Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.

Most of my ideas are half-baked. This one is barely warm. But it's fun to think about, so I thought I'd share.

Today's thought experiment is to imagine a form of government with no employees, no elected officials, and no leaders. Imagine there are no government-owned buildings or other physical government assets either. This imaginary government exists only as software running on servers spread across multiple commercial sites, plus a bill of rights based on the American model. I'll add one extra right: The right to affordable high-speed Internet access.

Society would agree on only three rules:

1.       New laws require a 51% majority.

2.       Changes to existing laws require a 67% majority (for stability).

3.       Votes are weighted based on test results.

That last rule means that voters must take an online test on any topic on the ballot before voting for it. A citizen's vote would be reduced in weight according to test scores. So if you scored only 50% on a test about the national budget, your vote on budget topics would be counted as one-half.

Your first reaction to the idea of a software based government is that it would leave too many essential services unattended. You'd have rampant crime, no one picking up trash, no business rules, no environmental standards, no schools, and so on. It would be chaos.

Or would it?

Nothing has ever surprised me more than the success of Wikipedia. Before Wikipedia, how many of us would have guessed that a crowd-maintained online encyclopedia would become a global treasure? Every instinct in my body says Wikipedia should have devolved into uselessness. I would have expected pranksters to spoil Wikipedia with false information, and I would have expected knowledgeable citizens to have better things to do with their time than donate it. I would have been very wrong.

The Wikipedia model makes me think a software-based government isn't 100% crazy. But for this system to work, one particular global trend needs to continue along its current path: Our desire for privacy has to keep shrinking. In the imaginary government-by-software, every citizen would have legal access to anyone else's medical, financial, employment, education or any other data. We're already seeing a rapid and voluntary disintegration of privacy. The only reason privacy exists at all is because it is often better than the alternatives. But once the alternatives to privacy become clearly superior, future generations will make rational choices to release on it. In general, every time we give up a little privacy we gain in other ways. When the benefits are large enough, privacy will seem a quaint relic from the past.

Once the public releases on its demand for privacy, crime will disappear fairly quickly. Private entities will have security cameras with facial recognition on every corner. The Internet will track the location of every automobile and every cell phone. In this future, cash will be banned in favor of electronic transactions, so the world will also know where you are by your purchases. And I wouldn't be surprised if someday we're all wearing location chips.

Ninety-nine percent of crime depends on being undetected long enough to escape. If you eliminate the possibility of being undetected, you eliminate most crime, and you eliminate the need for a police department. Don't worry that the bad guys have guns because everyone else will have one too. The bad guys will always be outgunned fifty-to-one. If someone tries to become a war lord, society can cancel their credit cards and starve them into compliance. With no privacy, no gun laws, and no untraceable cash, a life of crime will be a short one.

Ideally, an information-only government will be so healthy for the economy that potential criminals will simply get legitimate jobs.

Let's also assume that necessary functions such as education, the fire department, garbage removal, and environmental standards are all handled by organized volunteers or private companies. Everything will get done, but society will be free to attack any problem in any way it sees fit. Citizens won't be saddled with an antique government that was designed in pre-Internet times.

Homeland defense would be a big issue for a government made entirely of software. This imaginary government still needs a professional military run by generals. But the military could be subservient to the majority opinion in the country, just as it is now for all practical purposes. Generals could simply read the opinion poll data, add their own good judgment about timing, and act accordingly. There's no need for a civilian government to be in the middle, so long as the top generals can be fired by popular vote.

About halfway into writing this post I realized that the topic is too enormous for a blog. I'll just summarize by saying the existence of the Internet plus the trend toward less privacy might make it possible for citizens to self-organize without the need for a formal government. I don't predict it will happen, but the obstacles will be ones of psychology, fear of the unknown, and lack of imagination.



Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +43
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Nov 7, 2012
Idea for next election:
Have IBM build a version of WATSON that is present at the debates to fact check in real time.

