Emergence fantasies

One of the things I like about geeks is our charming belief in the inherent goodness of human nature; this is also one of the things that annoys me about geeks. I like to make fun of the geeks who believe that some new widget is going to end world hunger, liberate the human spirit, and usher in a new era of utopia. Not that technology doesn’t improve and extend human life in all sorts of ways, but there’s always some element of self-deception in the most extreme of these utopian fantasies. Interestingly, the self-deception generally rests on the assumption that the great mass of humans are basically just as clever and just as compassionate, sensitive, and generous as the nerds engaging in the utopian exercise. As errors go, this is an especially interesting one to make, sort of a false humility to the max, only maybe it’s not false.

The latest and clearest example of nerdly utopianism is Joi Ito’s essay on Emergent Democracy. I’m not exactly sure what Emergent Democracy is, even after reading the paper, since he doesn’t exactly bother to define it, but it seems to have something to do with ant colonies, blogs, and the excitation of columns of brain cells by these things called “thoughts”, which turn into “understandings” when enough of them are set in motion:

The proponents of the Internet have promised and hoped that the Internet would become more intelligent, enable a direct democracy and help rectify the injustices and inequalities of the world. Instead, the Internet today is a noisy place with a great deal of power consolidation instead of the flat democratic Internet many envisioned.

…The tools and protocols of the Internet have not yet developed the necessary features to allow emergence to create a higher-level order. These tools are being developed and we are on the verge of an awakening of the Internet. This awakening will facilitate the anticipated political model enabled by technology to support some of the basic attributes of democracy, which have eroded as power has become concentrated within corporations and governments. It is possible that new technologies may enable a higher-level order through emergent properties, which will enable a form of emergent direct democracy capable of managing complex issues more effectively than the current form of representative democracy.

Emergent democracy apparently differs from representative democracy by virtue of being unmediated, and is claimed by the author to offer superior solutions to complex social problems because governments don’t scale, or something. Emergent democracy belief requires us to abandon notions of intellectual property and corporations, apparently because such old-fashioned constructs would prevent democratic ants from figuring out where to bury their dead partners, I think. One thing that is clear is that weblogs are an essential tool for bringing emergent democracy to its full development, and another is that the cross-blog debate on the liberation of Iraq is a really cool example of the kind of advanced discourse that will solve all these problems we’ve had over the years as soon as we evolve our tools to the ant colony level.

Somehow, it’s hard to take any of this even a little seriously. Political theorists since Plato have warned that direct democracy is the worst form of government, essentially mob rule, where emotions rather than logic, reason, and evidence rule. Social psychologists have confirmed this, adding that groups generally function at a level of intelligence only slightly higher than their least capable members. Scale the behavior of groups up to the entire societies, and nothing gets any better, blog or no blog.

Legislative acts are often very complicated. Consider the federal budget, a bill so complex and detailed that it fills five volumes each the size of War and Peace. The vast majority of lawmakers who vote on the budget don’t have time to read it, and they rely on the opinions of specialists on their staffs, among lobbying groups, and within the party staff for summaries. The prospect of even having an intelligent discussion about the budget on weblogs, let alone writing it in the first place, is simply absurd.

As society grows more complex, we rely more and more on specialists to help us understand the issues, and blogs certainly are useful for disseminating the opinions of experts to a somewhat larger audience than before. But expanding the debate on the budget from an audience of a couple thousand people in Washington to a couple tens of thousands on blogs is nowhere near what the authors of “Emergent Democracy” have in mind. The problem, of course, is that The People don’t have the time to delve into the details of each and every issue that confronts the government of a complex modern society; we also don’t have the interest.

Frankly, I don’t think the people who like to fantasize about how blogs are changing government really have an interest in government either, because if they had even a passing awareness of how government really works they would not get caught up in such nonsense. Geeks are used to dealing with complex systems that follow regular rules and are ultimately understandable by the slash and burn of logical analysis. Government is understandable by these methods only if those conducting the analysis have the requisite information about the ways the government system actually works. It seems reasonable to believe that you have to understand a programming language, an operating system, a GUI, a database, and a network protocol to understand a typical modern computer application. So why is that our utopian geeks believe that it’s possible to understand government without a similar understanding of the campaign process, the committee system, the interaction of lobbyists and legislators, and the mechanisms by which the media magnify the influence of different parts of the system at different times?

