Direct democracy

So I’m trying to imagine what the future will be like. We know that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others, but does that mean we’re stuck with it in its present form? The game for today is to imagine some incremental improvements to our current democratic system. For the time being, I’m lumping the US and the UK together, along with much of the rest of the world and ignoring the real differences between them.

Let’s take an example of an idea that’s part habit and part policy that I would imagine would substantially change the way democracy feels to the average punter. I just got back from Switzerland, and I was astonished to find that they have referenda many times a year, especially at the local level, but even up to the national level too. Switzerland is divided into cantons (much like states in the US), and then seemingly subdivided at almost the village level. So, as far as I can tell, people will be given ballots at least a couple of times a year on with a list of 10 or so questions that they can vote on, which range (as far as I can tell) from whether to have red or blue bunting at the village fair to whether or not Switzerland should adopt the Euro. This is in stark contrast to the UK, say, where asking the public’s opinion about something straight out is considered risque and undesirable.

Does this more referendum-driven approach work for Switzerland? Even if it does, would it work in the UK or the US? I’m not really in a position to answer either question, but I’ll briefly consider them both and then play around with an idea that grew out of them.

Who was the Swiss economist (SHB???) who argued that the level of direct democracy in the different cantons was correlated with happiness? This could just be because the richer cantons have smarter, happier people, and so trust them to vote more often, and they make better judgements, and feel more enfranchised. The point is – i don’t know how with just 20 or 30 (???) cantons, he could possibly hope to control for how many people, how many questions, what types of questions, wealth, education, blah blah…

One argument for why greater levels of direct democracy might improve the way the country is run is based on the Condorset Theorem (or Paradox???). Put simply – if I’m 51% likely to make the right decision, and you’re 51% likely to make the right decision (and we’re statistically independent), then if we pick the majority view, then the more people the better. Of course, we aren’t all statistically independent of each other because it sometimes feels like most of Britain votes whichever way The Sun tells them to, and if we take the alternative case where we’re each only 49% likely to make the right decision, then the more of us vote together, the worse we’ll all be.

I’m now rehashing the argument that SHB set out when we talked about this last week, when he pointed out that maybe the real reason why we like democracy is not because it’s the most efficient system for generating correct decisions, but because it offers things that we prize more highly…???

Let’s try taking things to extremes. Let’s imagine that the various employees and, especially, directors, of Diebold have been ruthlessly and publicly culled, and that electronic voting machines are considered magically safe. Or, better still, that the servers on the government’s web site are powered by ground-up unicorn horns, and so we can all vote online with impunity. I’m back to imagining a world where machines do all the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs, leaving us with swathes of leisure time in each week to write poetry, read the newspaper and vote on every little decision.

But I’ve only ever lived in democracy-by-proxy. We have elected representatives for a number of reasons, including:
they spend all their time becoming experts and specialists in various areas, so that they can make informed decisions
elections are expensive in time and money to organise and participate in
they’re wiser, more compassionate and fairer than the average joe
However, if people have enough leisure time to familiarise themselves fully with the issues, and elections are run at the click of the button then we’re left to face the real question: do we actually want people to decide for themselves?
In a funny kind of way, democracy today rests on an assumed inequality and friction: only the rich and educated have a real chance at getting voted into a position of power in the current system, so even if the hoi-pelloi get to choose between them, there are so many gilded hoops separating the terraced houses and secondary comprehensives from Downing Street that there’s little chance of a complete upset in a general election. But if you were to offer people frequent referenda in a frictionless way (assuming everyone has or is given a PC and broadband), I imagine government would be faced with a popular voice become more garrulous and much more hearty in its demands.

