Carne Ross of the Independent Diplomat, the former British diplomat who has started his own novel independent lobbying operation for various movements needing diplomatic services, has a blog musing about democracy online and how something could be devised with the use of social media tools that would be "instead of" the UN Security Council and could seriously debate the world's issues without the annoying features of states that get in the way of progress. He calls it nothing less than "a global political revolution".
I should say right off that I distrust "global political revolutions" on the whole -- the revolutionaries in them are often willing to cut corners on violence and too often develop narratives excusing and overlooking bad things.
And I don't think transnational, wired elite networks, even with a lot of my friends and colleagues in them, are a way the world can be run justly. I'm not for replacing states with NGO panels. Carne Ross is understandably loathing states after having to be up close and personal with them particularly for years at the UN and now he wants basically to have them disappear and establish a new world order. I'm coming at this from a different angle having been with NGOs for 30 years, and I think he just has no idea how awful it's going to get having a few non-state actors run the whole world on Facebook.
I think people like Carne Ross would benefit from studying the largest online experiment in democracy in the history of the world -- Second Life -- with 1.5 million people logging on regularly from all over the world, and deliberating in many different kinds of ways, and most of all voting (at least until about 2-3 weeks from now when the developers remove this salient feature from a world that has had it for 7 years). I don't know if he has never even had to have any lengthy exposure to the IRC channels and other big real-time discussions online and he may not have any idea.
For those who dismiss Second Life as somehow a "game" or some losers' sex paradise or the place all the big companies left, well, you're missing out on an extraordinary online social experiment that you'd have to spend millions coding yourself -- and it's all right here to be used for free, even.
The issues debated and voted on aren't trivial; they're the very stuff of the Internet. For example, right now, 1,531 voted on a feature to block an inworld device that was exposing privacy -- the sort of thing that riles Facebook users daily, sometimes en masse, and sometimes reaches the mainstream press as a burning issue. Here, people are *inside the software* and are trying to get the devs to *patch it to do something about it*.
This prolonged and heated battle over a feature I proposed, Web-382 -- only had 20 votes, but many more comments, and ultimately was implemented -- only to be defeated in other ways. It was an important exposition of the problem that plagues every online democracy with coded tools: the problem of some people closing other people's proposals as being too weak, too off-topic, too repetitive, too undoable, etc. etc. I fought for the right for anyone -- anyone, not just special committees or the develoeprs -- to open a proposal and attract votes and not have it closed. It's not as if it clutters the view -- this is an interface where you only find what you are looking for by searching for a type of feature, date, key word, author name, etc.
Make no mistake about it: the Lindens are removing voting for reasons that don't just have to do with their claim that "they don't heed it"; it's part of a definitely ideological trend among technologists and one that is antithetical to democracy, in fact. There is a growing fad now based on various philosophies, such as "deliberative democracy" which is basically -- in my book -- what we used to call "democratic centralism" in the Politburo. It involves deliberations by a defined group of experts who review issues with rationality and alleged good will and arrive at "the right" decision collaboratively, without "needing" to vote. This is a very compressed rendition of a complex set of ideas with different schools and debates and such, but basically, it's no accident that geeks reach for taking out the "no" vote: this isn't just a technical platformist problem of "gaming the system" or "negativity"; a straight up and down vote is ultimately about power, and power is not what platformists wish to cede. Forcing "deliberative democracy" as a faddish new method on people; forcing "direct democracy" and scorning representative democracy; these are all part and parcel of a quest for power, above all.
There are at least seven deadly flaws in any online democracy scheme (and probably more), and they are, in brief:
1. Problems of verification of identity, the use of alts and sock puppets; and now "persona management," the manipulation of online voices through the use of bots or software programs
2. Problems of lack of ethics due to the hacker culture of the developers of any coded system and any artifact or facet of online life made by software in which the user has no say
3. Problems of technical exigencies -- it can be difficult to display and manipulate data; it can be hard to merge proposals reasonably; it can be hard to search for relevant issues, etc.
