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Understanding Democracy As Technology

Ron Rivers~May 5, 2018 /Human Experience/Politics

All of our social systems of being such as our democracy, the market economy, our views on the relation of property and contract, and the relationships between finance and the means of production should be viewed from the same lens that would we would any other technology.

In this article, I will present the argument that we have allowed our Social Technology of democracy to become outdated. If we as a collective were to turn our will, focus, and legislative efforts on experimenting with and innovating our democratic system of government we would be able to fundamentally redefine the American experience. In turn, this would open new opportunities to create a society that is focused on maximizing the human potential of every individual as opposed the ever-growing concentration of both resources and opportunities for a select few at the top of our social and economic structure.

Focusing on democracy as a vehicle for constant experimentation and improvement is not new. States were designed as labs of experimentation. Thomas Jefferson said, “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.” In essence, he thought that the dead should not rule the living.

There is also legal precedence for this concept. Upheld by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann to describe how a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” This is one of the reasons states can pass laws allowing for recreational marijuana use despite it being illegally federally.

Technology has had a profound impact on the human experience ever since our ancient ancestors picked up a stick and used it to knock down a piece of fruit hanging from a tree. Advances in technology fundamentally redefine our understanding of how the world is and more importantly, how the world could be. In a sense, the expansion of human understanding, intelligence, and overall consciousness has always been directly correlated to the amount of information and technology we had access to at a given period of time.

The Speed of Technology

On June 29th, 2017 the smartphone turned 10 years old.[1] In those 10 years, 77% of all Americans have integrated the technology into their lives. 251 Million people have access to all of the information of the world accessible at any time from the convenience of their pocket. We use the devices for work, for entertainment, for romance, for family, for shopping, the list continues… It only took 10 years for massive integration, so much so that about 1/2 of all Americans, myself included, say that they could not conduct their daily lives as is without the use of their smartphones. We are becoming increasingly adept at integrating tech into our lives, and that will only become easier over time.

At the core of understanding democracy as a technology is recognizing just how quickly technology is accelerating. Inventor, author, and current Google Engineer Ray Kurzweil has written and spoken at length about his Law of Accelerating Returns.[2] It explains how the processing power of technology in relation to the cost and size is following an exponential growth path that is very predictable. In essence for every doubling of processing power, we see a reduction in both the cost and size of the technology needed to do so. For example, we sequenced the first human genome in 2004 at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. 10 years later in 2014 machines can sequence 18,000 annually for $1,000 a genome.[3] This type of growth is hard to conceptualize as humans because we perceive time from a linear perspective. Technology has been accelerating constantly throughout our human existence but our lifespans were too short to recognize it in the past. Even more exciting than the exponential growth of tech is that Kurzweil also discovered that the rate of accelerating is also growing exponentially; essentially shrinking the time period between doublings.

So how does all of this relate to democracy?

Democracy and all governments are at their core social technologies. All governments have been created by people with the intention providing its users (both those in power and those not) a state of being. Focusing specifically on U.S. democracy it’s important that we view our system through an objective lens free of any national pride or disdain. All technology is designed with a user in mind; starting from a top-down approach of how we envision something interacting with our tool and the benefits they will derive from it. When crafting their social technology the Founding Fathers rejected ‘democracy’ as defined by the Greeks, preferring instead ‘a natural aristocracy’ influenced by the Roman Republic model. Only the landed gentry were entitled to a place in Congress. In 1729 the core element of our U.S. Democracy was released in the form of the Bill of Rights, our first 10 Constitutional Amendments. These granted certain unalienable rights to people; although if we’re being objective the term people really meant landed white males. The foundation that these revolutionaries created has been the basis of all of our social and structural evolution.

The challenge with viewing democracy as a technology has become naturalized to the majority of the American consciousness. Many of us are part of a multi-generational American family that has participated in the current version of democracy without alternative. The social technology has become so interwoven in our culture that it is often perceived larger and more immobile than it actually is. With the prevalence of communication technologies information about our democracy and those participating in the management and guidance of it has become available to the masses. It is through this information that we can recognize the truth of our situation; the system is not natural and it will reflect the will of the people in government. Our representatives are human and subject to the same flaws and whims as you and I. In a sense this truth brings frustration, but it also brings hope. Recognizing that anyone of any character can be elected should fill us with a sense of excitement and determination. Armed with that information we recognize that the challenge is not of means but of will.

