Democracy Needs a New OS


Soon enough, every single instance of our ventures in the public commons will be tracked.  So, where do you store the vast data that is going to be generated by endless camera feeds?  How about in synthetic DNA? You can now put petabytes of video in a few grams.

So, where does that lead us?  It leads us to a world where everything actually is recorded.  Now what?  Is this a nightmare scenario?  Well, to me, having 7 billion people randomly bumping into each other without ways to self-generate organizational systems (besides Nation-states, NGOs and Corporations) is the real nightmare.  The short answer is, don’t look for answers in our traditional legal system, since the termanology and ideals of the 17-20th Centuries don’t map accurately to this new frontier.

The Constitution is a great piece of technology, but it is fundamentally incapable of dealing with advances in human tracking and recognition that we’re seeing right now.  For example: How can the concept of probable cause in recording phone calls or tracking movement apply when all digital communications and physical movements of everyone in the public commons are being recorded?  When instead of actually tracking someone, all you are doing is playing back a recording of tracking they have already consented to by carrying a smartphone?  What if I told you this future started happening last decade?

The obvious response most people come back with is “well, we have a right to privacy!”.  Well, besides saying a higher power gave you those rights, there is no scientific evidence that any Natural Rights actually exist beyond the words we use to point at these concepts.  Read John Locke sometime – he justifies Rights because God gave them to man in the Garden of Eden.  So, if not Rights, how about powers…if we want the power of anonymity, we’re going to have to recognize that in the coming world there are other entities exerting their powers, and conflicts will emerge.

The fundamental question is: How do we increase efficiencies (security, happiness, freedom) in this new, digitally eusocial world?  And while civil liberty organizations will tell you otherwise, I see our dependance on the Constitution as a massive bottleneck in finding answers to these questions.  Because at root, the Constitution is a technical document that describes how to build a Representative Democracy in the late 18th Century.  But remember, that was a world where for all intents and purposes, people were anonymous by default, and the Government had all the power.  Now the inverse is clearly true.

Think that digitally connected individuals can’t change the world?  Ignore the Arab Spring, look toward Iceland as a model.

In the end, we can’t depend on whistleblowers and wikileaks to save us, we need to take initiative and build open systems that take law enforcement and governance out of the hands of the plutocracy and give it to the people.  The only solution is to build, in effect, a new operating system for society that operates on top of the previous one – and respects it’s ideals, while providing ways to answer questions like “who guards the guards?” (probable answer: the prisoners).

Think of the way Windows 95 sat on top of DOS.  DOS was still there, but you didn’t need to hit the command prompt to get things to work anymore.  The future of Democracy will work much this way.  We will build decentralized, open-source, and Agile software that works with our ubiquitous network and device infrastructures. Software that provides a competitive advantage to “pure” Constitutional Democracy in terms of maximizing comfort and freedom of individuals and groups.  And we’ll wake up one day and realize that instead of arguing whether or not a new technology violates the 4th Amendment, we’ll be tweaking our societal OS in real-time to adjust to changing variables.  All evolution favors adaptability, which is probably the most crucial reason our Constitution has survived at all.  If we want it to survive for the next 100 years, we’re going to have to build new organs to control and regulate ourselves, and quit depending on lawyers to do it for us.  Engineers, unite: you have nothing to lose but your anonymity.

Worth reading:  The Social Conquest of Earth by E.O. Wilson

2 Responses to “Democracy Needs a New OS”

  • Nice post Chas! What do you think of Obama’s directive that all government agencies are required to have an API? How do you think that should grow to touch on the things you’ve written about?

    • Chas Mastin says:

      Obama is certainly taking a step in the right direction by demanding APIs, but if all I can do is request information it’s not really that meaningful in terms of changing the way government works. Sure, it would be cool to be able to query the Justice department to explore data sets, but what I really want to do is have an API that would let me instigate a police investigation – or something that whistleblowers could use to remain anonymous. Or systems that let swarms of people replace top-down hierarchies of government. Doesn’t it seem strange that we let our elected reps decide what to do with our tax dollars? Shouldn’t we have the right to decide where money is actually spent? Why not an API that lets us direct exactly where our taxes go – it wouldn’t be even as complex as a Sims game, and could change everything we know about the way government works for us.

      The truth is, we don’t even need tech to make changes like this – it could all be done on paper, once a year, on our tax forms. But it won’t happen, because government is full of poorly domesticated primates hurling feces to protect their turfs. The only way to change these systems is to build technology that takes advantage of blind spots in the system – that’s the way evolution has worked for billions of years, and it will work here too.

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