4. The politics of who gets to frame the issues online. The geeks themselves coding the system? A self-selected group of "good citizens"? Anybody?
5. The politics of who gets to moderate speech, how it is moderated, whether there is free speech, whether the concept of the "troll" or the "flame-bait" is wielded by one group to maintain power over another; issues of due process
6. The problem of no "no" vote. Usually in online deliberative democracy and similar ideologically-driven exercises, the proposal to remove the "no" vote is made on grounds that allowing "no" can be "gamed" maliciously; or that it can be "too negative" etc. That this doesn't obtain in a real-life organic situation such as a proposition in California about whether you are for or against gay marriage seldom perturbs the proponents of the "no no vote".
7. The problem of "housekeepers" -- the greatest challenge of any democracy isn't just protecting the people (the users) from the state (the coders), it's protecting people from each other (minorities from majorities) --there are always people who want to close others' proposals as "undoable"; people who declare certain ones "duplications"; the "tyranny of who shows up" (the regulars who "have no lives" do everything); the problem of retiring proposals with too few votes, of "voting comments up and down," etc.
In following these "7 deadly flaws," you have three main battles at first in establishing the system:
The first battle of any deliberative democracy experiment *should* be (but rarely is) about the coders and their ethics. How honest will they be in setting up the system? Do the users participate in decisions about the code with them on an equal basis or are they dismissed as "technologically incompetent"? Do the coders insist on handling everything and then disempower the user? Do they bleed their own ideologies into the tools (copyleftism, collectivism)? Are they accountable? Do they make decisions without notification or involvement of the user base? Unfortunately, the ethics and morals and culture of the coders are the last thing people in an online democracy ever think of; they take it for granted until it is too late.
Watch Out for No No Vote
The second battle is over the "no no vote" situation. You will be surprised how many times people who seem to be "for democracy" and "democratic" suddenly began to demand that the "no" be removed. Watch for it. If you cannot keep the "no," that's the first sime that you are already in a disempowered situation. You should not be frog-marched into accepting the "no no" by tales of how "positive, progressive proposals" should be put rather than evoking a "negative".
All that happens when you remove the normal organic "no" from any human system through such social engineering is that it merely shows up elsewhere. People make proposals that are in fact the "no" to other proposals, put in positive version.
What is the Constituency?
The third battle to be fought is over the power source; the source of legitimacy for the entire exercise. In real life, there were elements like "committees of correspondence" and "the constituent assembly" and the drafting of the Constitution before the vote -- and that's no accident, it's because you do need to establish what the community is, its common goals, its rules of the road, before you begin debates and votes.
Nowadays its fashionable to say the Constitutional framers are now disqualified because they were white property owners and even slave-owners. I reject that as multicultural Marxist claptrap. I see entire college text books and recommended reading lists in college these days with this discredited notion. That this bunch of white guys still made a system that produce the vote for women, the end of slavery and and civil rights for minorities, somehow escapes them. They found this model working too slow? Did they want to try the model over in China, Russia, India, Brazil, whatever then? Please.
It also shows a shocking lack of appreciation of how the Supreme Court defines the Constitution in rulings that become the law of the land and how important that is in defining the modern issues and updating the system. The notion that the Constitution is "like" Orville Wright's airplane that we would want to update to be sure to have the latest model (the analogy used by one professor) is just silly: the Supreme Court *is* the updating model.
And you have to drill down with this -- what exactly do these Marxist professor types really mean by saying that there had to be women, blacks, Native Americans, etc. in the constitutional drafting club? Do they mean that their presence would bring some special insights, some *different* way of doing things, some *better* way? Not really. Are they saying that these groups represent monolithic thinking in each case? All women, all Native Americans, all blacks are each perfectly uniform political groups? See, that's their implied notion. And that's really silly.