Let me give one good reason why more direct and interactive democracy is A Good Thing. Right now, you have one yay-or-nay every 5 years or so. There are really only two parties which stand a chance of getting into power, and tactical voting??? coalitions??? so if you want to maximise the impact of your vote on the election, you end up voting for one of them. So you have to compress all of the past decisions, rhetoric, promises and stances into the lesser of two evils. It’s like collapsing an intricately high dimensional space onto a line. Usually, that line runs the continuum from left to right. But there are many, many issues which could run orthogonal to that line. Authoritarianism/liberalism, adopting the Euro, gun laws, the Iraq war, money on roads or public transport etc. Right now, I vote based on the two or three most important issues, because those are the ones where I feel strongly about having my voice heard. And even if those handful all fall on the same side of the 1D line, I can’t signal my views about any of the myriad other orthogonal issues through my vote. In reality, I accept that things are more complicated than this, because decisions are rarely binary and because we vote in large part about what we think personally about the major figures and their likely future policy decisions.

Of course, one issue is that people might be expected to vote selfishly. Why should the 45 million people who only ever visit London once a year want to pay billions of pounds to improve the Underground? Why do I care if the Post Office delivers to the Orkney Islands? This is probably why the Swiss referenda tend to occur more at the local level than the national level.

Nobody seems to want to improve the world

Let’s play Design Your Own Utopia. You have a magic wand. You can’t just get rid of all the people you don’t like or banish the problem of scarcity, but you can assume that over the next 25-250 years, some things will be possible that haven’t even been glimpsed yet.

This is a fun game because it involves positive visualisation, which my doctor says is good for me, and because it’s considerably harder than you think it should be. After you’ve made the obvious first steps of ensuring year-long sunshine and unbalancing the gender ratio in whichever direction suits you, things start to get very tricky very quickly.

The idea of making the world a substantially better place makes people very uncomfortable. Everybody wants the world to be a little bit better. We’d all like an extra £5 in our pockets and for the trains to run on time, but people get nervous when considering a substantially different world. They don’t like the idea that their routine could be unrecognisably different, or that technology would encroach on our lives more, that privacy might be burnt on the altar of accessibility or security, and at the deepest level, there’s a real concern that suffering is so fundamental a part of what it is to be human that to try and banish it wholesale undermines everything that we care about most in ourselves. This is a paradoxical thought – in making things much better, everything that’s really special withers and dies.
People don’t want to live in a perfect world. If you offer them the possibility of solving many of life’s ills, they look at you with a sort of blank, worried despair – if I don’t have to work and slave, what am I supposed to do with myself?They don’t want They don’t want the capacity to lie taken away from them, or the ability to read people’s minds. They don’t want a chip in their heads that will make them less likely to get angry, or ensure that they never forget anything. And I can understand why. I don’t want my sense of autonomy trodden on by a device that won’t feel like part of me, and above all, I want to preserve every mote of the sovereignty I have over my own mind.So what I’m really trying to do is imagine the utopia that I’d like to live in. And it’s surprisingly difficult, if you consider human nature to be animal, selfish and rigid, as a rule.
So here are my starting assumptions. Robots will do more of the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. Not all, because some of them are very difficult, and not all jobs, because there will probably always be reasons to have humans in the loop. Besides, a robot that can act as CEO is presumably going to require the same human rights as a human, and I don’t want to get into that here.

Consequently, unemployment will rise to unheard of levels, and levels of absolute wealth will continue to rise.

