Clay Shirky at the ICA

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.

15 thoughts on “Clay Shirky at the ICA”

  1. Interesting post JP. I has got me thinking about the value of identity as voice. I guess there is a danger that votes will tend to be cast towards emotive subjects like health and away from dull but essential infrastructural subjects. Not sure how you deal with that.

    I often remind myself a quote of Shirkey’s:
    “When we change the way we communicate, we change society”

    I think identity is an essential part of the communication metadata and its place is assured but unclear.

    Thanks for the brain food

  2. Always a pleaaure to read.. Surely this also means that some things get more money than they might in a differently fair world. Eg It is often pointed out that cancer charities get more money than mental health ones as they are more ‘popular’ themes. Surely it is a utopian ideal to live in a world where everyone is equally well informed bit we actually live in a world today where The Daily Mail is the source of many of the values of the people that vote. now that won’t help me get to sleep!

  3. I was going to write a comment, but it’s turning in to a post instead. I was at the previous evening’s talk at LSE (my write up here: Mass Collaboration Snow Joke – I was having a bad headline day ;) ), and was struck by his comments on the workings of the democratic franchise too. The Internet grew up on a culture of ambiguity of identity, but visibility of opinion. It will be interesting to see how these things mash together!

    We may get dragged into redesigning voting systems, as you discuss here, although I ‘m not sure we’ll like what we discover on the way. Trackback from post coming soon.

  4. I was at Clay Shirky’s lecture the previous day, and he touched upon similar points re. the medical marijuana and crowdsourced government. While the capability is there, the legitimacy isn’t. He quoted James Madison by saying that factions will always emerge to game the system, and therefore checks and balances ARE required.

    This is certainly a difficult question to answer – your musing over a moderator as benevolent dictator is one option, but would quickly breed contempt among those who feel their legitimate views are being marginalised/suppressed

  5. Thanks for this, JP. Sounds like a inspiring talk.
    I too am curious about the tax vote model – would the “dull infrastructure projects” be provided for by a default funding of “core” services ?
    If so, would this be a mandatory allocation from each voter’s 100 credits or would their allocation appear to remain wholly discretionary?
    To minimise the effect of fractional freeloading, would allocations be capped (i.e. to prevent 100 credits being allocated to policing etc.,)?

  6. This issue of where the money gets allocated via votes is an intriguing one, for a variety of reasons.

    There is the argument provided in many forms in the comments above “What’s to prevent someone placing all their chips in their preferred basket?”….whether it is choosing their favourite charity, putting everything into policing or education or sanitation or expressways or whatever. This is the argument that suggests people may be too stupid to be able to make sensible choices.

    And then we have the “normal” way. Which is to assume that people *are* too stupid to make good allocation decisions. Which is to assume that some “higher class” of person gets to decide what core infrastructure is, what merit goods are, and so on.

    In the end it’s really an argument about wisdom-of-crowds versus “experts”. And I guess I’m a wisdom-of-crowds man for things like this. Of course there are many arenas, places, zones where expertise is called for. Like I don’t want wisdom-of-crowds performing open heart surgery on me as yet, and I can’t afford opensource drivers in my pacemaker as yet.

    But you know what? “expertise” is overrated for much of what we call government and administration.

    Just take a look around the world we live in. What hath expertise wrought?

  7. JP:

    You ask if a person’s vote will remain secret. The assumption is that it is secret.

    As I see it, each ballot paper is uniquely numbered for a voter. When one goes to the polling station, they verify it against a list with an official ID (although in postal voting this additional step isn’t there). Then one takes a _pencil_ and marks one’s preference and puts it into the ballot box.

    Now although driven by principles, in local elections, I have always been an issue-based voter. In my 10 years of voting in various elections, I wonder how the party/ candidate I voted for _always_ knows I voted for them. It is evident in their follow-up communiques.

    I once registered a protest vote against my then MP, Theresa May who was skating on a this margin of 3000. Come next election time, the party I had voted for sent me a note saying: we welcome your continued support. How do they know? And no, they were not the second party by a considerable margin.

    Call me sceptical, but I find it hard to believe that my vote is secret even now. It is just that if all is on the web, I may be, as a voter, called upon to _defend_ my vote but other than that, I don’t think the web changes much else re secrecy of my voting preferences.

  8. The idea of essentially making all (or a substantial) portion of taxes hypothecated is suddenly an interesting debate because of the point Hal Varian made recently:

    “… the computer can monitor that transaction, record the information, collect the data, and assure that the transaction is carried out the way it was intended to be carried out. So one of the subtle implications of this is you can now write contracts and make contracts enforceable that simply weren’t enforceable before…”

    Previously – except in very specific and highly engineered cases – politicians could largely ignore the call for debate on this kind of system because quite simply it was logistically impossible to envision. No more. Let the debate commence…

  9. Hypothecated (what a lovely word, Sean) taxes would not work, I think, at the limit of real-time decision making in changing economic contexts. But as people-led guideline for government is certainly very interesting. We already have quaisi-hypthecated taxes in that one elects a government that promises to spend more or less on various things – very coarse grained, of course. This particular idea is obviously more fine-grained.

    An interesting side-effect would be that anyone who wanted to spend more on something would have to select a portfolio of things on which to spend less. Can’t remember the source or even if my memory is entirely correct but someone once proposed that the greatest change that could be made to government was that anyone who proposed to spend more money on something had to say what they would spend less on.

    On the secrecy of votes and allocation issues this seems to be fundamentally one of civil liberties. The argument, as always, being that each reduction in civil liberties, freedom, individual rights and privacies leads inexorably to the next reduction and how sure are you that you can trust government not to abuse these some time in the future or even in the next five years?

  10. “anyone who proposed to spend more money on something had to say what they would spend less on.”

    This would always be culture, welfare and other soft targets that are easily dismissed by people focussing on the crisis du jour.

    A government held to account by an elected body representing two or more political parties is not a perfect system, and it’s easy to find examples of it not working very well. But as Churchill said, it’s hard to think of a better one.

    There’s a good reason why taxes are not currently hypothecated, and real-time decision making won’t alter that. What it might ultimately do is make the nation state look as outdated as the large corporation does at the moment.

    I’m not Peter Kropotkin so I don’t know what the alternative might be, but I don’t think Sean is being radical enough…

  11. (on the internet) “It will bring about the extinction of the nation-state as we know it… I think it will be as big a deal as the creation of cities.” – William Gibson

    The elephant in the room that no one – at Davos, at Westminster, in Washington, etc. – wants to acknowledge is that the current socio-institutional framework based on national laws and customs is quickly looking irredeemably anachronistic in a connected world. And trying to shoehorn the increasingly square peg into an obviously round hole just looks futile and soon will look pathetic. But turkeys (national leaders) don’t vote for Christmas, and so will almost certainly hold on desperately to the status quo well past its sell-by date. Even more so because those in power are the least well adapted (because of their age) to the new techno-economic paradigm.

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