Can Technology Rescue Democracy?

This essay will argue that ordinary web technology can solve the most critical social problems that stand in the way of a better world, including fake news and democratic (in)accountability.  The argument is that the underlying problems are really information and incentive problems that systems can solve.

TSIS is used to demonstrate this in concrete terms.  The point is not that TSIS is correct or complete, but to legitimize a conversation about solutions.   If we see solutions as feasible, we can move the conversation from problems and perils to making things better.  Probably much better.

A web solution will not work in every context, but it should work in first and second world countries with good internet access, and especially in democracies.  That can be a huge improvement, and other countries may also benefit if we rebalance power in the countries where oppression often originates.

Change Model

The goal is to mitigate or eliminate problems standing in the way of a better world.  This requires a model for the change process, to identify the problems at each stage.  It must begin with individual integrity and accountability, because nothing else can work without that, and will generally end at democratic accountability to get things done.

The following model is layered, with each layer supporting the layers above it, beginning with individual accountability and integrity at the bottom:

Democratic Accountability

is required when change requires legislation or regulation

Collective Activism

is required for grassroots change and/or democratic accountability

Leadership/Delegation

is required for effective coordinated activism

Optimal Information (and integrity)

is required for good decisions, and good leadership and activism

Individual Accountability (and integrity)

is required for information integrity

Figure 1: Change Model

We will step through this model top down, from democratic accountability to individual accountability, examining the problems at each stage.  As we shall see, all of them appear to be issues of either:

  • (A) information, and/or
  • (B) incentives,

both of which are inherently amenable to technical resolution.

Democratic Accountability

Beginning at the top layer, democratic accountability requires several things:

  • voters must be informed about the relevant issues (A), see Optimal Information below
  • voters must be informed about their representatives’ actions and plans (A),
  • voter opinions must be aggregated and reaily communicated to both voters and representatives (A)
  • representatives must be motivated to respond to voter opinions(B): this is solved if voters are more aware of representative’s choices, and the representative wants to keep their job
  • voters must be motivated to take a more active part in representative accountability (B): this is solved or at least mitigated if voters are much more effective

In many democracies, voters typically get 1 vote every 4 years, on all topics at once, with little effective tracking and feedback.  In between, representatives are often more answerable to the party leader than constintuent interests.  This results in relative apathy.  In contrast, in more direct democracy such as in Switzerland, voters tend to be highly involved.   It seems relatively easy to create web systems that deliver much much higher involvement between elections, by making opinions matter.

Everything in this list is directly amenable to technology.  As we shall see, TSIS demonstrates a concrete example of how this could work.

Collective Activism

Democratic accountability will be valuable if it is driven by democratic interests.   When the interests of voters diverge with those of governing representatives, activism may be required to realign them.  Effective activism requires several things:

  • voters must be informed about relevant issues (A)
  • individuals must be able to advertise a cause, and assemble voters that share the same interest (A); note the discussion of leadership/delegation below.
  • this assembly must be able to share ideas and proposals, find commonality, and focus their numbers on solutions (A)
  • this assembly must be able to organize, plan, raise funds as necessary, communicate, and lead itself effectively (A)
  • activism must integrate with democratic accountability above, since the result of activism may be changes to regulation or legislation (A)

Everything in this list is again amenable to technology to bring people together and help them agree on common interests and actions, and take action together in large numbers.

Leadership/Delegation

Leadership is important at many levels of society, not just in our elected representatives in government.  We all face the same problems, and we need leadership to face them effectively together.  For example:

  • Activism requires leadership, closer to problems than most of us can afford to get. If 1,000 people join a cause, they cannot all lead in 1,000 different directions.
  • Democratic accountability also requires leadership to put pressure on representatives. Critics won’t have much effect without a supportive audience of voters.
  • Optimal Information requires leadership to guide a readership on the topics at hand. Everybody can’t read everything for themselves, we need to depend on others to filter and select the best.

And so on.

The right leadership for any topic usually isn’t our elected representative(s), because they can’t deal effectively with everything from banking regulation to senior health care to organized crime to traffic planning.  There’s just too much.  In fact, we seem to have a huge unrecognized leadership gap today.  In a world of billions of people, with thousands of concerns, everybody has to depend on others closer to their concerns to deal with them effectively.  We can’t all do it all.

Presumably most leadership should be democratic in nature , because we want a say as to who leads us, so we will assume some type of democratic process.  We also assume that people are likely to prefer different leadership for different topics, or sets of topics, so the granularity  of choice is by topic.  Finally, with large numbers of people, it’s not just about picking one person at the top who does everything.  People are very unlikely to directly know someone suitable for such a position anyway.

The TSIS approach to leadership discovery is called “proxy delegation”, in which willing individuals declare themselves as a proxy on topic(s), and everyone else picks the person that best represents them.  This is likely to happen in a few different ways, such as:

  • top down, delegating to your feed providers (see below), who have already stepped forward to lead information sharing on given topic(s).
  • bottom up, delegating to someone you know or a friend of a friend who you think will have at least slightly better knowledge and decisions or time and energy for a given topic.
  • redelegation, proxies can delegate support onward to someone that they think is even better. Note that this will create natural leadship hierarchies, which may be extremely useful on topics involving a large number of supporters.