You want diversity? Even minorities that you brought to have diversity are more diverse than you seem willing to admit, professors. In fact, usually what I find in these debates that what this is about is to have "the people of colour" and "the disenfranchised" stand in to launch the Trojan Horse to dismantle capitalism, representative democracy, etc. and replace it with a revolutionary People's Commissariat. Usually the utopian complaining about the actualities of the framers imagine they could get something completely different than the messy democracy they have now with its liberal capitalism and unequal results -- they imagine if they could have a multicultural scene like the Soviet movie Circus (multiculturalism comes from the Soviet ideological campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s), everything would be fine. Everything would be different *the way they want to make it, with this sort of instrumentality*.
So complaints about this sort of "lack of diversity" is usually a stalking horse for "lack of a majoritarianism that would insert my point of view". I always watch for this in everything from a Personal Democracy Forum on up. Why the crying and wringing of hands by the Deanna Zandt's of the world (educated in German radicalism) that there are too many white people in the audience, or too many men? If we brought her Clarence Thomas, the black conservative Supreme Court justice, would that fix it for her? Of course not. If we brought her Pamela Geller, the conservative blogger who obsesses about Islam, would that fix the female problem? Of course not. Because it was never about real gender or real race representation, but the exploitation of these groups as icons of a "progressive" movement that will bring justice to us all -- if only they get the meeting packed lol.
The constituency of these onling things is never clear. It's whoever shows up. Or an invited group that lets in outsiders only in dribs or drabs "in the beta". Or whatever it is. But somewhere there's somebody who is going to insist on "civility" or who will demand moderation or demand exclusion -- and the question is to determine whether a) this person or group is legitimate b) they are honest brokers for conflict and disputes c) they will not eject people who disagree with them on specious grounds of being "trolls", etc.
There's a lot here. It really is not simple. People who think they are in a likeminded group may find they aren't when they disagree on these modalities.
How to Protect Dissent and Minorities and Adjudicate Disputes?
But where the pain really starts is when people who do not agree, who come from wildly different backgrounds, levels of education, value systems, etc. have to share this set of very inadequate tools -- and they will always be inadequate because *they are not organic, they are coded in a binary black/white system*.
The problems really start to ensue when there is no way to protect minorities or dissenters because there is a "forking" view common to open-source culture -- one strong dictator and his minions decide the course for the group, and others are told "there's the door". Or worse, in the name of accommodating dissent, endless deliberations are held to get "consensus," which is merely a means of wearing down dissenters. Because of the ideological refusal to have up and down yes/no votes, the group stalls endlessly. The way in which dissent and disagreement will be adjudicated really matters. Occupy Wall Street might still be in Zucotti park if the majority had been able to rein in the minority who refused to stick to the group's community agreement not to have drumming after 11 pm and if they had been able to stop urinating in the street, drug use, and even sexual assault by ejecting the people who engaged in those disruptive activities.
Where Will the Experiment Take Place?
It would be great if Carne Ross could intuitively realize that the place for his deliberative experiment is Second Life -- for a lot of reasons. But likely due to the snickering or disparagement of his peers, he'll be convinced that a Facebook or some other still-to-be-cooded Online Deliberator will be invented -- somebody's Moodle or Muddle -- and he'll use that. And it will have no no vote.
I can't help thinking of that 8,000 person online "massively multi student online course" or whatever it was called with the goofy Connectivists who used various gadgets to try to sift opinion ostensibly in "deliberation," but it was really the two instructors, a close set of their very closely-knit ideological friends and a smaller outer ring of fanboyz that set everything. You have to watch this sort of filtering because filtering under the guise of housekeeping and tidying up is often very political, and gets away with not being so. Remember: Stalin took the minutes in the Politburo. Look at how that turned out.
Below is my response to Carne's blog -- with lots and lots of detail -- which didn't clear the mod queue. Likely it was too long for the template.
Response to Carne Ross
That's the issue of online democracy -- basically, who gets to hold the conch, who gets the template, how big it is, how much it can fit, who gets to see it, who gets to close it. It becomes about the tools, who wields them, and what ideology they bake into it.
