, the solutions outlined above all have potential downfalls. None of them would be able to fix all the problems by themselves. This seems to be more difficult than I thought.

I know it's evil, but it's just do damn convenient.

I know it’s evil, but it’s just do damn convenient.

But then I had an idea. I was reading Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock, where he described how we’re willing to abdicate our free will to apps and programs as long as they are convenient and make our lives easier. Think of Facebook, Amazon, FourSquare, PayPal and many others. Even when news reaches us of new freedom-limiting terms and conditions for these apps, we keep on using them. After all, how could we not? They’re just so convenient. And anyway, everyone else is using them, so how bad can it really be?

My idea was that we create a kind of butler-ware app. An app that is designed to make the complex issues of modern-day society easily digestible and understandable. It would become your personal advisor, not only in political matters but in any aspect of our lives where we need some guidance. Do you wonder how refined sugar affect our bodies? The app would inform you of the latest findings. How could you make sure your daily commute had the least possible negative impact on the environment? The app would know. Will computer games harm your children’s brain development? Ask the app.

Democracy 2.0 - soon in your favourite app-store.

Democracy 2.0 – soon in your favourite app-store.

And when it comes to voting, it wouldn’t even have to work. It’s main purpose would be to give the impression that we still had some input on the governing of the society. The actual governing could then be taken care of by autonomous systems (see above) behind the scenes. This ruse would take away the issue with humans revolting to ‘free us from the tyranny of the machines’. It might not be democracy, but it would be an efficient, peaceful and humane form of government.

A brave new world

So there you have it. We’ve just solved the combined problems of environmental issues, political turbulence, poverty and over-population. With a docile and malleable populace, and powerful automatic systems governing the world, we’ve essentially created a utopia. Well, apart from the fact that people are never happy anyway. They will always find something to be upset about. But the main point is that the world is safe, and the humans are safe with it.

By the way, sorry about the length if this post, but we have after all saved the world. That’s worth a few extra words, is it not?

16 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 April 2013 23:49

    Can we elect you as dictator? I’d totally go for that. You’d be really good at it. And also you might let me be the minister of something. Can I be the minister of penguins? Do you think your dictatorship will need a minister of penguins?

    No one will ever go for any of these things, you know. Except for the app. People love apps. I’m hesitantly positive about the app. It has to be shiny. And have cool features. I trust you to come up with the best overlord app of all time.


    • 2 April 2013 17:11

      Don’t make me a dictator. You wouldn’t like me as a dictator.

      I could always use a minister of Penguins, though. I mean, who wouldn’t?

      The app is just an idea. I don’t actually know how to build butler-ware. Plus we still need that autonomous AI system to guide us through a puppet government consisting of humans. Only way to get there that I see is to introduce smart advisor software for the politicians of today. And then gradually transfer the actual power from the ministers to the software advisors. A sneak coup, if you will.


  2. Patrick Smith permalink
    1 April 2013 23:58

    So, basically the generation ships from Wall-E?


    • 2 April 2013 17:13

      Yes, I guess so? Only less unhealthy.

      But with clever power generation and the use of smart matter we could have it better than ever before. As long as we’re not in charge.


  3. 2 April 2013 02:33

    Damn… You really SHOULD be ruling the world with minion robot chickens.


    • 2 April 2013 17:16

      Thanks! But it’s giant chicken robots, not robot chickens. Chickens (robotic or not) just don’t have the same authority as giant bipedal robots.


  4. 2 April 2013 12:19

    Again with the robots! Though I have to reluctantly agree with you. It has to be better than letting the proles who aren’t able to think for themselves without leadership of a tabloid or the state-propaganda machine that is the BBC (whilst flicking over to watch Ant and Dec) direct our society. I just worry about who’s programming them. You know how programmers are like …

    Now the app. Nice idea. But you’ve just created a “digital divide” (you’ll recognise this term from previous “news” outlets such as the BBC), so only the technically savvy can feel that they have a say. I sense insurrection from Cornwall involving pitchforks. Further, you rely on mobile broadband. Again, watch out for the Cornish.

    Though an app is again subject to programmers and if it is supposedly “government sanctioned”, it will doubtless be subject to lobbyists and politics. If people balk at paying 99cents for an app whilst drinking a $4 Starbucks, do you really want these people even thinking they are contributing to our society’s direction?

    And you know I’ll kick off if it’s not available on Windows Phone. But maybe that’s the answer. By restricting to Windows Phone users you get a better class of person? Interesting ….