For instance, I have very limited time and knowledge to deal with #education issues, from day care availability to technical schools, so I might delegate my voice and my vote on all #education topics to a friend whose judgment I trust, who has the time and care to make better decisions than me.  That person might then delegate their combined support to someone even better equipped.   That person becomes my “proxy” on the #health topic, and I’m become their  “supporter”, until I change my mind.  It will be quick and easy to examine my delegations, and review their votes or comments on my behalf.

TSIS would make delegations formal with a checklist allowing supporters to specify what powers they delegate to a proxy for given topic(s).  Supporters may delegate or not delegate each of the following:

  • to redelegate to other proxies (A),
  • to publish opinions or comments on behalf of supporters (A), either internally within the system or externally to the world
  • to vote on behalf of combined proxy support, such as to select plans of activism (A)
  • to communicate information back to supporters, and the level of granuality for communication (A),

And so on.   Thus, becoming a proxy will multiply an individual’s power, and those that are actively concerned and who earn the respect of enough people may become quite powerful indeed.

Note that very different groups of people may settle on different top-level proxies in such a system, but the common desire to have more of an impact should be a check on fragmentation.

Getting serious about delegation seems critical for democracy to work again.  Important decisions require more inquiry and more time than any of us can afford on every topic, and there can be no effective democracy without good  decisions.

To bring this back to information and incentives, we can see that delegation involves:

  • individuals must declare willingness to act as a proxy (A), to gain greater influence (B)
  • other individuals must delegate support to willing proxies (A)
  • proxies then communicate the voice of supporters both internally and externally (A)
  • proxies vote with their combined support on issues (A)
  • proxies communicate critical information back to supporters (A)
  • individuals should be able to review actions by proxies on their behalf (A)

Once again, everything in this list is amenable to technology that can unify people as much as possible, under shared leadership to drive shared interests and actions.

Optimal Information

Good information is required for democratic accountability, activism, delegation, and every other decision or action on any topic.

Great information involves:

  • incentives designed so that the interests of information providers are aligned and determined by the interests of information consumers (B)
  • competition for incentives (B) to provide the most valuable and relevant information (A)
  • an open delivery platform (A) to eliminate barriers to entry (A,B)
  • accountability for every piece of information, no matter how small, traced to validated users (A)
  • value ratings, flags, and unhindered criticism of published items (A) to minimize disinformation and maximize information (B)

All this is quite readily amenable to technology.

Identity Validation

The integrity of information is critical for the integrity of decisions based on that information, such as decisions about activism or delegation or democratic accountability. The integrity of information is in turn critically dependent on the integrity of the source of the information. There can be no integrity of information without integrity of sources!

In TSIS, every piece of information, no matter how small, will be traceable to a individual, and every piece of information (including ratings, flags, and criticism) will be subject to value ratings, flags, and criticism by other users.  This will ensure accountability and thus integrity, over time.

Ensuring the integrity of sources has these requirements:

  1. identify sources reliably, and
  2. hold sources accountable for misinformation, and
  3. catch and prevent serial offenders from ever being allowed to participate

Requirement #2 is also part of Optimal Information, discussed above, so we won’t cover it again. Requirements #1 and #3 are matters of identity validation, which is ensuring that sources are who they say they are.  This is critical to minimize spoofs and imposters who seek to mislead and deceive others, and ensure accountability for disinformation.

Identity validation is a straightforward matter of checks and analysis to ensure people are who they say they are, to detect probable spoofs and imposters, and to require further validations when it appears that an identity is questionable.  This can be based on relationships among identities, online activity, value ratings and flags published by each identity, and so on.

TSIS will use straightforward statistic modeling to detect questionable identities, and to derive an expected global trust level for each source.  Users can set thresholds for trust levels, to filter what information reaches them, to suit their tastes.  In TSIS, sources with higher trust levels should thus gain the attention of more people, so there is an incentive to be highly validated and trusted.

Note:  TSIS will insist that accountability accrues to individuals, not to corporations or to organizations;  a real person or group of persons must take responsibility or there is no real responsibility.

In terms of information and incentives, identity validation is straightforward:

  • statistical analysis can detect questionable identities and estimate global trust levels (A)
  • traceability and accountability of all information in the system (A) can ensure that the effects of disinformation accrue to the source and follow it (B)
  • more validations will result in higher trust levels (A)
  • high trust levels are required to reach the biggest audience to have the greatest impact (B)

Without going into details, it seems clear that technology can help with all of this.

Other Components

There are two other components in TSIS that have not been mentioned about, because they do not directly relate to democracy:

  • Relationship Communities – to share sensitive reputational information, and help people determine who they can trust.
  • Wealth Registries – to keep an eye on anti-democratic forces that seem to rule our world.

Without further explanation, these are obviously information and incentive problems, and will not be discussed in detail.

Conclusion

This essay demonstrates that web technology can mitigate many difficult problems, especially those that hamper democracy, such as fake news and lack of accountability.   This can work because such problems are primarily information and incentive problems,  amenable to technology tuned to human needs.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.