This will be a very long-winded response -- longer than your proposal -- because I've actually thought about these issues and lived them and practiced them in online voting experiments for the last seven years, so I have a lot to say about this.
I'll be the first to second your opinion about the stalemate of the UN, Carne, but again, the bloc system you always rant about is a function first of the Group of 77, the OIC, etc. -- the West doesn't really have blocs, unless you think WEOG and, oh, the Community of Democracies are pillars of strength, running resolutions from victory to victory.
There's a small but concerted body of progressives who scorn Second Life as not "inclusive enough of the third world" blah blah -- but of course, othe progressives like the Daily Kos people use it for their weekly radio show just fine. Yes, the Internet is unfair. And it's unfair not because everybody isn't wired yet, but because the framers (Tim Berners Lee) and the developers (Mark Zuckerberg, Biz Stone, etc.) have created a kind of online culture and methodology already for "deliberation" which in my view is the first thing that has to be overthrown, or at least challenged to become only one faction in a parliamentary democracy that has multiple factions.
What you're describing is a select tribe running the discussion and running the vote -- a kind of salon of the transnational wired elite that Evgeny Morozov always seems to be pining for. It's merely a way of overthrowing representative democracy and not-so-democratic parliaments of the world in ways that are troubling in themselves.
This hypothetical you're describing is one already being prototyped in a way by the large online community of Second Life. About a million people log on every month and they vote on various issues pertaining to the software of the world itself, the features of the world, the politics of the world -- which aren't real life politics but aren't a game or a play, either, because they involve the very issues of all online platforms, which revolve around property definitions and management, economic decisions, constituents and lobbies, the individual, the role of the "no" vote, the gaming of the system, etc.
And here's what I've found really confounds large online "participatory democracy" experiments.
o the problem of the devs -- the worst problem of any system is that system's own developers and their hacker culture and their lack of ethics. This is a HUGE problem that everyone who cares about liberal democracy has to be highly aware of when they get started on these ventures of online "participatory democracy"
o the problem of alts, even if you use IP addresses and even hardware hashes, i.e. the specifics of individual computers as an identifier -- there are false positives from people in dorms, family members in a house, people in large apartment buildings, proxy users, small nations with few ISPs, etc. -- all producing similar IPs even in a dynamically changing IP system over time, which dyanamically changes, but with a set list.
The Facebook log-on system is one way out of this, but then inevitably someone starts whining there -- activists who can't out their real life name are banned from FB; poor people can't be on FB...or something. I reject these notions as outliers -- go to Google Groups if you need to be anonymous and unaccountable. I flag this issue of the very log-on to your lovely utopian voting system as your very first issue and problem.
o the problem of the "tyranny of who shows up" -- these are the lifers, the regulars, the people who have the time to work online forums while others are at work or otherwise occupied with raising children, etc. So these lifers go and frame issues, vote, post comments to shift opinion in a concerted way and throw the system; others disenfranchised in this way or booted for objecting end up simply opting out of the experiment completely
o the problem of the geeks' propensity to take the "no" vote out of the system and force "yes" votes on "positive proposals" because they hate "no" -- they hate the "griefing" of it and they have ideological biases against it. If you don't believe me, take 10 of your best geek friends and test this on them, they will all recommend taking out the "no" and tell you it is "gamed".
o flash mobbing -- real life has flash mobbing of sorts, but online amplifies it horrendously; on obscure issues where interest is hard to drum up, a tweet or a Facebook friend decides the outcome
o framing the issues -- the devs tend to want to frame the issues or claim its a "technical" matter and are reluctant to have open drafting of issues -- they lead to a long tail of proposals that are literally hard to fit in any viewer and also pose a challenge for any search system
o the politics of the search system to find the issues -- should you use just SQL and dbase tables? Should you insert a Google Search Appliance? Search is very, very political as you may have noticed when you see Google changing their algorithms -- who codes the search wins the voting mechanism unless every inch of the way, there is democratic oversight over the culture of the coders. They also tend to just reward their friends in various ways. Whose search term gets to be on top, Carne? Somebody whose web page has lots of links to it that they maybe gamed with click farming? Or that quiet thoughtful page without much traffic but a very high reputation of authority?
