Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Debugging Politics

I participated in this hackathon, even though I don՚t really believe in hackathons – good software is not something you can create in a rushed weekend, in my experience. Nonetheless, I and the rest of the participants were animated by the feeling that we really need to be doing something to try to fix things. Many somethings were done.

Our team (me and a product person) managed to throw together an Alexa skill to help in contacting your congressperson – not exactly revolutionary, but it was a chance to do a voice app, which was novel. A larger group of young people (they were almost all painfully young) put together a slick looking mobile app to do much the same thing. Other projects were aimed at visualizing or transforming bias in news articles (through browser plugins), or providing sites for organizing opposition activities, or encouraging communication between different factions. One guy wrote something that filters out all the adjectives from Trump's tweets, which was supposed to improve political discourse somehow.

These efforts, most definitely including my own, strike me as kind of lame. They aren՚t going to fix anything, although it felt good to make an effort with other people. Democracy in its current parlous state needs a lot stronger medicine than can be cooked up in a weekend. And while there is a good chance that medicine will be technological, it won՚t be yet another mobile app. [Note: there were also people from ongoing projects like, which are harder to dismiss.]

What could this stronger medicine be? Well, there are some more radical schemes in the air, like Liquid Democracy (similar to an idea I aired here called netarchy). or blockchain-based voting. It՚s hard to see these having a short-term impact on anything, but they offer promising longer-term visions of how the democratic process can get past its 18th-century origins.

And that՚s really the heart of it. Our system of representative democracy was designed for an era without electronic communication or modern transport. If it was working well, this wouldn՚t be a problem, it would just be one of those weird sets of archaic practices common to venerable and beloved institutions (like churches and universities).

But in fact our democracy is in the throes of an enormous and possibly catastrophic failure. It's delivered massive power into the hands of a con man, a sociopathic narcissist, an unread and clearly unserious person who in the best case is going to be corrupt and incomptent and int he worst case unleash destructive political forces and fatally delegitimize the institutions of governance. The consequences are potentially lethal. (And it wasn՚t working all that well even before Trump came along).

It՚s unclear to me whether the existing machinery of government can be fixed at all, or whether it is going to require wholesale replacement. And in the latter case, I have no idea how it happens. It won't be a weekend project, that's for sure.

[Addendum: What Fred Turner said:
I don’t envy engineers or executives at tech firms. They’ve been put in the position of being legislators for our public debates. America’s architecture for such debates — Congress, the courts, the executive branch, and to some degree, the press — was built in the 18th century. But the conditions of public discourse have changed, and the speed at which those conditions are changing has accelerated too. 
This makes engineers reluctant, but necessary, brokers of public discourse.

1 comment:

jim said...

Hardest dissent is dissent against a popular & lucrative failure.