Geeks probably do think they understand these things despite the fact that they’ve never really studied them and couldn’t give a coherent account of how any of these things work at a significant level of detail.

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. Then let’s talk about world hunger.

UPDATE: the debate also rages on Joi Ito’s blog.

30 thoughts on “Emergence fantasies”

  1. Wow, you really are a pompous bore, you know that?

    I see your vitriolic, unhelpful, spiteful comments hither and thither around the net, you see. And I really must say I have never gotten anything from any of them but the sense of an utterly marginal nonentity doing his best to hitch a ride on a train that is long gone down the tracks.

    Just this one question for you, good Richard: do you think anybody thoughtful takes your drive-by snot-ejaculations seriously?

    Sleep soundly.

  2. No, seriously. I really don’t get it.

    Are you opposed ab initio to direct democracy, do you merely think that the present system of ostensibly representative democracy is too deeply entrenched, or are you convinced that the current system is more efficient at properly decentralizing power than emerging alternatives (pun intended)?

    Whichever it is, I doubt strongly whether the sorts of comments you deposit on other sites have the effect of advancing any agenda other than that of the status quo. There are some of us, especially here in Japan, who don’t find that status quo to be working out so well for us – and we are the privileged ones.

    As well, despite your obvious belief that your legislative experience counts as some sort of credential, surely you understand how utterly fallacious it is to assume that this is the only way democracy does, or can, or should work. By your lights, the Constitutional Convention should never have convened in Philadelphia because “they [had] never really studied [democracy] and couldn’t give a coherent account of how any of these things work at a significant level of detail.”


  3. Actually, the framers did have direct experience with the workings of democracy because of their experience with trying to run the country under the Articles of Confederation from Independence up to 1789; if you’d studied American history you would have known that, Adam.

    And yes, there is no practical reason to believe that direct democracy is a superior system to representative democracy, blogs or no blogs, for the reasons Plato laid out in The Republic 2400 years ago.

  4. (a) And when they sat down to write the Articles? They all had degrees in Con Law, did they?

    (b) Oh, just what I like to see, someone attempting to cite 350BC precedent as somehow applicable to governance in an internetworked world.

    Really, your tone is insufferable. Do you honestly believe that all your interlocutors are as ignorant as you obviously wish them to be?

  5. When they sat down to write the Articles they had no experience, and they botched the job. What does that tell you?

    Plato said that politicians in a democracy would manipulate the people by appealing to their passions and their self-interest. Do you have any evidence that this is incorrect?

    The relevance of Plato should be obvious given that Ito cites (the idiot) Rheingold’s claim that the Agora is his model of an ideal democracy. Of course, the Agora was simply the market at the foot of the Parthenon, and politics was incidental to its function, which, of course, was commerce. But fantasies about a Golden Age are generally a part of all utopian fantasies, and we’d best not examine them too closely.

    And yes, I believe geeks are ignorant of politics as it’s practiced in the modern world, and about political theory generally. If that bothers you, I suggest you read more and prove me wrong.

  6. “Botched” the job? Hardly. It was a public beta. the release version appears pretty robust.

    How dare you ‘suggest” anything to me?

    “And why, when we are seeking for justice, a thing more precious than many pieces of gold, do you say that we are weakly yielding to one another and not doing our utmost to get at the truth? Nay, my good friend, we are most willing and anxious to do so, but the fact is that we cannot. And if so, you people who know all things should pity us and not be angry with us.”

  7. “How characteristic of Socrates! he replied, with a bitter laugh;– that’s your ironical style! Did I not foresee–have I not already told you, that whatever he was asked he would refuse to answer, and try irony or any other shuffle, in order that he might avoid answering?”

    The Constitution was a complete rewrite of the Articles, and there’s very little shared code between the two documents, one of which has the benefit of experience and the other of which doesn’t.

