Extreme Democracy at Future Salon

I went to the Future Salon on Extreme Democracy last week. Some really interesting stuff was discussed. The Future Salon weblog has a full description with links, so I’ll just add my couple thoughts.

I really really like what Zack Rosen is doing over at CivicSpace. By making it easier for grass roots groups to hook up and exchange information, he’s building the infrastructure tools necessary for a new kind of bottom-up democracy that lets the best ideas bubble to the top. While I like the idea of representative democracy, it becomes hard to deliver when the representation is so coarse; in a discussion over at livejournal in response to one of my posts, doing the math made me realize that a House representative represents close to 600,000 people. That seems like far too big of a group to represent. Yet 435 Representatives in the House is already too many to have a substantive discussion. Over in that discussion, we posited the existence of something like “fractal democracy” where you have representatives of relatively small groups get together and hash things out, and then have a representative of that group go up to the next level, where it’s the same self-similar structure all the way up. And tools like CivicSpace are the way to enable such a thing. Very neat stuff.

I was also surprised by how much I liked the talk by Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute. Words like co-intelligence set off triggers in my brain of hippie new-age sentimentality, but Atlee concentrated on one key point, which is that discussions among different people often lead to better decisions. Just the very act of bringing people together who disagree can generate new and surprising solutions to old problems, as he outlines in this article. What struck me about his talk, which he outlines here, was that such deliberations allow for a new and better democracy. I lamented about democracy recently, partially based on the tendency that “When pollsters ask people for their opinion about an issue, people generally feel obliged to have one.” Given that such questions from pollsters are always framed multiple choice questions, it can lead to some pretty dumb choices. By giving citizens a forum in which they can discuss what they are actually looking for, rather than forcing them to choose among several ill-suited options, we could improve the feedback loop to government, which will hopefully lead to better decisions. It’s a way out of the bi-modal thinking that is so cognitively dangerous and limiting. A pollster asking “Are you for or against tax relief?” shuts down all other options. But in a dialogue, I could expand on my answer and say “Sure, I want lower taxes, but I also want better schools and transportation. I’m fine with the level of my taxes, but I’d like my taxes to be better spent, less on ridiculous boondoggle pork barrel defense contracts, and more on my local community.” It will be really interesting to see how Atlee’s focus on dialogue and mediation will cross-pollinate with the technology community represented by Zack Rosen at CivicSpace and Ross Mayfield at Socialtext.

It makes me want to get involved somehow. Need to start building up those tools, learning Perl, setting up a web server, etc. One step at a time.