    Nah, I see dictatorship. But I would be the dictator. It’s the only way.


    • 2 April 2013 18:34

      Ok, so many things.

      Firstly: I do know how programmers are like! That’s why I want autonomous self-learning systems. They would have to be created in such a way that they could alter their own code as much as they needed, whilst at the same time excluded tampering from human programmers.

      Secondly: I don’t really care about the digital divide. People need to move with the times or they can expect to be left behind. You could always use a web app if you don’t have access to or care to use a smartphone. I don’t care. And if people have some kind of ideological issues with digital technologies, well… This is not a time for Luddites.

      Thirdly: the app wouldn’t need to be government sanctioned. We just need to get people used to relying on butler-ware the same way they use Facebook, Google and Wikipedia. Then, we could add political advice to the services offered – based on your personal opinions, of course – so that it would help you make up your mind on what party/politician you should vote for. The actual voting could still be done in the same old way as before. For now, anyway.

      Fourthly: I’m pretty sure it will be available on all major platforms. (And no, Window Phone users aren’t elite people – just lazy people who can’t be arsed figuring how to use an open system like Android. Same thing with Apple people really – most of them are technophobes.)

      And lastly: A Nathan-cult? I don’t know… *strokes beard contemplatively* That probably wouldn’t be such a good idea.


      • 3 April 2013 12:42

        Self modifying code. As a programmer, you’re starting to terrify me. Self-modifying code rarely ends well.

        Creating a digital divide means the more conservative (smaller C) voter will be excluded. This voter tends to avoid the radical ideas and leans towards the status quo, perhaps demanding the radicals to develop stronger arguments to justify change/upheaval. Consider the current welfare changes in the UK. Many of those affected would be on the wrong side of this divide, and therefore excluded from affecting their own destiny.

        Interesting idea re: Facebook. It would surely create success. However, feeding people with services and advice based on their own opinions would surely reinforce their existing beliefs and make them more intransigent and even less likely to vote away from their traditional views even if the opposing view makes better sense. You are essentially “educating people out” of their own destiny and could ultimately create extreme views as a result of natural reinforcement of minor, but repeated policies. That’s poorly articulated, so an example. Again, consider the welfare changes. If a person who is working for their living and who disagrees with people getting “money for nothing”, whether or not it is true; feeding and reinforcing this view will mask the reality of the situation in society (perhaps there are unintended victims (disabled) or an underclass is created who are ignored by their policy decisions). Further, over time, constant reinforcement of the “money for nothing” belief could ultimately move through “money for immigrants” to far-right policies, This is happening now through the current medium for allowing people to form views, the tabloids, resulting in extreme right views and ignorance of the truth behind immigration. And perhaps we should avoid the issue of privacy regarding one’s political views and decisions made through the app and whether that could affect your position as a civic individual or user of commercial services such as insurance.

        And tsk tsk to the rest .. 😉


        • 3 April 2013 18:13

          All of this just confirms my notion that we really need a mock-democracy, where the actual votes don’t matter, and the real politics is taken care of by autonomous ‘advisor-ware’. People can keep on voting for whatever they like – it will have even less an impact than with the current system. And everyone lives happily ever after; believing they’ve made a difference. It’s simple and beautiful. Mockocracy in action.


  5. 5 April 2013 00:41

    Okay, okay. *I* will volunteer to be the dictator. God only knows, that would be the only way I could get anyone in my family to actually listen to me when I speak.


    • 5 April 2013 07:20

      Ah. Revenge. The most potent of all political motivators.

      Yes, let’s try that. What could possibly go wrong?


      • 5 April 2013 23:51

        Not *too* much could go wrong….especially considering I don’t know a damn thing about politics. And as long as everyone stayed on my good side, I’d be a pretty nice dictator. And I’d have nice shoes. It’d be a win for everyone really.


        • 6 April 2013 07:47

          OK, so you’re going to randomly punish people you perceive as your enemies? Excellent! Spoken like a real dictator!

          Nice shoes is a bonus.


  6. 7 April 2013 00:51

    You need to cover the “getting from here to there” in all these proposed systems. The kleptocrats ruling our current governments are doing very well, thank you. What would make them want to extensively amend constitutions?


    • 7 April 2013 03:52

      Yes, I hinted at that problem in my post The age of democracies. And I have no ready solution. Perhaps some sneaky way to get the people in power to use advisor software could be an in? Software that is clever enough (or sneaky enough) to slowly but surely move the power into self-managing systems. I don’t know. I don’t believe a revolution would work, since you always get a backlash.


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