Electronic Democracy: Decisionmaking and Execution

Excellent comment from Antoin O Lachtnain on Joi Ito’s blog.

IT allows information to spread and percolate much faster than was possible before. But good information is only half of good management and good leadership.
The other half is decisionmaking and execution, and this is where the problems arise. Just because there’s a mechanism in an organisation or group for collecting and disseminating information and opinions, it doesn’t mean that there’s a mechanism for making collective decisions and putting them into effect.

Emergent Democracy Threads

The emergent democracy discussion has attracted various criticisms and defenses.
Richard Bennett suggests that the discussion is pointless, because some of the arguments in favor of emergent democracy are fuzzy, and because politicians aren’t paying any attention.

So I’d like to suggest an exercise for our utopian technologists: show how your technology can affect the passage of a legislative bill on a measure close to your heart; then try to make it happen in real life, and analyze why your expected result didn’t materialize.

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Mitch Ratcliffe is encouraged by the focus on new tools, and believes that it is useful and important to discuss and experiment with new tools. His post includes very nice citations and analysis of the affect of new communications technologies throughout history.
These criticisms and defenses make the discussion sound more monolithic than it actually was.
My perception is that the “emergent democracy” discussions included a variety of opinions, including:

  1. a preference to focus on new tools to facilitate internet discussion and organizing
  2. a history of technology approach; identifying opportunities for new technologies to empower more people to influence and transform the political process
  3. a techno-determinist faith that the internet, blogging, etc. will somehow cause the emergence of an artificial intelligence that will govern us better than a human system of communication, power, and compromise
  4. a belief in the internet as a medium for direct democracy, which will replace and transcend representative democracy

Personally, I agree with the first two points, and disgree with the second two.
Even though I disagree with some of the more radical AI-inflected approaches, I agree strongly with Mitch that it’s valuable to discuss the concepts and experiment with the tools.
And I disagree strongly with Bennett, who argues that it’s pointless to experiment since politicians aren’t listening yet. If these processes aggregate votes and dollars, politicians will start paying attention.

Emergent Pluralism

Good article by Ross Mayfield on the emergent democracy discussion.
Ross envisions internet tools that decrease the cost of expressing opinions and building coalitions:

If simple tools could decrease the cost of organization as well as enable a transactional norm between organizations, a new form of pluralism could arise. Emergent Pluralism depicts a society whose members who have institutional loyalties to easily formed issue groups that have direct interaction their elected representatives and the media….
Emergent Pluralism arises when groups form at a low cost. MoveOn is an early example of an influencing group that leverages low cost communication and collaboration. As the cost for forming issue groups falls, expect similar groups and coalitions to form around otherwise less fundable issues. Issue groups will influence decision makers by voicing opinion (in blogspace, mass media, direct appeals, activism) and as constituencies (aggregated to lobby, mobilized to vote or petition).

Looking at it this way, the internet has the same effect on politics as Ebay has on the market for used chatchkes. Suddenly, it becomes easier and faster to find fellow supporters for political ideas, just as it becomes possible to find buyers for used lunchboxes. New leaders will emerge, just as new businesses and market segments form with Ebay as the backbone.
Ross makes a good point that political leaders will need change in order to garner support from these new kinds of groups.

Political leaders and lobbying organizations that develop interfaces to engage these issue groups and are responsive stand to benefit by being better informed than through pure polling and gaining constituents.

This suggests a need to educate politicians and non-profits about ways to benefit from these new citizen organizing tools. I’ve been getting more involved in several activist groups, and I’ve been pretty impressed with how elitist the groups are. Even nominally populist groups think of themselves as insiders whose main mission is to influence other insiders, and they’re rather suspicious of citizen input.
They will learn… politicians in democracies do catch on to new ways to attract voters and donations.

Four hours in Austin

Yesterday was Austin Blog day, but presumably Chip hasn’t set this to reject late trackbacks. The topic is “what to do with four free hours in Austin.”
If I had four free hours, and it wasn’t raining, sleeting, or (!) snowing, I’d spend some time on the garden. The front beds need a row of annuals to replace the begonias.
February, I’m told, is Rose Maintenance Month. I need to prune the straggly rosebush in the front bed, and dig up and move a volunteer rosebush from its current location on the gravel walk by the AC compressor to a more hospitable spot.
Also, the walkways and paths need some blowing/clearing, and there are little green thingies that have sprouted, that need to go away. And have to figure out how to dispose of the grass that sprouted in recent weeks between the boards of the deck.
I’m fairly new to landscape responsibility; suggestions welcome.
For folks not in Austin, there’s a very uncharacteristic thin coating of snow on the ground. Probably will be gone by noon.

The Self-Made Tapestry

At a recent book exchange, I gave away a copy of The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature., by Philip Ball, an editor for Nature.
The book covers the structure and development of patterns in nature: bubbles, waves, animal and plant bodies, branching patterns in trees and rivers, convection patterns in boiling water on a scale of minutes and in the earth’s crust on a scale of millions of years.
The book has good, detailed explanations; history of the scientific concepts, and beautiful pictures. It doesn’t have enough math and computation for my taste, though. It seemed to me that a small amount of not-particurlarly advanced math or modeling would make the points more clearly. The book mentioned several times that the phenomena were modelled by cellular automata. I’d be curious to find out how. The book has references to the scientific papers, so one could look the works up in the original, should one have the time and/or skill.
It is a good complement to The Computational Beauty of Nature, which has overlapping subject matter, covers a narrower range of patterns, and explains the basic math behind the concepts.
I bought the book at “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”, an independent bookstore in San Francisco. I’d never been there before, and it was very impressive that they had it in stock. Oxford University Press, paperback 2001. I definitely got the impression that the books were selected by humans rather than best-seller algorithms.