Just having WATSON there might scare the heck out of those folks...
Nov 3, 2012
The problem is that often the most educated people on a given topic will have the most objections to the most basic established "facts" of a subject, especially when it comes to policy which is not as purely scientific as some of the areas where there is still disagreement. Also, they can sometimes have the worst ideas for policy, since intelligent people tend to be blinded by innovation and the potential for a greater future vs. practical considerations.
So I think all a test would accomplish would be drowning out the votes of the poor and working class who are generally poorly educated. However, I do not believe that fundamentally someone with a poor understanding of a topic has a completely invalid opinion on that topic, especially when it comes to matters that concern the poor and working class.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 1, 2012
In the Federalist Papers #10, Hamilton argues that the will of the masses ("major factions" as he calls them) is oppressive in nature. Individuals and minorities (factions) would not be protected from the majority (e.g. slavery and women voters). He offers this as one of the key reasonings behind the representative democracy we have today. Unfortunately even that system has been corrupted with a large number of non-voting population and special interest groups essentially buying influence in DC (unions, AARP, corporations, etc.).
Oct 31, 2012
Scott, check out the German Pirate Party (it's a real thing) and their use of the 'Liquid Feedback' tool for virtually debating, amending, and voting on policy proposals in real-time. Each party member carries one vote and the software invigorates a spirit and dynamic of citizenry within party ranks. The Pirates hope to replicate this approach on the national stage into a sort of open-source politics.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 31, 2012
Releasing demand for privacy has to go both ways.
That means that not only can others see data about me, but I can also see who's looking at my data, why, and what they intend to do with it. Making the access traceable would help prevent abuse.

Here's the problem with this: it fundamentally challenges the concept of being human. If humans are nothing but exchangeable and searchable data, then what are we other than just living databases?
Part of what makes us human is the process of sharing information with each other at a pace that both are comfortable with. The more you get to know the person, the more sensitive stuff you may open up about. How would that part of us remain intact?
Oct 31, 2012
3 things you'd need for it to work (among others):

1. You correctly state everyone would need the right to internet access. I would go further and say they need to actually have internet access (the right doesn't do you any good without the implementation). It's worth noting it would have to be secure, reliable and sufficiently fast to be usable.
2. There would need to be an unbiased method for creating tests on any given topic.
3. All citizens would have to have sufficient access to (unbiased) education to be able to learn about an issue.

I can actually see technology overcoming 2, at least in a theoretical sort of way, assuming it has some basis to draw on, and it can be reliably programmed and tested. I think with sufficient public oversight, it could happen. Security, reliability and usability of the internet access are similarly technological challenges I think we can overcome.

1 is hard without a physical government. I know die-hard libertarians will say the free market will take care of it, but since you need EVERYONE to be able to access the internet, it would be hard for them to make a profit, since they can't deny anyone service; with the right laws, the rich could be required to fund internet access for the poor, but you'd need to get those laws "passed" before the voting system really goes into effect. It's hard, but workable.

As for 3, it's not hard to get information available to everyone once they have internet access. The harder question is how to actually get people to learn the amount of information they need in order to make informed decisions. Given that there are hundreds (probably) of topics relevant to one year of law making, it would take a vast amount of time to learn about all of them. In a good system, and this time takes away from people producing anything. I see this going one of two ways; everyone learns a lot about a few topics and decisions are made by experts, or a small number of people learn enough about enough issues to control how the country is headed, to a sufficient degree to form an oligarchy. This might just be a function of weighing the votes and writing the tests correctly, or it might be a result of the much harder task of passing the right laws early on.

There are also some objections about courts, jails, and whether your faith in the free market and volunteers is justified, but I thought the above was more interesting.

It's also worth noting you need someone to run the servers.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 31, 2012
Scott your homework for this week is to read then write a book report on the novel 1984 by George Orwell and relate it to your ideas above.
Oct 30, 2012

...And your answer to all the other problems folks had with the test weighting idea?
Oct 30, 2012
Okay, the obvious flaw here is, who defines what law is "new" and what law is a "change" to an existing law? But I love your idea about weighting votes based on a test. But I suspect a lot of people would call that racist.
Oct 30, 2012
It's the assumptions about the things that have to happen first that concern me the most. The big one is, and I'm paraphrasing, "All you have to do is give up all rights to privacy." That's like the famous recipe for Bear Stew: "First, shoot a bear."

