Core77 Design Awards
- Other Years
The internet has affirmed and challenged democratic values. Git, Wikis, and blockchain are a few of many technologies promising more democratic and fair collaborations. But their social impact is limited by the high barrier to entry for most people. Co was envisioned as a way to open up democratic, holacratic collaboration to a wider range of people// to lower barriers to entry// to create tools for democracy in a familiar context. We see that as the first step toward a more democratic, open, and just, society— both heralding a new future and affirming the internet's roots.
But before fully explaining motivations, just imagine a tool:
Google Docs, but everyone is in "suggesting" mode. So everyone can make suggestions for changes to the document, but no one can implement them into the document by themselves. To implement a change, the suggestion must get a certain number of up-votes from people with access to the document.
Tom Stoppard wrote that democracy is isn't in the voting, it's in the counting. The algorithm to determine how many votes a suggestion needs in order to be implemented is flexible, and written within the document, so that it could be altered by the same mechanism as the rest of the document — kind of like Nomic.
The same should be possible for adding or removing people's access to the document. Adding someone could, depending on application, be democratic in the same way as changing the other parts of the document. Suggestions could be anonymous, to make the document more about pure improvement and less about politics.
Building the platform within a familiar context and implementing it broadly— in any organization for which democracy and equality are core values— will warm people to the idea of its use in addressing some of our era's biggest challenges. In light of deep discontent with our systems of voting and governance (eg. the electoral college, gerrymandering, and voter ID laws), we need a space to experiment with and prove alternatives. And that space should be created in the most accessible and broadly intelligible way possible.
I originally had this idea leading up to last year's US presidential election. There was so much talk about about how none of the primary candidates from either party were fit to lead, and congress was seeing its worst approval ratings ever. I, along with a lot of my friends, were participating in all kinds of activism that seemed fruitless– how do you choose which part of a system to protest when you disagree with the entire system?
So I started thinking about the system— Some people think representative democracy is just a compromise. Like if we could, a direct democratic system would be better than a representative system. But since most people don't have enough time to participate in every government decision, we just elect people to do it for us. People who think that think it's our representatives' jobs to represent— to vote in line with how their constituents would vote. There are people who don't think this— who think that we choose representatives because we trust them more than the general public, and that we elect them to vote as they see fit– not necessarily how their constituents would vote.
I think that latter position is wrong. While a lot of people feel that the general public can't be trusted, James Suroweicki's Wisdom of Crowds makes a very compelling case against that idea. He tells the story of Sir Francis Galton, who believed so strongly that most people were stupid that he founded the field of eugenics. One day though, he was doing some statistical research at a fair. There was a game where lots of people guessed what the weight of an ox would be after it was killed and butchered. He found that while no one person was very close to the right answer, the geometric mean of everyone's answers was exactly right. You can bet that made Galton reconsider his theories on eugenics.
That same idea has myriad modern analogs. For instance, in the trivia game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire, phoning a friend you think is an expert yields the right answer about 65% of the time, while polling the audience gives the right answer about 91% of the time.
Suroweicki goes on to apply these ideas to all kinds of systems. He makes the argument that a group of people will ALWAYS make better decisions than even the smartest individual — even when there might not be a simple right answer — so long as four criteria are met: diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization, and aggregation.
He shows that many of history's biggest mistakes were caused by a systemic problem with at least one of those criteria. Stock market crashes, the challenger disaster, etc. The same could be said of our most recent election, and much of politics in general.
Solving all of the Suroweicki's potential group problems (diversity, independence, decentralization, and aggregation) in one fell swoop would be impossible, and honestly solving even one will be practically the same.
But the last criteria, aggregation, might be most immediately approachable. Machine learning algorithms have radically changed myriad industries– what if we could apply new, smarter algorithms to amalgamating a group's opinions? With huge upset over how our government counts votes, eg. electoral college and gerrymandering problems, improving how we summarize public opinion is crucial. If done well, such an improvement could eventually replace our entire political system.
Instead of electing representatives to write our laws, what if we all could collaboratively write legislation ourselves? We could have legislation for the first time in our history that was actually written by the people and for the people. It would be written in the language of the people it serves, and be much more responsive to changing circumstances than our current antiquated system is. It would simply eliminate the representatives that have served us so poorly, and elevate the public to their positions.
This idea begs myriad questions and is at this point not possible to implement. But recent technologies, like the internet in general, blockchain, open source, and wikis, suggest that it's more likely than ever before. So while it's not feasible politically, it's almost definitely feasible technologically… why not try? Change is incremental.
Luckily, this idea has immediate uses, so even if its grand utopian vision isn't immediately realized, we can begin by bringing a little more democracy to myriad smaller issues. For example:
Google docs works great for small teams. But if you have 30 or 100 or 1000 people working on a document, it quickly gets difficult to manage everybody's suggestions. So for medium to large sized teams trying to write documents democratically, whether a mission statement, a constitution, or whatever, this is immediately useful. And, more importantly, it could help ensure everyone in a team has equal say, which Google's Project Aria's research suggests is crucial for good teamwork.
It could also be interesting in local government, too. While there'd be resistance, it might be an effective tool for legislators to co-write bills, simplifying the give-and-take to an algorithm. Then, this system could be used not to subvert the current system, but to demonstrate the power of such a tool within the current system. It could be used in student government too, where there are many opinions to take into consideration, but few times when everyone is available to meet.
There's been a push for more democratic decision making in myriad spaces, trying to ensure that the people an organization is for also have say over how it operates. This could be a tool for any organization for which democracy is a core value, creating participatory budgets (again, constitutions) and other governing documents.
That includes shared living spaces // coops // other shared spaces. It offers a way to co-write rules or contracts that work for everyone.
It could improve review platforms eg. yelp. X star reviews and comments can be useful, but you have no idea whether the person writing a review is sane or if their experience is common. It could be interesting if people instead co-wrote reviews– if enough people participate, it could create much more accurate, commonly agreed-on reviews.
Creating this space to experiment with new forms of direct democracy in new places will lay the groundwork for creating more effective democratic, equal, and just systems on all levels. Just as good democracies begin and end in small, dedicated groups of people, so should our efforts at improvement. So while it may sound small to start with better review platforms, or ways to write better co-living contracts, broad implementation of these small systems is prerequisite to scaling to solve our world's biggest challenges.