The technology of representative democracy was designed to be updated as time passed through the legislative process that would, in theory, adapt the system to the needs of the populace. Unfortunately, from today’s perspective, certain systemic flaws have allowed for the concentration of power and legislation that does not truly reflect the best interests of the collective citizenry, but rather those who can afford to win elections and influence our elected officials. We can see the constant consumerization of democracy with elections becoming more of a spectacle each year. The two-party system empowered by current legislation creates a culture of manufactured dissent, driving our collective society apart by creating an atmosphere of competition and a sense of “otherness” in our fellow citizens. This is accomplished by a combination of media sensationalism to gain more viewers and in turn sell more advertisements, specific religious organizations that maintain influence and power over sections of our population, well funded and active lobbying groups that represent the interests of major corporations regardless of how those interests align with the public welfare, and most importantly a lack of real investment both financially and programmatically in the education and opportunities given to citizens of a lower socio-economic class. It is apparent to a growing number of us that the state of our democracy is one of legalized bribery and normalized corruption that is starting to strain under modern society. Through the lens of technology, we would view our modern democracy as a tool with an incredible core value that has been updated and built upon in a direction that makes it less useful for a majority and very useful for a small minority.

Updating…

At this point it is important to reiterate OurSociety’s core purpose; we believe that the solution to many of our problems is more democracy and we’re creating the tools to empower people to engage easier and deeper than ever before. As the needs and wants of the populace continue to evolve with our technological ascendancy so must our society.

One of the major challenges facing us today is that as the pace of technology quickens it presents unique opportunities and challenges for our collective society. We need to look no further than our most recent election to see the challenge that technology can pose to an unprepared government. Opportunities in energy innovation, transportation, and communication are occurring a faster pace than ever before in history, yet the benefits seem to stratify at the top. Our core problem is that we are not creating the necessary updates to our democratic technology fast enough to keep pace with current innovation.

But it’s not too late; we have a limited window of opportunity to determine how the benefits of those innovations will be distributed. Legislating our way into a democracy that encourages experimentation, innovation, and quality of life among the largest number of people is critical for our democracy to survive. Ideas and experiments are needed but we have a tremendous opportunity because right now we are not utilizing our most powerful resource in the U.S., our collective human potential. We need to reimagine our legal structure for how we allow elected officials to operate within our democracy, how elections are designed and participated in, to imagine a system that creates maximum opportunity for every individual to participate, and one that requires elected officials to act in an ethical manner with real accountability to the public. If we desire a better world for the greater good of all of us we must first make the decision to democratically change the operational structure of our democracy. For that to happen we all need to be involved, that includes you. Fortunately, OurSociety is making it easier than ever so if you haven’t joined yet make sure you do so.

So often people are criticized for viewing our objectives institutionally but if we choose not to seek the truth then we can never grow and progress. Depending on who is speaking you will hear a different potential pathway about how we should update and improve democracy first, including some of our wealthier citizens who prefer a reversion to a more feudal lifestyle. OurSociety has a unique solution to the possible direction of our actions that you can find in our Principles Video titled Collaborative Citizenry.

Concluding the discussion I would present a question to you. If you were to imagine a democracy fully powered with the best of today’s technology what kind of system could we create? How efficient could we make government? How much more equitable, inclusive, and just could our society be? What would that type of democracy and civilization mean for the world? And most importantly, what would be the first step we would need take to begin our journey towards that path?

For more information on the OurSociety Experiment please visit www.oursociety.org

Sources:

[1] 10 facts about smartphones as the iPhone turns 10. Lee Rainie & Andrew Perrin Pew Research Center http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/06/28/10-facts-about-smartphones/
[2] The Law of Accelerating Returns Ray Kurzweil http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns
[3] Illumina Claims New Sequencer Transcribes 18,000 Genomes per Year at $1,000 Each. Jason Dorrier https://singularityhub.com/2014/02/02/illumina-claims-new-sequencer-transcribes-18000-genomes-per-year-at-1000-each/
[4] “Equality: John Adams to Thomas Jefferson”. https://press-pubs.uchicago.edu.

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