Mediating Democracy

Societies are messy. They are complex. Wherever people meet, there are interpersonal relationships, resource feuds, social problems and political strife. All of this complexity is managed on regional and global levels, on municipal and international levels, by everybody, all of the time. As it turns out, not everybody is equally capable at manipulating this complexity to their advantage.

Through the ages, barbarians and warlords have taken control of societies of various sizes, sometimes leading them to prosperity, sometimes leading them to certain doom. Slowly, this settled into fixed systems of governance which took to evolve and develop into the political hierarchies we see today.

Consideration of those hierarchies is worthwhile. How can they be described abstractly? What form of cohesion keeps them together? Some might suggest that studying the power structure in terms of power groups would be the most natural approach. But those same would be missing the important point that groups consist of people, and therein lies the complexity.

Without individuals, there is no society. Without society, the concept of the individual is void. The symbiosis between the one and the all has for a long time been put in the back seat, the discourse centered around individualism versus socialism, about economic independence for those who could afford it versus social resilience for those who had been disenfranchised.

A few hundred years ago, people in the western world started out on a quest to replace the traditional hierarchies with people power. The modern version of this, starting in France almost two hundred and fifty years ago but quickly thereafter spreading to the United States and more of Europe, came from the emerging political philosophy that people had a right to self-govern, and they could do so given enlightenment.

Enlightenment, in this sense, meant access to information. With sufficient information, anybody could make the right decisions - no noble breeding was necessary, no entitlements, nothing except a will to participate. As Plato had put it some two thousand years earlier, “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

But the distinction between theory and practice is always rather important. In most countries, supposedly representative parliaments were established, taking the republican approach that assumed that most people would not have the time or the ability to participate in the decision-making process.

This, when understood from the vantage point of Enlightenment purism, is a fantastically strange statement, and might be traced back to Thomas Hobbes, who advocated a strong centralized government, lest society dissolve into a war of all against all.

Instead some have spoken of Direct Democracy. The simple issue of allowing all to govern without intermediation. It has been described as unrealistic, despite Switzerland, as too complicated for the general public to participate.

But effectively it comes down to voting. Traditionally, there are two options in any given election. Vote for or against the issue, or abstain, which is mostly equivalent to a blank vote.

But what happens when we add a third option - the option of choosing any delegate of choice to cast the vote on your behalf? We call this Vote Proxying, and it can be done either generally for all issues, categorically for a particular subject area, or specifically for an individual case. The side effect of this is the understanding that concentration of power stems from the unintended proxying of authority. A dictatorship is simply the situation where everybody has proxied their power to one person - we can in this analysis ignore why they would do such a thing.

More interestingly, it shows us that representative democracy is merely a highly advanced form of dictatorship, where delegation of authority happens to a roughly equivalent degree to a small number of individuals, who then create their own rule set.

On the other hand, allowing people to freely associate gives them the power to do things differently. There are certain situations that don’t make sense. Most importantly we need to make sure the structure of delegation does not result in a big circle where people are pointing at each other, so we have to enforce what’s known in mathematics as a directed acyclic graph.

In this form of democracy, those who do not delegate their power have the power. One could say that authority in politics is like energy in physics - it cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form and moved between places. Those who delegate are suggesting that they don’t have the time, the inclination, or the experience to take an enlightened decision on the issue, and that they trust somebody else to make the decision on their behalf. And those who are willing to take enlightened decisions are empowered by it. A self-determining meritocracy, unburdened by adherence to a predefined structure. Societies are allowed to be messy.

That was the core of an argument I first made back in 2007. In 2007, the country I live in had one of the strongest economies in the world. By 2008, that had changed. It failed. But in the wake of the collapse, this idea started to get traction, and slowly over the course of the last few years, we’ve gone from rebuilding Iceland’s economy to developing a series of tools for democracy.

We learned how to do this by looking to the Internet. Over the last decades, the Internet has democratized mass media, with blogs, feeds, news portals and social media. Then it democratized production with free software, open hardware, and peer-to-peer distribution channels. It has also been democratizing knowledge, with projects like Wikipedia and Creative Commons licensing. So we ask, can the Internet democratize democracy?

In 2008, the Shadow Parliament Project was founded to try and answer that question. Róbert Bjarnason built the first Shadow Parliament software, which pulled in data about ongoing debates in the Icelandic Parliament and allowed the general public to vote on bills, propose amendments, and discuss the details. It wasn’t official and had no real effect on the political system, but it was a wonderful proof of concept.

After some time working on this idea, he and my old friend Gunnar Grímsson founded the Citizen’s Foundation to manage projects of this sort. One of their first big projects was Betri Reykjavík. After the Best Party, a new political movement fronted by comedian Jón Gnarr and a host of musicians and artists took power in Reykjavík, they decided to use the Shadow Parliament concept to allow the general public to decide part of the city’s agenda - the six best projects every month get taken and processed.