The real first thing you'd have to do is eliminate the Constitution. You'd then have to change our form of government from a republic to a democracy. Gee, that would be easy. Not!

The founders made us a republic for a reason: to protect us from the whims of the moment; from emotional responses to situations that cry out for reason, and which could lead us off the cliff. Take a look at the Peloponnesian War if you want to get an idea of where rule by plebiscite can lead.

The founders also created a Constitution to limit the powers of government and ensure basic rights could not be abridged. While largely ignored today by our federal government, it's still comforting to know it's there.

In your scenario, people would have to no longer desire power over their fellows. Think THAT'S going to happen? So we'd go from rule by a handful of idiots who think they're demi-gods to rule by the people who program the governmental software. Aided by the people who write the tests we'd have to take before we can vote. Gee, that sounds great.

I'd posit that a far better plan is to slowly but surely reduce the power of the federal government. Start by removing laws rather than passing new ones. Cut the bureaucracy and return power to the states and to private enterprise. Have the federal government live within the boundaries of its constitutionally-enumerated powers. Stop micromanaging our lives, and let us get back to that now-foreign concept of freedom.

It amazes me how foreign the concepts of freedom and self-responsibility have become. It's like people want to be perpetual children, with daddy government handing them goodies and making all their decisions for them.

"Can I use an incandescent light bulb, daddy?" "No, little child, that's not good for the earth." "OK, daddy, can I have mercury in my thermometer?" "No, little child, mercury is poisonous. Daddy wants you to be safe!" "OK, daddy, then why do I have to have mercury in my light bulbs?" "Little child, you're just not smart enough to understand. Just do as you're told, and daddy will give you a great big check from all those nice communists in China."

It's nice that Scott likes to play mind games about fanciful recreations of reality. But the rest of us have a real world that we have to contend with, and that's more worthy of our thought processes than creating an imaginary software government.
Oct 30, 2012
Hm, just realized that Scott usually uses the square brackets to add comments. Well, sorry about that, no way to edit... :-(
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 30, 2012
That reminds me of fun game (well, you need to be a bit of a nerd, but anyway) called "Nomic"; I first read about it in Douglas Hofstadter's column in Scientific American quite a while ago.

The game has a set of rules that regulate how you can change the games rules. Winner of the game (at least in the ruleset it starts with) is the person who manages to introduce a rule that stalemates the game.

Starting with the Nomic rules (you can check them out via Wikipedia) and adding the computer stuff, you could actually make this work in the real world. Well, except for rule 3, but that's been commented on a few times already.

[Btw, I am always surprised when in discussions like this in the US somebody invariably comes along and shouts "Democracy doesn't work. We don't live in a democracy but in a republic." Ok, your founders confused the categories first - they meant something very specific by democracy - but the first part is silly - Switzerland is as direct in democracy as a modern country can get and the system there works very well, thank you very much.]
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 30, 2012
I live in Australia, that has compulsory voting, and I still don't vote. Not because I'm lazy but because I feel it's morally reprehensible to vote in someone who I believe to be a liar, thief... Well, lets just say politician. If I could vote on actual topics, you watch how fast I get informed and vote.

I do agree that the idea of who makes the test is a problem though.

[I would have said Wikipedia wouldn't work for the same reason. But Wikipedia does work because one must show sources. All unsupported opinions are flagged and removed. And the public nature of it makes it hard for unscrupulous people to succeed.

I think you would end up with tests that show both sides, such as "Democrats point to studies done by X that say raising taxes doesn't hurt the economy. Republicans point to studies by Y that show the opposite. True or false?

I think a fair-enough test could always be concocted. -- Scott]

+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 30, 2012
Most of what I think about why this is a BAD idea is covered already, but I just wanted to add, how would your system prevent <insert sophisticated enemy> from hijacking the system, either by hacking ( but I asumed some implied hand waving uber security answer) or by brute force deployment of sympathetic agents to block vote.
Oct 30, 2012
So a crime is being somewhere, with a gun, stealing cash. Criminals also have imagination, it does not make them better people, it makes them better criminals.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 30, 2012
Sounds cool, but who will design the tests? An objective test on national budget, for example, would be impossible to compose - even Nobel prize winners in economics differ in their point of views on what's good for economy.

