As another political campaign season begins to assail us with the usual patronizing nonsense it seems obvious that this cannot be as good as “democracy” gets.” Indeed, it is fair to say that virtually everyone now acknowledges our U.S. political system is both dysfunctional and seriously out of touch with reality.
Nonetheless, we are once again witnessing billions of dollars being raised and spent in a tired ritualistic attempt to sell us yet another superhuman savior with yet another prescriptive set of “changes” we need and only s/he can deliver. And, of course, after election-day billions more will be spent lobbying politicians and regulators at all levels to influence their preferred priorities, policies, and decisions on behalf of special interests.
So, let’s be real. This is all just more of the same, not change.
This begs the question: Why are so many people, especially nouveau riche techies, continuing to finance and enable this pointless nonsense? Are they really so out of touch as to think that one partisan group’s rhetoric trumps “realpolitik”? Is it not obvious that continuing to “contribute and invest” in this theatre of the absurd is itself absurd? That this is simply throwing away good money after bad? That maybe, just maybe, this is actually harming our collective future?
Thus it seems reasonable to suggest that it is time for campaign contributors — enablers of this dysfunctional process — to exit this anachronistic monetary treadmill. Time to experiment with something truly new and different that would be robust and adaptive enough to benefit us all more going forward.
Note, however, “new and different” does not mean so-called direct democracy or some variation of initiative, referendum or recall. The former is, for all practical purposes, legally impossible and the latter has already been gamed and corrupted beyond recognition by special interests. So these are non-starters.
Rather, truly new and different means investing in our own collective intellectual and technological resources and capabilities. Specifically, to create an ongoing, independent, nonpartisan political process that operates in parallel to the existing formal political system. One designed and operated to preclude all forms of special interest campaigning and influence.
Central idea is to create a parallel process that does not directly change the existing governmental processes but does create a new public institution. An institution with a process designed from inception to focus solely on our central societal issues and goals. A process designed to regularly aggregate and articulate these issues and goals as a genuine reflection of our society’s collective priorities. A process able to iteratively learn over time how best to guide the direction our society pursues. A process that is so ubiquitous and visible that it can act as a genuine check on the actions and behavior of politicians in the formal political system.
Of course, this sounds both high minded and totally impractical. The irony in this proposal is that the practical value of such a parallel process is an inherent feature of biology and our human brain-mind system yet was ignored in the evolution of our political system. Let me explain.
Governance systems (i.e., political systems) are about taking collective action for tasks beyond the capacity of individuals and small groups. The roots of collective action trace back to early biological systems that developed along two paths: hardwired sociobiological species (e.g., ants) and interactive social-biological species (e.g., primates). We humans primarily followed the latter path, and historically is reflected in all political systems. That is, politically, we pursued collective action through an interactive social communication process.
Nonetheless the sociobiological form of collective action has demonstrably shown its merit and value in the course of civilization. For example, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market and other “wisdom of crowds” phenomenon reflect practical sociobiological forms of collective action. Therefore, it seems reasonable that both types of collective action have political utility and could be mutually reinforcing.
Yet, in our human evolutionary context, our present political governance systems reflect a one-sided predisposition for collective action via interactive social-biological communication processes. This predisposition appears traceable to the emergence of our unique and dexterous spoken language skills. Less appreciated, but, as we will see latter, more important today, is how our language skills enabled us to articulate diverse and competing scenarios that are the essence of all human creativity and problem-solving.
Of course, in retrospect, it seems inevitably that emergence of our interactive social communication skills would produce noisy competition over the merits of diverse scenarios. Indeed, this situation did arise and generated the need for a mechanism to orderly sequence individual voices and to adequately compare competing scenarios.
In other words, for discussions aimed at collective action to be productive required a rule system (i.e., laws) to implement and enforce an ordered interactive social communication process. In this respect, it is important to keep in mind that the initial purpose of a rule system was to discern priorities and reach a decision for collective action (i.e., decision making).