Happy with the progress, the Citizen’s Foundation relaunched the Shadow Parliament under the name Betra Ísland - Better Iceland, and launched an open-for-all platform called Your Priorities, which allows people in each of the world’s countries to use the same software to organize themselves.

But that was the first iteration. After the Arab Spring started, I started working with some North African activists who had heard of the idea of liquid democracy, but had had trouble getting it to work. With this came the realization that the projects so far had been good at providing “liquidity” - “wassa2” in Arabic, but terrible at providing “means” - “wassa2il” in Arabic. So we started the project “wassa2il” to try and provide people with ease of use as well as ideological purity.

But we’re far from being done. This road is a long and winding one, filled with potential for success and for failure. Societies are messy, and mediating democracy through that mess can only really be accomplished when the societies themselves see the benefit of doing so. When countries are writing new constitutions, a common mistake is to imbue it with aspirations rather than values. If the most democratic constitution in the world is adopted by a society that does not value democracy, it will never be of any use.

As a result, all of these projects, being aspirational in nature, must evolve and coincide with a  democratic awakening. The people who do care about democracy must rise above venture warlordism and perform the mediation needed to bring about a new era of enlightenment. We must teach each other and help each other, and together we’ll figure this stuff out.

Having the right tool for the right job is important, but we must be careful: when all you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail. Exploring different ideas and building different tools will help us be better at reaching our aspirations. And perhaps, one day, we’ll start enjoying the mess.


[Originally written as an essay for inclusion in the e-STAS 2012 book, and presented as a talk at the SHARE² conference in Belgrade]

The roles we acceept for ourselves

Smari, thanks for sharing this story. I had picked up snippets here and there, especially the Jon Gnarr episode.But it’s very different hearing about this in first person.

How did you guys get started? I am thinking specifically of what kicked off the agency or democratic awakening; more active participation in individuals you know who were less so before 2008?..

Starting out

How it all started is a complicated story to tell. A lot of people ask me how it started, but I’ve never really managed to pin it down properly. I could cite conversations with people such as Herbert Snorrason, Guðjón Valgarðsson, Gunnar Grímsson or even our very own Vinay Gupta,… I could talk about how, when the collapse started in Iceland, people started to go to the Saturday protests, and then go to cafés afterwards to discuss the situation and plot the future… I could talk about all of the e-mails, the phone calls, and the drums,… there are so many things I could reference, and none of them would paint the full picture.

Give me a decade or two to sort this out, and I’ll try to do the story justice.

For now, I think the short version is: When people are sufficiently outraged, they overcompensate for their lack of empowerment.

Great slogan (and a trap)

Hello Smari, great to read you. Vinay speaks highly of you, I am looking forward to meet you in person.

“Democratizing democracy” is one of the best slogans I have heard. It makes complete sense that we would enjoy democracy on the net - having borrowed the concept of democracy from politics - then we’d go back to our political lives and be appalled at their poor democratic quality.

However, I don’t buy completely your mission report. The part that troubles me is “it all comes down to voting”. I just don’t think that is the case: you can wield a lot of influence by making skillful arguments. The ACTA case in Poland reported by Rysiek on Egderyders is only one in a long line of examples of pretty useful stuff accomplished without any voting in sight.

Perhaps my phrasing is unfortunate, because participatory democracy is what it is also because at some point people will vote, and they may remember any wrongdoings their leaders seeking reelection might have done in between election days. I don’t mean to say that elections are useless, of course! But voting has always looked like a lesser substitute to direct action for me. And here is my story as an example of that. :slight_smile:

Deliberative Democracy

Your criticism is apt, in a way, and I’m aware of that trap. When I say that “it all comes down to voting,” I mean that systematically the way decisions are made is through the voting system. If the voting system is unfair, is bad, is broken, or anything like that, then regardless of the amount of sensible deliberation, the results can be manipulated. Gaming voting systems is a time honored tradition, and designing voting systems such that they are substantially resistent to gaming is a tricky thing. (And, as pointed out by Gibbard and Satterthwaite, if you manage to eliminate the gaming factor, then the system is bound to be either random or dictatorial).

In that report, I’m really addressing the issue of voting systems, and didn’t really get into the other side of the story, which is deliberation. Deliberation should really be the important bit - but it’s useless unless the underlying voting system is (mostly) solid.

There is a concept of deliberative democracy, wherein people engage with each other on a particular subject and try to arrive at consensus about the details of the subject before starting to develop the “legislative text” or whatever it is they finally vote on. That’s the original idea of parliament, but parliamentary procedure, party politics and pomp have more or less eliminated deliberation from the parliamentary process, and replaced it with discord.