Test on foreign policy? Also impossible, too much depends on ideological/moral/religious/etc. attitudes. And so on.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 30, 2012
I heard there's a small company already working on this sort of program: Cyberdyne Systems...
+14 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 30, 2012
Do you really think privacy is that worthless? I wouldn't argue with much else. I think most everyone agrees that if we could all read each others' minds human relations would devolve into unsurvivable chaos, and I think it's clear that the devaluation of privacy is essentially the same thing.
Oct 30, 2012
I wouldn't trust this system at all. The stipulation for weighting votes is completely impractical, for several reasons: who gets to decide what the "right" answers are, and what prevents someone from gaming the system by looking over their idiot friend's shoulder and putting in the answers for him?

I also have no faith that the vast majority of people are going to vote correctly, and by "correctly" I mean "with their own ACTUAL best interest in mind". I mean, they don't do it NOW, so what is going to be different under this new system? My thought experiment here is a young child whose parents are divorced. Parent A offers the child chocolate cake for dinner if he says he wants to stay with A. Parent B tells the child that he is getting broccoli no matter what. Who is acting in the child's best interest? And who is the child going to pick?

Most voters, I think, have the attention span and reasoning ability of a six-year-old when it comes to issues of public policy. The party that offers them the most chocolate cake is going to get their loyalty no matter how bad it is for them.
Oct 29, 2012
My first reaction to your idea is that you have a hyper-utopian view of society. This seems to contradict every character in your comic that ends in "ert", except one.

Wikipedia exists solely because of the two groups of people:

1. One whose narcissm demands that their opinion is worth inflicting on others.
2. Another whose narcissm demands that they are the focus of what is written.

History has never been kind to weighted voting of any kind, and this new iteration (a technocracy) will suffer the same fate. Though to be fair, history hasn't been kind to voting in general.

We have enough trouble getting people to vote now and it doesn't take that much time. You seem to believe that increasing the time to vote by taking a test will increase the number of voters? Do you believe that forcing people to take a test will make them more informed or feel obligated to vote?

At what point do you believe that we will have an internet infrastructure that is available to all? There are places in the US that still use dialup. It will be interesting to see how the internet infrastructure on the east coast will handle a hurricane. At times like this, making decisions become far more critical.

If everyone relenquishes their privacy, why would there be "private" !$%*!$%* tracking them? How much power would we have to expend to create this?

Your percentage on crime relying on detection is laughable and I dare you to provide real research that can support this grandiose oversimplification. All a warlord needs to do to thrive in your scenario is to keep 20% of the people (all those who can pass a test on Warlords) happy. A child knows how to exchange items in lieu of actual currency.

An information only economy is useless. It works great for spy novels, but not much else. Information is only useful if it can be used to make something tangible. Knowing how to build a club is useless when you need an actual club.

Criminals have better information than legitimate governments. If everything is worthless, than there will be no crime. If everything is worthless, then how can an economy be healthy?

A military that is castrated to wait for all of its citizens to take a test, wait for all its citizens to vote, and then wait for the outcome, will not be effective for anything but fertilizer for flora.

In as much as I would love to see all of our supposed leaders reduced to taking jobs as greeters at Walmart, We don't have the jobs to go round with the number of people working for the government. Maybe they could all be cartoonists.

The internet is mostly entertainment, and entertainment does not allow a society to progress. Though our technology has increased at a very steady clip, society has not become better because of it. This is not the fault of technology, but lies soley on the majority of people who don't use the internet to better themselves or others, but to send movies of people doing stupid things or pictures of cute kittens.

I agree with you that government needs to be modernized, but the internet won't force this to happen. If politicians can be shamed into using technology, then they may consider it. But right now, politics is more interested in using the internet to illicit negative responses in the minds of the electorate towards their opponent. With all of the technology at our fingertips, we have less fact and detail from our campaigning leaders.

For a blog supposedly written for a rational audience, I would like to demand a more rational topic.

Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog