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.