    What is it about webheads that makes them think they’re entitled to rewrite the Constitution wholesale, and that any such exercise could possibly yield results that were anything but catastrophic? These people are so naive and so idealistic that they believe bad behavior is simply a consequence of bad institutions, and not of the people who run them in any way.

  8. Great, you can parry.

    Here’s some questions for you, o all-knowing one:

    – What was in the water in Philadelphia, or in Athens for that matter, that enabled them to foresee the future so accurately that the institutions they called forth with their words were more suitable for our times than any we might come up with? That is to say: why on earth would you assume that the last word on constitutional jurisprudence had already been written?

    – How, particularly, will you substantiate your assertion that “exercises” such as “rewrit[ing] the Constitution wholesale” could not “possibly yield results that were anything but catastrophic”? How do you square this with, say, the Thirteenth Amendment?

    – Wherever do you get the idea that institutions cannot account for, anticipate, and control for the actions of bad people?

  9. The structures of government described in the Constitution are broad outlines, and the details of the makeup and function of these institutions have evolved over time. The amendment process is one of the means by which this happens, and it’s a patch, not a rewrite.

    Since nobody has authorized web elves to rewrite the Constitution, we don’t have to worry about what the results of such an exercise might be, so it really doesn’t matter how we forecast something that’s never going to happen.

    And I’m still waiting for an explanation of why expanding the role of the uninformed masses produces good results.

  10. Adam is correct, Richard: your tone is insufferable. Do you believe your accomplishments authorize you to condescend thusly?

  11. What I find baffling is that anyone find’s Richard’s tone insufferable here. What I further find is that this entire argument between Richard and Adam Greenfield has centered around everything except Ito’s concepts. Instead it’s a pointless debate over whether there should ever be change and whether or not Richard’s pissing on good ideas–without discussing the ideas themselves. There also seems to be a tangential discussion on whether or not human nature has changed much since Plato’s day.

    As it happens I share Richard’s bias. Terms like “direct democracy” (or, worse, “participatory democracy”) are rather vague and ill-defined and certainly sound rather utopian. And a lot of people who talk this way to come across as if they have no real knowledge of how governing works–which means they have not put sufficient thought into the difficulties that radical reforms might cause. The existence of the human race goes back an awfully long time; stable, functional, and free societies are, to this day, still something only a minority of humans have been lucky enough to live under. Utopian fantasies have, quite demonstrably, killed hundreds of millions of people in the last century alone. Therefore it strikes me that a certain amount of skepticism of radical reforms of any nature is healthy.

    Now, why aren’t we arguing about any of the specific ideas presented by Ito? Does he even have any? That seems to be Richard’s main point–that he doesn’t have any real ideas, he’s just waxing poetic.

    Has he missed something? Or is this all about why Richard’s criticism isn’t very polite?

    A big part of such

  12. Dwelling on tone and style is a means for advocates of direct democracy to avoid dealing with the bankruptcy of their ideas. I’ve pleaded with them here and on Ito’s blog for even the simplest argument in support of the idea that direct democracy would be superior to our present system, and the silence is deafening.

    As the lawyers say: “When you don’t have the facts, argue the law; when you don’t have the law, argue the facts; when you have neither the facts nor the law, impeach opposing counsel.”

    Thus was it ever.

  13. Direct democracy offers at least these two important advantages to our current system:

    One, a direct system makes no pretense of “speaking in my name.” I and I alone speak in my name. I and I alone am responsible for the consequences of my decisions.

    Since, presumably, I am better able to judge what action from among an array of actions best supports my interest locally, there is far less information latency, and far less room for gaps of interpretation, than in a representative.

    Secondly, a system which accounts for the intelligence of many more local agents searches a solution space far more effectively. In a system of governance in which any citizen is empowered to propose policy, there will be many, many false starts, many self-evident absurdities. There will also arise solutions to complex issues that no Congressional subcommittee would imagine as viable, and the hope of direct-democracy advocates is that some subset of these solutions should not merely prove pragmatically workable, but map to the actual will of the people affected with far greater fidelity than any current alternative.

