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Reader Henrikaavik points us to a new Estonian-built anti-corruption app that is very much what I described in my previous post. Check it out at http://www.bribespot.com/. Can it change the world? Maybe.

Citizens are rising up against their governments in an interesting variety of ways. We're seeing everything from armed rebellions to hunger strikes to anti-corruption apps. Prior to our last U.S. presidential election, I personally funded and published online a survey of economists on the question of tax policy. That was a job our government should have been doing. In California, citizen groups put a lot of "propositions" on the ballot every election because our government isn't capable of making laws that satisfy the public. Everywhere we look, citizens are chipping away at the power of government. And behind much of it is the Internet.

I'm still waiting for the Holy Grail of citizen power in the form of a website that collects all of the best expert opinions on every subject, organizes them into point-counter-point debates, and keeps a rolling citizen opinion poll on each topic. That sort of system would, in time, become the real government, with our elected officials beholden to the majority opinions as they formed online. Interestingly, the key to making that sort of system work is the design of the user interface. The Thomas Jefferson of 2012 will be a user interface designer.

You might think revolutions are only happening in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. I think we're in the midst of a worldwide rebellion, but it's not obvious because so much of it is non-violent and it takes so many different forms. In fifty years, only the most backward countries will have traditional governments of the sort we see today. By then, the job of President of the United States will be a ceremonial position. Power will be more directly in the hands of citizens, informed by expert advice. Our elected officials will simply execute the will of the people. And school children will learn that once upon a time there was an irrational belief in something called "leadership," and it got us in a lot of trouble.

[Update: And another corruption tracking app: http://www.corruptiontracker.org/]



 
 
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Aug 24, 2011
Scott, I don't understand why the government needs to be involved at all with respect to solving peoples problems. You said elected officials would be largely ceremonial, then why have them at all? Just limit the governments power to more or less protecting free association, and let everyone solve their own problems.
 
 
Aug 24, 2011
http://blog.harassmap.org/

This blog is similar to the corruption-tracking system - but it tracks incidents of harassment against women in Egypt.

I would be interested in learning whether it has been effective in reducing incidents of harassment.

I think one of the most powerful impacts this type of tracking mechanism can have is in breaking down the sense of "normalcy" that develops around intrenched destructive behaviors - by demonstrating that the behaviors occur in geographic clusters.

People are heavily influenced by what we believe is "common" or "normal" behavior. That has been demonstrated repeatedly. If you can show that corruption or harassment is not practiced (at the same levels) universally - then, I believe, it becomes easier to convince people that it is deviant - rather than normal. That is a far more powerful message than simply calling something unhealthy or morally wrong.

If you can find a way to couple the message that a given behavior is deviant with clear evidence of its destructive effects, then you really have a powerful tool for effecting change.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 24, 2011
"if a magic genie implemented majority opinions overnight in the United States, no minorities would be oppressed any more than they are right now."

Explain how the extraordinary rise in tolerance we have seen toward gay marriage would have occurred under your proposed system. Bear in mind that this tolerance has only begun to occur AFTER several state governments have already instituted gay marriage in opposition to the majority of its citizens.

"Everyone understands the concept that "you could be next.""

I see no reason to believe that everyone understands that. There is simply no evidence for believing that a suitable majority of citizens:

- can adequately weigh present benefits against future consequences;
- can empathize with people unlike themselves sufficiently to avoid depriving them of their liberties;
- can accept the validity of diverging viewpoints, to say nothing of so-called "elite" viewpoints;
- can change their minds when presented with contrary evidence.

I think there is much that technology can do to ameliorate oppression and injustice. I think your proposed "corruption app" is a good concept. But majority rule by the uninformed masses? I'll take living in a cave.
 
 
Aug 24, 2011
Scott - a friend reminded me today of John Brunner's 'Shockwave Rider', which explored this 20 years ago, and already noticed the pitfalls.
 
 
Aug 24, 2011
"I'm still waiting for the Holy Grail of citizen power in the form of a website that collects all of the best expert opinions on every subject, organizes them into point-counter-point debates, and keeps a rolling citizen opinion poll on each topic."

Maybe not a complete solution to this problem, but Quora.com is a Q&A site where answers are voted up/down and answers from experts on the subject are highlighted.

As a silly example: http://www.quora.com/Superman/Is-Superman-Jewish
 
 
Aug 24, 2011
Oh Scott -

When will you learn that you can't engineer your way out of human nature? Human nature is an intrinsic part of human behavior. Surprise!