Said differently, our governance systems reflect an evolving “nested system” of social-biological subsystems. Thus, like “Russian dolls,” each doll inside another one, our governance systems start with a communication system and leads to the emergence of some rule system, which is designed to facilitate the emergence of some orderly prioritizing system (e.g. authoritarian, representative). While the historical tendency is to depict these three nested subsystems as a single unified system, unbundling them provides insight into our contemporary governance situation.
Like all evolving nested systems, as the size and reach (i.e., scale) of our human systems expanded ever further into the external environment — going from isolated local tribes to an interconnected global civilization — the internal complexity of governance systems increased to better adapt. Anthropologically, the adaptation of governance systems to external complexity is evidenced in how each of the three nested systems was “upgraded” over the course of civilization, which then led to an alteration in the structural character and operational nature of the prevailing sociopolitical system. For instance:
- Communication system– Just as increasing the magnification of a microscope or telescope facilitates seeing entities and their activity at different scales in greater detail, our prevailing communication system was upgraded from speech to writing, to print, to broadcasting, and now online networks. The end result of these four upgrades has been an ongoing growth in the quantity and speed of information flows to provide more and better access to ever greater, more granular detailed knowledge about virtually everything.
- Rule system — Akin to how Newtonian, Einsteinian, and quantum physics each advanced our understanding of order in the universe at different scales, our prevailing rule system was upgraded from omniscient and omnipotent supernatural forces to crass coercion, to arbitrary secular and religious edicts, to the supremacy of law, and now to a relativistic rule of law ideology. So, as the scale and complexity of governance grew, the end result of these four upgrades to the prevailing rule system was to institute ever less arbitrary and capricious regimes aimed at enforcing “order.”
- Prioritizing system — Similar to Maslow’s psychological “Hierarchy of Needs,” as the scale and complexity of societies grew our prevailing prioritizing system was upgraded from small localized tribes democratically open to all to secular and religious empires closed to all but a tiny elite, to nation-states with openness limited to elite groups, and now a global system essentially closed to all but selected representatives of nation-state elites. The end result of these three upgrades has been to increase the number of participants in the prioritizing decision-making process.
Bundled back together, the evolution of these three nested subsystems indicates a direction to the upgrades made in our governance systems. Specifically, one toward ever faster communication of and access to more detailed knowledge, less arbitrary and capricious rules, and, excluding the model of early tribes, more participants in the prioritizing system. Together these upgrades enabled the complexity and scale of our governance systems and the diversity of their collective actions to increase dramatically.
On the surface it does seem odd, however, that while the communication and rule systems each had four upgrades, there were only three upgrades to the extent of participation in the prioritizing process. This should raise two relevant questions: Why the difference in number of upgrades for the prioritizing process? And is the difference consequential?
Let us assume for the sake of conjecture that the U.S. representative system is indicative of today’s prevailing governance systems. The standard reason as to why our prioritizing process stopped at the third upgrade is that it is simply a reflection of the era in which the original design was formulated — 227 years ago. As you know, this was an era when the average person died before age 40; when, in their lifetime, most never traveled more than seven miles from the place they were born; and when few ever read the equivalent of a Sunday newspaper in their lifetime. A time when the total population was less than one percent of what it is today, and when travel and communication between cities took days and crossing an ocean took weeks to months.
However, since the era associated with the design of the U.S. system no longer exists, employing it to rationalize the absence of an upgrade has a distinctly unsatisfying ring to it. A more interesting reason might be shortcomings or flaws in the original design itself hindered further upgrades to the prioritizing process.
In retrospect, as feared and articulated by the designers of the original U.S. system, there is indeed at least one major shortcoming in its design. Specifically, it is one that enables politicians alone to make the rules governing their own behavior.
As anyone who has ever played schoolyard games recalls, whoever makes the rules of the game is virtually guaranteed to win. Thus, as events surrounding the Magna Charta in 1215 aptly demonstrated, upgrading the prioritizing process to enable greater participation runs the risk losing control of rulemaking powers.
