The contiguous society

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The exponential growth of computing power has created unprecedented possibilities for the democratic organization of a people. Looking at the current voting system of democracies around the world however, very little of these digital innovations to improve the finding and execution of the ‘will of the people’ have been realized. It is largely unchartered territory, in which smaller nations with little bureaucratic inertia will forge ahead by experimenting. Think of a country like Estonia, that became the first nation to hold national elections using Internet voting in 2005.

Using the Internet for casting ballots is merely an improvement in efficiency (if we can be sure that the systems are safe). It doesn’t affect the nature of democracy. Voting is still an event that happens once every four years or so, and democratic societies oscillate between rallies for the party and complaints about the disconnect of their elected representatives. Politics proper, the art of transferring power from the people to a select group of law-making and executive personnel, is a seasonal thing.

Does not our fast world require fast politics? Does not our contiguous society require contiguous politics? What I mean is this. In our always-online world, the event has been replaced by the stream. Everything is in flow; you never browse the same time line twice. Receiving a letter, for example, used to be an event. It was separated from other events by time. It was assumed that the recipient didn’t reply immediately, people didn’t experience a stream of communication, but a series of events. The fact that Facebook allows us to share “life events” shows how the stream is usurping the event. We graduate, fall in love, marry, give birth and die, somewhere on the way scrolling down.

The notion of an event has in fact become almost synonymous with destruction. We think of a terrorist attack (or a government trying to prevent one) that can disrupt our Internet. It seems to be archaic that we still stick with elections as events.

Given the rapid increase in technological power, we have the means to change this. What lacks is the desire to do so: in the offline world we are still very much (or even more) fond of our habits. We celebrate elections and cherish the illusion that every citizen makes a ‘decision’ by casting their vote. But societal processes are essentially continuously run algorithms and that means they can be optimized like algorithms. A true democracy would be a continuous polling machine that is never switched off. The electorate can vote anywhere, anytime, resulting in a real-time representation of the ‘will of the people’. This doesn’t mean that the government will change every week, because there will be constitutional thresholds for the amount of disagreement with the current government that is expressed in the continuous poll to have political consequences. Constitutional? The most effective threshold will be calculated by another algorithm. The Constitution is a set of preconditions that algorithms are designed to satisfy continuously.

Apart from voting, we can deploy an algorithm to calculate individual tax rates (positive and negative tax, or “basic income”) optimizing the amount of distributive justice in society according to the same continuous democratic preferences. Receiving wellfare or “paying your taxes” ceases to be an event. In the contiguous society, it is part of the stream.

The Constitution is a set of preconditions that algorithms are designed to satisfy continuously.

There are a lot of interesting philosophical implications that are beyond the scope of this note. If our social actions are no longer events, they also lose the “narrative arc”, the anticipation or regret that is perhaps our main supplier of meaning. Thus, human interaction and language will be different. One could also say that the Event is always – and never – happening.

The contiguous society was originally published on Meandering home

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