The contiguous society

Image Wikipedia

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 In our always-online world, the event has been replaced by the stream.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

August 3. Beauty at Smolenskaya.

Lice have attacked me. I know now where the itching is coming from and go to a pharmacy. Pointing at my head and saying the Russian word “Botsch” is enough to make the woman open a drawer and get me a Glaxo-box with a lot of Cyrillic on it, and funny pictures of what I identify as lice. I try it out on the toilet of my next coffee place, there is a little white comb and I guess you have to put the cream on it before you pull it through your hair. A moment later, the teeth of the comb are full of dead lice. It works, I win. We all win. I would have liked to have a conversation with one of those lice, but that seems to be impossible. What is there to say anyway?

Society forces us to tell merely success stories. We have to understand our lives as blots on the strata of success narratives. I see a violinist on the Arbat street today, holding his instrument against his round belly, and I remember my thoughts about the success narrative.

I am hiding from the flatmate of my couchsurfer. Is this me? After all those months, all those terrific experiences? Deterioriated. Still traveling feels better than whatever I used to do before I left. At least I feel alive. I wrote a note about this on my hand, I read the blots of ink on my skin in a coffee place with mindless music and busy people suffocating something I cannot name anymore. You should not be hiding from the flatmate of your couchsurfer only because he obviously doesn’t like you and asks repeatedly when do you go for good in broken English, his voice is like a serpent, strangling anyone with goose down sensitivity. Why? I have been considerate and lenient toward the guy. When do you leave for ever? When do you leave? I leave when I fucking die you louse, you, you, I leave soon enough. We all leave soon enough and yet you want to speed up the process? I don’t want to be in a place where someone doesn’t like me. Have to go. I take my backpack and leave with Sam. Find the way to Smolenskaya station, try to eat some food. Must grow fatter so that you don’t need to worry. I want to have chubby arms and a chest with meat on it. Coffee diet is no good. This city is so busy, the people scare me. They all work long hours to pay their rent – rent in Moscow is astronomically high. They can check out but they can never leave. What would I do if I were one of them? I would go. Buy a book about edible mushrooms and live in a forest. But I am not one of them. Somehow, their ignoring me can’t compete with my ignoring them. The writer is back, there must be no superficial chit-chat about the silent gris facades our shadows scratch when we travel the world. There must be life, Janus-faced life with its ugly drooling mouth wide open and its sensuous seductive mouth close enough to our ears to keep us going on and on. Behold, where can we find beauty? It must be here, I ordain her to be here. There she is hiding between the purple pansies in the big flower pots. There she is in the elegant wide swing of the tram’s electricity cables. There she is in the rims of the passing cars, in the pictoresque scattered clouds, in the reflection of those clouds, in the gestures of the smoking women, in the arrows on the bulging asphalt, in the cyrillic letters for “rubli” on the car billboard spanning the bulvard, in the fan-shaped arrangement of paper napkins in the paper napkin holder, in the empty garbage bag punching forward gently or abruptly, blown by the wind of the evening traffic, in one of the seven Stalin skyscrapers at Smolenskaya that I see when I look out of the window of this fancy café. There she is on my decree, there she is and there she ought to be. And now anybody ask me with their lips and nostrils contracted in surly contempt when I leave forever? I don’t care.

August 3. Beauty at Smolenskaya.

Lice have attacked me. I know now where the itching is coming from and go to a pharmacy. Pointing at my head and saying the Russian word “Botsch” is enough to make the woman open a drawer and get me a Glaxo-box with a lot of Cyrillic on it, and funny pictures of what I identify as lice. I try it out on the toilet of my next coffee place, there is a little white comb and I guess you have to put the cream on it before you pull it through your hair. A moment later, the teeth of the comb are full of dead lice. It works, I win. We all win. I would have liked to have a conversation with one of those lice, but that seems to be impossible. What is there to say anyway?


Society forces us to tell merely success stories. We have to understand our lives as blots on the strata of success narratives. I see a violinist on the Arbat street today, holding his instrument against his round belly, and I remember my thoughts about the success narrative.

I am hiding from the flatmate of my couchsurfer. Is this me? After all those months, all those terrific experiences? Deterioriated. Still traveling feels better than whatever I used to do before I left. At least I feel alive. I wrote a note about this on my hand, I read the blots of ink on my skin in a coffee place with mindless music and busy people suffocating something I cannot name anymore. You should not be hiding from the flatmate of your couchsurfer only because he obviously doesn’t like you and asks repeatedly when do you go for good in broken English, his voice is like a serpent, strangling anyone with goose down sensitivity. Why? I have been considerate and lenient toward the guy. When do you leave for ever? When do you leave? I leave when I fucking die you louse, you, you, I leave soon enough. We all leave soon enough and yet you want to speed up the process? I don’t want to be in a place where someone doesn’t like me. Have to go. I take my backpack and leave with Sam. Find the way to Smolenskaya station, try to eat some food. Must grow fatter so that you don’t need to worry. I want to have chubby arms and a chest with meat on it. Coffee diet is no good. This city is so busy, the people scare me. They all work long hours to pay their rent – rent in Moscow is astronomically high. They can check out but they can never leave. What would I do if I were one of them? I would go. Buy a book about edible mushrooms and live in a forest. But I am not one of them. Somehow, their ignoring me can’t compete with my ignoring them. The writer is back, there must be no superficial chit-chat about the silent gris facades our shadows scratch when we travel the world. There must be life, Janus-faced life with its ugly drooling mouth wide open and its sensuous seductive mouth close enough to our ears to keep us going on and on. Behold, where can we find beauty? It must be here, I ordain her to be here. There she is hiding between the purple pansies in the big flower pots. There she is in the elegant wide swing of the tram’s electricity cables. There she is in the rims of the passing cars, in the pictoresque scattered clouds, in the reflection of those clouds, in the gestures of the smoking women, in the arrows on the bulging asphalt, in the cyrillic letters for “rubli” on the car billboard spanning the bulvard, in the fan-shaped arrangement of paper napkins in the paper napkin holder, in the empty garbage bag punching forward gently or abruptly, blown by the wind of the evening traffic, in one of the seven Stalin skyscrapers at Smolenskaya that I see when I look out of the window of this fancy café. There she is on my decree, there she is and there she ought to be. And now anybody ask me with their lips and nostrils contracted in surly contempt when I leave forever? I don’t care.