Consequently, as the job of representation evolved — from a temporary civic duty to a lucrative career — two things occurred to arrest an upgrading of the prioritizing process: money and, most ironically, language.
- Money — As in biology, where mating tricks evolved to aid procreation and thereby ensure the survival of an individual’s genetic linage, bribery is probably as old as governance itself. Today, however, consensus is that the ubiquity, scope and scale of money overtly involved in advancing political careers (i.e., campaigns), and more covertly involved in the prioritization process (i.e., lobbying), is totally out of control. Worse, the legitimacy of money influencing governance, and thus prioritization, is now enshrined in our rule system (e.g., Citizens United).
- Language — As printing led to the Enlightenment it was assumed that “words” ultimately possessed unequivocal meaning. This assumption was extended to the rule system as the “supremacy of law,” whereby the layering of legal precedents would ultimately perfect the social order and governance. Legal-beagles, the ultimate wordsmiths, soon realized, however, that language (i.e., interactive social-biological communication) is inherently relative to the framing (or reframing) of a particular position, argument or point of view.
Politicians were quick to assimilate this linguistic relativity to such an extent that it is now de rigueur for the survival of one’s political career. As a result, getting anything resembling a straight, unequivocal answer from a politician on anything consequential is virtually impossible; unless, of course, it is believed to advance their career interests. This conscious political circumlocution means that any genuine discussion about our priorities or accountability regarding the actual priorities for collective action is mired in relativistic verbiage, and thus tangibly absent until long after priorities are established, decisions made, and the respective consequences manifested and realized.
In the end, aside from special interest sycophants, partisan courtesans, rabid ideologues, and naïve fools, this shortcoming in the original design of the U.S. governance system has arrested any upgrading of the prevailing prioritizing system. It has succeeded in making today’s U.S. governance system a dysfunctional and counterproductive food fight.
So the answer as to why the difference in the number of upgrades to our prioritizing system is that it has been arrested by the self-interest of career politicians making rules governing their own behavior and linguistic relativity. Broadly speaking this is now accepted wisdom. This brings us to the second question: Is this difference in fewer upgrades to the prioritizing system consequential?
Technologically, the elapsed time from the growth of steam power to today’s nuclear power, from the invention of the telegraph to global digital wireless networks, is only about 150 years. While the corresponding amount of economic and cultural change during those 150 years has been both remarkable and stunning in its scope, scale and impact, and overall is more recent than the design of our U.S. governance system. In other words, the pace and impact of technological change on civilization now exceeds that of governance systems.
It is also clear that the rate of technological change, and thus economic change, is now accelerating dramatically faster than ever. It is, of course, easy to envision the benefits such changes can bring. But it is equally easy to envision how the velocity, scope and impact of such changes could be detrimental to our collective well-being. Three examples suffice to make the point.
- Ubiquity of digital technology is now in the process of making every aspect of our lives transparently visible and accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime for both good and bad ends.
- Economically, the trend in new technologies is inherently deflationary. The invisible hand of market competition and its creative destruction necessitate an acceleration of this process.
- The number and diversity of inexpensive, stealthy, portable weapons of mass destruction is expanding rapidly. Yet, our ability to successfully constrain their proliferation and any deliberate or accidental use of these weapons strains one’s imagination.
We could go on — artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons and warfare, climate change, economic inequality, ethnic and religious conflict, immigration and migration, digital discrimination and repression, etc. — but you get the picture. Moreover, based on our 20th and 21st century experiences with the design shortcomings affecting our prevailing prioritizing process, it is incredibly easy to envision governance systems making inappropriate and or bad choices that take us too far down the wrong path.
As the late great astronomer, Carl Sagan, noted, while there is an almost 100 percent certainty other intelligent life exists in the universe the chance that any civilization survives its technological epoch is probably less than one-tenth of one percent (0.001%). In arresting the upgrading of our prioritizing system for collective action during this technological epoch makes it seem quite plausible we will test the existential issue Sagan noted; perhaps before mid-century.
