I went to see Clay Shirky speak at the ICA this afternoon, as part of a tour to launch the paperback version of Here Comes Everybody. And even though I’d heard him launch the hardback (at the RSA, around a year ago), I found what he had to say fresh and compelling.
Clay spent some time extending his “group action just got easier” theme. As a recent example, he took a look at Improv Everywhere and their No Pants Day; as ever, he kept reminding us of the possibilities afforded by group action. In his words “What happens if you take something that people are good at doing, that people like doing, and make it simpler and cheaper?’ “What happens when the medium of communication is global, ubiquitous, social and cheap?”
He then spent some time on the “social” third sector, distinguished from the revenue- and profit-driven private sector and the social-value-creation driven public sector. Comment was also made on the ability of small groups in such social contexts to protect themselves against freeloaders, in contrast to the tolerance shown to freeloaders by larger groups, ostensibly as a result of their inability to defend themselves.
The Gnarly Kitty example was also interesting, with its “in the public but not for the public” stance. Intriguingly, in this context, Clay averred that journalism had morphed from a profession to an activity.
The most interesting part of the debate was when he touched various aspects of Barack Obama’s campaign and early presidency. He walked us through the Will.I.Am video and its impact, particularly when one bears in mind the fact that the Obama campaign didn’t commission the video, pay for it in any way or even endorse it; yet it had a material effect on making people believe that the Obama presidency was actually possible, that it had moved into the bounds of reality.
There’s a lot more I could cover, but I will not be able to do it justice here; you’re better off reading others like Michael Mahemoff, who covered it well here. Better still, go buy the book. In the meantime, I’d like to spend some time on one particular aspect of the session. Clay talked to us about the way marijuana legalisation was voted as No 1 of all the issues facing Obama, as reported here.
He suggested that hen something like this happens, there are really three choices. To act on the suggestions as ranked, seems wrong, in effect letting the gamers win. To cherry-pick from the suggestions seems undemocratic. So we have to do something else, which is to fix the system. And this is hard.
Why is it hard? Well, for one thing, to make this happen properly, we need to fix the treatment of identity. We need to make sure that those who were entitled to vote did so. We need to make sure that those that were entitled to vote did so once and once only. And we need to make sure that the votes so cast are collated and counted fairly and accurately.
He made a really important point here. This issue of identity is not one that is held up by the unavailability of appropriate technology; rather, it is held up by adoption, which is a social and cultural thing.
I discussed with him the possibility of learning from online communities such as opensource, which are usually governed by some version of benevolent despotry: 1000lb gorilla, moderator, core, whatever. While we can learn from such communities, we need to remember that governments differ from such communities in some critical ways: for example, people can leave opensource communities if they don’t like what’s going on; or, where they like some aspect of the output but disagree with the direction, they can fork from them; this is not easily possible with government, there are physical constructs that don’t play out as easily as the virtual or digital aspects.
I left there musing about something which has exercised my mind before in this particular context. Voting alone does not seem enough.
I think the answer has to do with taxes. What I visualise is this:
Each of us is given the opportunity to “allocate” our taxes against the specific initiatives we would like them spent on. In effect each of us would choose from hundreds of initiatives and public expenditure heads, and allocate the tax we pay, in increments, across the initiatives we want to support. The withholding of tax against a specific heading becomes a form of protest. The allocation of tax monies towards a specific initiatives becomes a strong indicator of support.
There are some risks. Prima facie such a system would be biased towards the rich, if the actual sum of money was seen as a vote. To prevent this, each person has exactly 100 units of tax-vote. My tax-vote may be worth more or less than my next-door neighbour, but from a voting perspective it carries the same weight. A widow’s mite is the same as the billionaire’s largesse.
Another risk is in the likely imbalance between the allocation of funds and the usage of funds, as it were. When people withhold funds from initiatives they will definitely gain from, in effect “fractional freeloading.” One way to avoid this is to make everyone’s allocation visible.
Which in turn leads to an interesting question. As we proceed down this route, as we become more and more reliant on the internet to exercise our democratic rights, duties and powers, what price anonymity? Will a person’s vote stay secret? Should it?
One thing is clear. While there are many technological advances in the context of democratic action, there are still many issues to solve. Identity, confidentiality and privacy form one set. Freeloading and the Tragedy of the Commons forms a second set. These are not the only sets, but probably the most important. And they have to be seen in the context of social and cultural change, and not as technical or process barriers.