o reputational point systems decided to deal with these problems of how to track proposals and authority -- themselves often gamed or unfair -- I think a key corrective, as with the vote on the propositions themselves, is to have negative as well as positive ratings permitted, to not worry about the gaming and griefing, and to have the points fall out every 90 days with a clean slate again that has to be earned again
o online automatic tools for posting feature requests or proposals tend to have exigencies in them that discourage people -- space limitations, inability to detect similar proposals such as to merge them, etc. A key challenge of these systems after you get them actually functioning well is how to merge proposals effectively, taking all the votes with you -- the mechanical and political issues of doing this.
o The issue of how to close a proposal -- this is hugely, hugely political -- if you have the stamina, watch the battle of WEB-382 on the Second Life JIRA, or bug-tracking and features platform, my proposal to insist that no proposal can ever be closed down by anyone else, and only by the author, and what a firestorm of debate was raging over that for a year with Linden Lab opposing me because they wanted to "clean up" unattended proposals or "get rid of what they didn't like" -- but ultimately, the proposal was accepted and incorporated. Finally, no one could have his proposal closed as "off topic" or "not doable" or something. The problem is that the gamerz found a new way to close things in other ways by declaring them as "needing more research".
o You note the usual "civility" stuff -- no use of violence; no abuse; perhaps the "Indian Talking Stick", where all who speak are required to articulate the position of the prior speaker before uttering their own).
The problem is always in who gets to define this. A bunch of thin-skinned geeks in San Francisco with a very decided cyberutopian worldview who brook no dissent? A bunch of middle-aged female NPR listeners with very high-minded ideas of what's right? The average TOS that governs these things is always overbroad, and most importantly, has no ombudsmen or due process.
Before instituting a voting and deliberative system, you really need the appeals process locked down so it is fair when people begin to try to seize power by declaring others as "trolls" and beyond the pale. But in making the appeals process, you run smack up against something: what you need for fairness are...institutions. You know, things that have rules and the Rule of Law. And that's what the geeks -- and you -- want to dispense with as you feel it is stale, hopelessly mired in bloc interests, etc.
If you think the Security Council is hopelessly mired in bloc interests, I guess you've never really studied online communities and how *they* are mired in bloc interests, that those with the power of code can prevail on every time.
Who is the governing body administering this lovely online voting plan? The British parliament with centuries of tradition and a hardy sense of Roberts Rules of Order? or a bunch of 20-year-old Americans who have never even studied their own constitution and who have been educated by the Internet and Wikipedia at best who happen to have computer engineering jobs? See what I mean?
Your vision of the 18th century salon where you're going to have this lovely experience is unencumbered by the truth of online life, Carne.
A lot of this ground has been covered in lots of communities, from Digg, which is undergoing a revolt now as the devs tried to rein it in to make it more democratic, to Second Life, where the devs are now taking out the vote (!).
In the real-time interactive world of Second Life, the talking stick and the speaker's soap box as mechanical objects have been tried, i.e. you queue up after clicking on the box and if you try to talk out of turn, the box yells SORRY YOU MUST WAIT YOUR TURN and ultimately the manager can even boot you from the sim if you kept spamming. The talking stick idea breaks down online in real-time chat where you can see a variety of voices talking at once in constantly moving consecutive lines.
Inevitably, you get one person slowly typing in response to what a previous person said and another person chiming in before the second person finishes typing -- these are mechanical issues that can be fixed with various icons (like typing hands, like italics saying "is typing" etc. but -- it's very very hard to stop a live chat room.