Humans crave a sense of purpose. Leaders are adept at providing a sense of purpose. Those without a sense of purpose may suffer depression and may even become suicidal. Otherwise normal people will selectively suspend rational thought in order to have something to believe in. It's a subconscious, if irrational, self-defense mechanism. Truly believing in the wildest imaginary things can provide real-life benefits to someone who may otherwise fall into depression at the futility of their existence. (This theory is mine, but see Logotherapy and Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning" for related info. I think Viktor had more "real" things in mind than I'm discussing).

A more democratic form of government won't solve the problem. If you think people will listen to experts just because they're experts you haven't been paying attention. People, in general, will listen to leaders. Some people will listen to the nuttiest and most irrational leaders, and won't understand and can't be convinced of it. It's human nature.

[I'm betting on self-interest trumping hero worship. That's happening in Libya right now. It happened in Egypt earlier this year. Syria might be next. These are essentially leaderless revolutions. -- Scott]
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 24, 2011
Look, there needs to be SOME form of central power. That's why police strikes are so dangerous. In Montreal in 1969, the police went on strike for a day. Hundreds of shops were looted, six banks were robbed, and three million dollars of property damage was inflicted. Nor are things now significantly any different, as the recent riots in England demonstrate. These didn't require the police to strike: it was enough that the police merely showed *weakness *in dealing with violent criminals.

Then there's the question of nuclear weapons, which I wish people would stop conveniently ignoring in abstract political discussions. Nuclear weapons can wipe out civilization as we know it within minutes. They cannot possibly be a "public domain material". They need to be controlled by a central power. Anarchism gets a red X for "Isn't likely to get us all completely obliterated?" I see no reason to consider the other items on the checklist, even if they're all green checks.

[I agree you need the gears of government, at least some of them. (Sorry, Libertarians.) My post is about who sets the direction for the gears to turn. -- Scott]
 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 24, 2011
You can separate the question of whether or not it is good from the question of whether or not citizens will in fact take that power from government. But I don't think you can reasonably conclude that the current method of economic decision-making is rational. -- Scott

I didn't intend to imply that we have currently rational decision-making on economic issues. I don't think we increase the degree of rationality by more detailed voting from folks who know less and reason less well than our government. I think that you're half-right that citizens will increasingly take power. I fear that it will be people who are skilled at manipulating people who will take power.

 
 
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Aug 24, 2011
Scott, when you wrote "Estonian" I read it wrong, and could've sworn it said "Elbonian!"
 
 
Aug 24, 2011
For someone who believe "[t]he Thomas Jefferson of 2012 will be a user interface designer", you seem determined not to be him. I scoured the web for five minutes trying to come up with a way to credit you when tweeting that line and came up empty. Twitter, good sir, is one of Tommy's primary media.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 24, 2011
My impression is that when we try to get experts to give us recomendations about Economic policy we don't get anything like consensus. We get beautifully reasoned arguments that lead to diametrically opposed recommendations: "Cut spending or we go bust", "Don't cut spending or we go bust". Given the quality of reasoning I hear on Radio Phone-ins I don't believe for an instant that the persons in the street will base their evaluation of policy on these arguments - the arguments can't be evaluated by lay people, and at least one of the conclusions must be false (or we're all doomed). Voting on preferences between Libraries and Community Centres may work, voting on economic policy is no better than drawing lots.

[You can separate the question of whether or not it is good from the question of whether or not citizens will in fact take that power from government. But I don't think you can reasonably conclude that the current method of economic decision-making is rational. -- Scott]
 
 
Aug 24, 2011
I don't know about the value of this option. Only a small number of people would actually pay attention to the detail of the debates.
Just allowing more people to participate in the decision making process does not guarantee a better response.
I think part of the problem is the span of control we are allowing government today.
We as individuals need to take some initiative and solve some problems ourselves.
But that would imply responsibility, and I doubt the majority of us fully understand that concept. It is easier to allow someone else to make decisions for us.
 
 
Aug 24, 2011
'school children will learn that once upon a time there was an irrational belief in something called "leadership,"'

I applaud your optimism but I'm a little surprised that someone who regards the human race as "moist robots" (I agree BTW) seems to be discounting biology. right or wrong (& I'm certainly not saying it's right) I fear the "alpha male"/cult of personality thing has a strong genetic component that won't be bred out in a generation (witness religion).

that said, I've probably just teed myself up as a target for the "taking a quote out of context & presenting it to a hostile audience that's incapable of admitting they're wrong once they're emotionally invested in their opinion" thing... not that it will matter once that happens but for the record I am 100% _NOT_ saying it's a good thing, the natural state of things ("God's will", etc) or in ANY sense endorsing it - just saying that I believe (correct or not) that there is a genetic/biological component to humans organising around "silverbacks".

and THAT said you may now proceed w/the crucifixion for what you THINK I said instead of what I ACTUALLY said...

[I agree that we're hardwired to follow leaders. But we're also hardwired to be selfish, which means we'll favor whatever system seems to work best for us personally. -- Scott]
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 24, 2011
"In fifty years, only the most backward countries will have traditional governments of the sort we see today. … Power will be more directly in the hands of citizens, informed by expert advice."

Wow. Only an engineer could write that. Expert advice, huh? Because our electorate is *so* inclined to trust the opinions of experts. Ask a climate scientist, an evolutionary biologist or for that matter an economist.

"That sort of system would, in time, become the real government, with our elected officials beholden to the majority opinions as they formed online."

Scott, look up the difference between "democracy" — what you are espousing here — and "democratic republic," the kind of system under which we actually live. The last thing America's founders wanted was for government to be beholden to the will of the mob. If the majority ruled in the US, the 10 Commandments would be a part of the Constitution, illegal aliens would be denied medical care, atheists would be barred from holding political office, flag-burning would be illegal and you can pretty much forget about gay marriage. (It took several defiant state governments, acting against majority wishes, to permit gay marriage and demonstrate that it really wasn't so icky and scary after all.) The whole idea of the American political system is that it protects the rights of minorities (of any kind) against the majority. Your proposed system is a complete nightmare.

For an interesting look at tyranny by mob rule, track down a copy of Anthony Burgess' (sadly out of print) novel 1985.

[It would be a nightmare in, for example, Sudan. But in developed countries, if a magic genie implemented majority opinions overnight in the United States, no minorities would be oppressed any more than they are right now. Everyone understands the concept that "you could be next." It's mutually assured destruction. Every individual is a member of one minority or another. -- Scott]
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 24, 2011
Scott,

Market economy has globalized corruption in a curious sort-of way.

There is a corrupt family of elected politicians in a southern state of India - two of them are in prison for laundering the equivalent of about 30 billion USD - most of their hard earned black money is removed to tax havens overseas.

On the other hand, investors from the western world and the oil economies in the middle east are flooding the Indian market with money that is not legal in their country!

There are a variety of protestors in the field today:

1. Some want their children to be happier consumers than they are.

2. Some are concerned about the future of the fragile defenses of their holier-than-thou culture.

3. Some are not sure whether money is what money produces or money is what money buys.

4. Some believe that sharing the fruits of their labour with unknown people is not exactly their idea of altruism.

5. So many more..

In other words, if you think of corruption as something to do with economics and not personal preferences, then it becomes a business model that only needs a consulting dogbert to be brought to justice.

Anti-government rebellions need more than one issue like corruption to re-write their constitutional scriptures.

.
 
 
Aug 24, 2011
I started a project experimenting with exactly this idea, but I ran out of time (and there are some complicated theoretical problems in the theory of argumentation and logic that make designing a good system a real intellectual challenge... minimum of years of experimentation to come up with something really good).

The extremely limited software I developed seems to still be running here:
http://www.coreason.org/

I don't really remember the state I left it in. Even this limited functionality is littered with bugs.

 
 
Aug 24, 2011
Yes, in California, there's a ton of propositions that get added to the ballot.

But I should also note that, from what I understand, they can't actually raise/modify taxation in California without a referendum, which anyone would tell you is going to cause problems in the long term. As who is honestly going to vote for their own taxes increasing aside from Warren Buffett?

(Never mind how property taxes apparently work in California - it boggles the mind how they haven't had cash flow problems until now)
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 24, 2011
Power to the People. Right On!
 
 
+19 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 24, 2011
"...with our elected officials beholden to the majority opinion..."

Despite our governments current fatal flaws the need to protect from "the tyranny of the majority" is still a very real issue. In Hitler Germany, was exterminating the queers and the jews against the majority opinion? Maybe, but was stealing their businesses and properties?

I would like to know how a direct democracy will protect against the majority going mad before I endorse it wholeheartedly.

We talk about the need for democracy in the world but what we really mean is the rule of law, fairly and equally applied.
 
 
 
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