    Obviously, these remarks only apply to direct democracy as I envision it. There are other versions.

    I have sufficient experience with testing projected task flows of designed systems against real user populations to know that any such system will be refined only by release into the wild. I’m prepared to see everything I believe revealed as unworkable, impracticable, uneconomic, unwieldy, or simply not sufficiently superior to present systems to recommend adoption. That’s fine. But the idea deserves to be tested, and not dismissed out-of-hand with a contemptful and condescending “lesson.”

    How much potential do you think Richard destroys every time he holds forth with an insult?

  14. Your first point is mumbo-jumbo; you speak in your own name every time you write an e-mail to a representative or vote, and direct democracy has nothing to do with that.

    Your second point is simply irrelevant – any citizen can already propose policy to any lawmaker in the representative system; the lawmaker acts as a gatekeeper to prevent bad ideas from clogging up the deliberative system, and if you feel that you have a great idea that’s been squelched by one lawmaker, you can propose it to another. The committee system ensures that at least two viewpoints contend for policy success and nobody has a monopoly.

    Direct democracy differs from representative democracy in two respects: 1) it dispenses with the deliberative process performed by committees, and replaces that with a wider dialog; and 2) it pushes decision making (voting on bills) out of the legislative process to the entire franchise. Direct democracy is something we have in the US in the initiative process; what I’d like you to do is to show that the initiative process produces superior results to the legislative process, which would support its extension to all aspects of lawmaking.

    Asking you to support your claims isn’t insult, its argument, a cornerstone of democracy. Deal with it.

  15. Um, you may notice that I *am* dealing with it. I figure you are hardly the most obnoxious interlocutor I’ll have to deal with if I am serious about what I believe – although, believe me, you’re doing a great job if you want to earn that crown.

    “Mumbo jumbo”? Hardly. If I can only vote for a constrained field of ostensible representatives, very few of whom make even the slightest pretense of investigating the range of their constituents’ beliefs, in what way does my vote constitute an authentic expression of my will? Put simply, so you can understand it: a choice between Coke and Pepsi is no choice at all.

  16. Now you’re jumping from “speaking in your name” to an attack on the party system, and you still aren’t addressing the question, which is the quality of decision-making in a direct system vs. a representative system.

    I can only conclude that this dodging indicates that your ideas can’t be supported on a logical or rational basis.

  17. No, I am *not* jumping, Richard. Go back and read what I actually wrote.

    I shall spell it out for you, since you seem to be unwilling or unable to follow the chain of logic, and insist on battling straw men.

    I understand representative democracy, where decisions are made by a polling of nonentities none of whom represents my interests anywhere near adequately, to be a poor excuse for genuine democracy.

    Since I value the airing of my (hopefully informed) beliefs and opinions highly, I have to rate any decision-making process that does not make account of them as strongly suboptimal. Thus, my estimation of the quality of decision-making in a representative system is low.

    I am speaking directly to “the question.” What you seem incapable of accepting is that we value different things and seek different ends from our political system.

    Just because the Coke versus Pepsi trope has been trotted out as a facile attack on the two-party system by others does not mean I use it in this context, although I certainly have no love for that system. I mean by it exactly what it implies in context.

    Well. It is manifestly obvious to me that you’re the kind of guy who needs to have the last word, and feel that you’ve somehow defeated an opponent in open combat.

    Huzzah, sir! You’ve ripped me open with your rationality and logic! I lie bleeding on the field of honor, finally made aware of the fatal error of my ways!

  18. Richard,

    Interesting comments.

    One of the things I find most interesting about your opinion is that you don’t make any commentary about how the Internet allows us to streamline opinion distribution and condense many volumes of the written word into a rapidly understandable set of pages. If i’m hearing you correctly, you agree with Plato’s view that direct democracy would never work because of the mob rule ideal. There are a couple of counterpoints to that. One: Perhaps what Joi is discussing is a more distributed form of representative democracy. Two: even if he’s not, the Internet has effects on the application of direct democracy that none of us may have envisioned. For example, the idea of a web of trust, cooperative metrics on particular opinions or ideas, and rapid referencability. There’s an evolution there that I think you ignore on principle without thinking about how the Internet might change the application of democratic systems.