Telecom monopoly redux

According to the recent FCC compromise ruling, the telcos still have to share their lines for now, allowing independents to sell internet access on their phone lines. But the Baby Bells will get to keep a monopoly on higher-speed fiber connections they install.
This is like issuing a contract to build roads, and giving the road-builder perpetual control over who travels the roads. Can you imagine if the highway system worked that way??
It may be fair to ensure the road-builder can collect toll revenue to pay for the cost of the road. It may even be reasonable for the government to collect taxes and issue bonds to pay for all or part of the fiber build-out, since this is infrastructure, like roads and sewers, that benefits all of society, has a long payback period, and is expensive to build up front.
It seems pretty outrageous to grant local phone monopolies perpetual control over the “roads” they build. This under the guise of deregulation, where deregulation means “give the monopolies what they want.”

Software Ants

Steven Johnson has an interesting and insightful take on the ant analogy in the “emergent democracy” conversation.

To me, when you’re talking about emergent democracy in the online world, the equivalent of the ant is not the individual human, it’s the software. The atoms of human action are indeed incredibly sophisticated ones, but the atoms of software that enables those actions to connect in new ways are much simpler. It’s more like: “follow this link, connect this page to other pages that share links, look for patterns in the links.”

The software ants follow simple rules to find and gather the patterns created by human decisions and human actions.
I like this. It’s an example of the “Google principle”. The Google algorithm is great, not because the computer determines which web pages are important, but because the computer gathers and adds up millions of pieces of information about which pages humans think are important.

Seder “happening”

Thinking about Marc Canter’s blog post a few days ago about a online haggadah”.
It would be interesting to use the happening infrastructure for a distributed seder.
People could call in and participate, by phone, chat, and hypertext haggada.
As in the “electronic democracy” event, a moderator could use the “hand-raise” convention in the chat space to call on people to participate on the phone, making it easier to moderate a group phone call.
The interleaving of chat threads would be an online version of the interleaving of conversational threads at a same-place seder. If the happening had a wiki back end, people could add commentary as they read the haggadah, and could transcribe and edit the chat into future haggadah material. These are contemporary instantiations of the techniques the Rabbis used to put the original Haggadah together.
Following up on Marc’s site, he’s been talking with Philippe Scheimann who seems to have thought of the idea too.
I also have some sympathy to Tom Shugart’s comment — there are advantages to the traditional, “unplugged” seder. The food and wine, and seder plate wouldn’t be the same, with individuals holding a plate of food and a glass of wine next to their laptop (and the traditional spills would be more dangerous!)
“Everyone who contributes to the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt is to be well-praised.” Or [green-card] and [thumbs up], as the case may be.

Ants and Jane Jacobs

To continue the “ants” discussion…
When people talk about the how bottom-up, emergent systems are superior to top-down planned systems, they often quote Jane Jacobs.
In “Death and Life of American Cities“, Jacobs writes about the lively, crowded, haphazard streets of her Greenwich Village neighborhood, and compares them to the planned high-rise developments and efficient elevated highways of her nemesis, developer Robert Moses.
In the 50s and 60s, developers like Moses swept into run-down urban neighborhoods bearing a vision of “cities of the future,” demolished the houses and stores, and replaced them with sterile projects that turned into slums worse than the neighborhoods they replaced.
Jacobs explains why the organically-grown neighborhoods are better than the planned developments. The variety of newer and older structures help the neighborhood support a diverse population — elderly folks on pensions, young folks starting out, families with children. The mix of commercial and residential properties helps keep the neighborhood safe, since the neighborhood is populated day and night, weekdays and weekends. The sidewalks and front-porches enable people to stroll, chat, and look out for each other. By contrast, the un-inviting plazas and parking lots surrounding high-rise buildings are often deserts where the ill-intentioned can prey on the unwary without being observed.
Simply by observing local norms, people extend the neighborhood by inviting their elderly parents to move in, buying and upgrading a ramshackle storefront, and sweeping their walk. These activites aren’t centrally planned, individuals don’t get permission to do them, and, in sum, they add up to pleasant and safe neighborhoods.
But looking at Greenwich Village as an example of ant-like emergent behavior misses a lot of the story.
There is a large substrate of of social and cultural structures that enable these unplanned activities to create a pleasing and diverse order. The neighborhood has sewers and clean running water. Without these, the city neighborhood would harbor endemic infectious diseases. There is a fire department which protects the block if a single house catches fire. There are people with the technical and project-management skills required to design and repair plumbing, heating, and electrical systems.
A colony of ants couldn’t create Greenwich Village. Neither could a tribe of hunter-gatherers. There are underlying levels of infrastructure — some of which require planning — in order to enable the higher-level decentralized behavior.
In order to facilitate decentralized, unplanned human systems that work, it’s important to think about the ordered infrastructure patterns — like sewer systems, and ordered nodal activities — like designing an electrical system — that are needed enable the larger unplanned pattern to emerge.