Why and the religious sense

The religious sense is (statistically) so common, in man, and I would bet, in any intelligent species, because it arises from a fundamental misconception of the world. This is the Hermeneutic Misconception, the result of layers of abstraction peeling away the particular to reveal the patterns underneath, the regularities that support life and give intelligence its advantage, and eventually lead to the invention of words like ‘why’ as part of the (for a while) fruitful search for ‘meaning’ in the world around us. Eventually the word-symbols trick us into asking, ‘Why are we here?’, ‘Why does anything exist?’ or ‘What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?’ Douglas Adams wrily hints at the vague emptiness of the question by gesturing so broadly – ‘life, the universe and everything [else that we can’t name]’, i.e. what is the meaning of the ineffable or the uncapturable? Because we are an embodied species with real concerns, we reify this mystery, we call it God. This is the Hermeneutic Misconception, that there is something to understand beyond our understanding, that if we could only try a little harder, we could make sense of, and discover the true answer to, the question ‘Is there a God?’. We can no more make sense of, nor find the true answer to, the question, ‘What colour is God?’ or ‘When is time?’ or, simply ‘Why???’.
We have learned throughout prehistory that some forces or effects that seem out of our control can be affected by our actions, though we do not always understand quite how, and we know that we can best predict and manipulate the world around us by attributing intentions, beliefs and desires to the people, animals and inanimate objects (‘The water wants to go back to the sea’), until we see a humanly-comprehensible mentality even where it is not instrumentally helpful for us to think of things in this way, in terms of Mother Nature, the Greek or Hindu gods, cars and computers, and the universe.
‘How’ is a much safer question. It admits a reliabilist answer, and a how-dogma can always be trumped by a more successful, rich + predictive or explanatory one – that is, as long as it isn’t shackled to a why-dogma, a metaphysics whose dictates (or more specifically, whose advocates) sulk and pout violently when undermined by new evidence. The only healthy how-dogma is a humble science, a willingness to consider no view too sacred to be usurped by a better one. The issue becomes then how strongly we should understand the claims made by such a science – are scientific theories true (at least until proven false), or merely instrumental? Can it accept that there are truths that we cannot know or understand?
A strong candidate for such an unknowable/incomprehensible domain concerns the origin of everything. ‘How did anything come to be?’ The problem is that while this question appears to avoid the traps surrounding its sister-question, ‘Why did anything come to be?’ or even ‘Why are things as they are, rather than different?’ or ‘Could things have been/be different?’, they still get ushered in through the back door… For the most part though, I feel safer with how-questions because I feel as though they permit definite answers – ‘like this’, ‘these are the hypotheses’ or ‘we don’t know’. Of course, that’s not always true – there’s quite a lot of speculation even in how-questions 😦

The Open Manifesto

I don’t like the word ‘player’. Instead, I think I’d almost rather be called a ‘slut’. Except, like player, it has very gender-specific connotations, and so simplifications – but opposite ones. While a player is active, wilful, manipulative, objectifying, a slut is passive, a manipulated object lacking the will to guide his/her own behaviour.

So, because people are complicated, and should be able to convey their independence of mind and moral values, I propose a new, still politically uncorrect but at least gender-neutral moniker. Following the nounification of the adjective ‘gay’, and the attempt of the same with the word ‘bright’, I’d like to propose ‘open’ as the self-describing word for those of low moral fibre, embracing a high sex drive, a shameless sense of humour, an indulgence in whatever works for them, and an understanding that sexual orientation is a (possibly multi-dimensional) continuum.

Sex is fun. It shouldn’t be a source of guilt. But, to avoid anyone getting hurt, it requires honesty, in order to be fair, fun and free. In short, you have to be open.

Trophic levels, trade and the Terminator

As an AI aficionado, I’ve had my fair share of debates about the Terminator scenario. Perhaps blindly, I’m optimistic about the possibility of being enslaved or eradicated by robot overlords. Here’s one possible response.

Why would the machines be so obssessed with the idea of dominating or eradicating us? They’ll occupy a completely different ecological niche. They’ll almost certainly have entirely different energy/resource requirements, be free from human claustrophobia and may not even be embodied at all. They won’t care if the earth runs out of resources because they’ll just photosynthesise or transduce faeces. So, even if it turns out that aggression is a necessary component of intelligence, it just doesn’t make sense that they’ll want to wipe us off the face of the earth any more than we’re determined to wipe bacteria off the face of the earth.

Unfortunately though, that’s a somewhat spurious parallel. We aren’t in competition with bacteria – in fact, we depend on them. In contrast, there’s less reason to suppose that intelligent machines will depend on us. In that case, the better parallel might be the relationship we have with chimpanzees. That would be more cause for concern.

So the best case scenario would be mutual dependence and integration with the machines. It’s no coincidence that trading partners rarely go to war with one another. However, we’re going to have to find something we’re better than machines at in order to have something to trade. Perhaps we could elevate captchas to a form of poetry?