    Am I off-base here? Could you write more about this?



  19. How much potential do you think Richard destroys every time he holds forth with an insult?

    Do you think vigorous skepticism destroys potential? Do you think good ideas are destroyed because someone’s snotty?

    Come on man. If you believe in “direct democracy,” that’s going to include the Richards of the world. Or is he simply the source of all evil, and once we destroy him we’ll have utopia?

    I’m sorry man, I’m kidding with you. But really, if you can’t handle a vigorous criticism and dissent in the infancy of an idea, how well can your idea possibly fare in the later stages of development?

    I’m afraid I’ve watched this entire debate and I’m still waiting for someone to tell me how “direct democracy” is going to work in the real world. I see a lot of very high meta discussion and not a whit of anything else.

    We get together and we argue online. And the mechanism by which this becomes legislation is what?

    And why is forcing you to compromise on a candidate whose views are least offensive to you superior than letting everyone yammer and yell until consensus is reached? Why is that a better system than forcing our compromise candidates to do it for us? How is this business going to work, anyway?

    Give us the start on some nuts and bolts. Otherwise this stuff sounds suspiciously like stuff out of Marx: very idealistic, all so absolutely obvious if you just accept the precepts, but where’s the implementation, what will you do with dissenting voices?

    If all you’re going to do is huff and puff that someone’s being rude by saying, “You make no sense, you’re daft!” then I’d say your idea is already on shaky ground. I mean, isn’t it?


  20. Dean, as I’ve pointed out, skepticism is welcome always, but the level of self-regard and snide contempt for others that Richard displays in his comments makes him an individual with whom debate is joyless, even nauseous.

    But hey, he has all the answers already, so he’s set. I guess I’m surprised that he bothers to show up at places like Joi’s site – to “debunk” them, perhaps? He offers nothing constructive, no attempt at working towards (or even identifying) mutual goals, just a rude smear of contemptful dismissal. I shall not speculate as to the psychopathology that underlies the need, in an evidently successful and privileged man of middle age, to buttress his own feelings of superiority at the expense of blameless others.

    Real-world approaches to direct democracy are covered in an interesting paper here (PDF).

  21. Okay, gotta chim in here. I suffered through about half of this dialog before giving up.

    There is one person who is displaying snide contempt, avoiding a real discussion, using big words (aren’t online dictionaries great?) to seemingly add authority to his voice, who is arguing from a profound lack of understanding of how we developed the system we have.

    Adam, have you ever even read the Federalist Papers? Your tone is annoying and condescending, if not obnoxious, and doesn’t pass for much of a discussion. There’s other stuff that comes to mind, but I’ll end with a quote: “Wow, you really are a pompous bore, you know that?”


  22. I take it that the start of direct democracy is that we must all agree to try to come together to form a consensus, and dissenters are problematic and to be shunned.


  23. Are there any real world examples here?

    When I read about models of governance and community, I often look to how offline people behave. Street gangs, work teams, prisons, communes, business divisions, military special ops units, not-for-profits, etc.

    Can any of you point me to examples of emergent democracy in action? Even prototypical or nascent activity? A way of being together that works or fails but that points to what may be?

  24. Michael, if you came to my comments without having read Richard’s, on Joi Ito’s site, I will concede that they sound rude. Indeed, they are rude; it’s a chosen rudeness, which I am capable of turning on and off, like most people. Their rudeness is in direct proportion to Richard’s.

    Which “big words” do you mean, by the way? And not that it matters, but why on earth imply that I require a dictionary – online or otherwise – to augment my vocabulary?

    Have I ever read “The Federalist Papers”? Sure. I wrote a length paper on “On the Militia.” Number 29, if memory serves. So what?

    Phil, I actually belonged to more than one “military special ops unit,” among others, the 361st PSYOP Co of the US Army’s Special Operations Command. I must confess, it was not a democracy, emergent or otherwise.

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