There are professionals in Second Life such as the talk show Metanomics run by a Cornell University professor of economics who have honed this discussion management to a science, although their moderation is still biased. They cope with voice chat, room chat that is called "back chat", bridge channel chat which is piped in from the rest of the Internet, group chat (another layer of IMs in a group) -- all these channels have to be managed, combined, and mined in real time for the speakers to be coherent and manage the debate.
The "sage on the stage" concept of yesteryear where only two or six talking heads get to talk and everyone else sits silently are long over -- everybody talks at once, and that's ok -- your notion of sedate avatars sitting online and quietly handing one another the conch -- well, Carne, I can only say, let me give you a tour of Second Life so you can see this in the round better. Those days are over. They're over on Twitter and Facebook and thousands of Livestreamed events with real-world/virtual participation on the Internet, too.
I'm very suspicious of "deliberative democracy" because of the power issues and the culture issues of hackers that are rivulated through it, where notions of "civility" are biased; where power belongs to the coders.
A lot of the Gov 2.0 stuff being down in the United States now is actually removing democracy, not adding it, even with rhetoric about improving it. The average Gov 2.0 site has less voting capacity than a Facebook page with its "likes" on issues that friends hash out every morning. Whitehouse.gov, supposedly an exemplar of the lovely Drupal democracy with the progressive values baked right into the code, as its devs claim, has...a template like the 1990s geocities cites for you to write an opinion. No votes, no nothing. Certainly no forums.
I'm all for having a model UN online that deliberates various things as if "free of blocs". But what's the real plan to represent countries? Instead of Churkin, hordes of right-wing Russian soccer fans online with anonymous nics?
Oh, you're going to dispense with countries and just have the InternIntern show up, the people who care about the Internet and online voting? But those are just mainly Western "progressives' with some of their favourite third-world mascots of the right sort of thinking. I think it's great if you get online and deliberate, but don't call it a bold new experiment in deliberative democracy, just call it an NGO of the like-minded.
The greatest challenge I find with deliberation online is how to manage the debate without the inevitable tendency of some party or power playing the "civility" card to silence real debate, and without some party or power insisting the people reach consensus, as some kind of lovely utopian goal, rather than political compromise, which is what real parliaments do, through an up and down vote.
Indeed, the chief reason the geeks in these systems want to take out the "no" vote is so that they never have to force issues to a vote, but can always prevail with consensus -- much like the bad actors in the UN.
Online people on the Interwebs don't own property or have military forces, unless, of course, you count their Second Life land and their army of bots in SL. And that means they tend to think in the abstract about settlements that are untethered to the necessity of compromise.
Ultimately, I really fear that your notion, that seems fine in your hands, is corporativist once other powers seize it:
>The debating group might aim to produce a set of propositions upon which they had agreed, coloured in with their own views and preferences. The larger on line group would then vote, producing a decision. In this way, I hope, you might replicate the virtues of mass participation (something the UN very much does not permit, of course) without its flaws: the idiotic, lowest-common-denominator name-calling and simplification one sees in most internet forums. Such a system would also enjoy the benefits of smaller group debate - real discussion, understanding, respect - but without excluding everyone else.
Here are the problems:
1. Who gets to pick those lovely smaller debating groups? Who gets to be in them? Micah Sifry?
2. Who gets to frame the propositions, how will they be drafted?
3. Who gets to referee on what "name-calling" is? Do you realize that name-calling is in fact protected speech in the U.S., see Times v. Sullivan, a hallmark freedom of the media case. Ad hominem attacks aren't illegal; they're just a Boys' Latin School point system that you might collect during a rhetorics debate. The judgement about what 'ad hominem' extends sometimes to any criticism about anyone at all, and a failure to be "positive'.
4. What is simplification? Are you to accept as an arbiter the online site that definitely skews to the left, Politifact? (I drilled on just one controversial judgement there in this post.)
Ultimately, like many activists in the world, you seem to have in mind a transnational elite that will reach out to its fellow like-minded kindred and undermine and overthrow states. The problem is this transnational elite is not good at persuading other people, even very intelligent people outside that elite, that it is right about its notions.