The accelerating rate of technological change we are now experiencing could soon reach a level on a number of fronts that exceed our grasp. Thus we should seriously entertain the real possibility that not upgrading our prevailing prioritizing system could be a danger to us as a species. That suggests we should begin to simultaneously remedy the shortcoming in the design of governance systems that favors unilateral self-interest rule-making by politicians and neutralizes the influence of money in the prioritizing system. Of course, all this must be done in a manner that does not risk making governance systems more dysfunctional. It would seem that an external parallel prioritizing process could accomplish this task.
Fortunately, we live in an era where we have both the intellectual and technological resources, tools and capacity needed to manifest such an external parallel prioritizing process. For example, the work of notable behaviorists suggests that our slavish reliance on the interactive social-biological communication process in governance systems reflects only half of how our brain-mind system functions. If so, the missing half would be analogous to the sensory input and processing dependent part of the brain that dynamically formulates probabilistic scenarios on every issue in life.
In this respect, our expanding digital world could effectively provide a single communication system linking everyone together to construct and process such a dynamic scenario building capability. The emerging internet of things creates the type of large-scale sensory input system (i.e., social physics) needed to assist in dynamically formulating diverse probabilistic scenarios on virtually every issue in our collective life.
And, of course, the U.S. Congress is itself essentially an information system. That is, it is a system aggregating relevant issue information as input, distributing it to committees for processing, and generating priorities, policies and decisions as output. Inasmuch as we citizens pay handsomely for the operation of Congress we should have the ability to mirror it and create an external parallel process for its information flows. However, unlike the bicameral Congressional structure an external parallel prioritizing process can aggregate and distribute the information in a unicameral or multi-cameral manner.
Combining our large scale communication and sensory input systems with a mirroring of the Congressional information system could well generate a robust and dynamic scenario development process.
Certainly citizens collectively can choose a preferred future scenario as good or better than elites and politicians. In terms of basic scenario development, forecasting and selection, evidence is mounting fast that nonprofessionals can often forecast which scenarios have higher probability outcomes better than dedicated professionals. More importantly, current work indicates these skills are teachable.
This is not to suggest professionals be excluded in scenario development, forecasting and selection. Rather that it is extremely advantageous to supplement the prioritizing process with nonprofessionals. Moreover, this is simply a basic refinement of the classic work on crowd wisdom, which describes how, as in economic markets and under certain conditions, large numbers of diverse people can self-organize and coordinate themselves into an efficacious democratic decision-making (i.e., prioritizing) system.
Together, these intellectual and technological resources and tools suggest we could develop the equivalent of a hardwired sociobiological scenario building skill. If so, going one step further, the behavioral techniques used to visibly frame choices in particularly advantageous ways can be employed to provide politicians with a solid indication of our genuine priorities and goals for collective action to “influence or nudge” their prioritizing process.
Done properly the prevailing governance systems, now entirely dependent on interactive social-biological communication, would be supplemented with a hardwired sociobiological scenario building system. That should upgrade and enhance the prioritizing process for collective action in a totally new and different manner
Thus, without directly altering or amending the design of the prevailing governance systems, the proposed parallel prioritizing process could visibly exercise leverage as to what collective action (i.e., policies and decisions) we seek and expect. Importantly, however, this external parallel process does not make the final policies and decisions. That remains within existing governance systems. Nonetheless, over time, as the institutional memory and skills associated with the parallel process learns and matures, any consequential dissonance between the existing formal and the external parallel prioritizing processes will become exceedingly visible and pronounced.
It goes without saying that vested status quo interests will simultaneously be dismissive of and antagonistic toward the development of any external parallel prioritizing process. Moreover, that there will be concerted overt and covert efforts aimed at undermining the parallel process. These efforts, once uncovered, must be dealt with openly and definitively to dissuade any recurrence.
Of course, this new parallel process will need to provide all participants with the ability to self-identify on all possible demographic and affiliation characteristics and be able to track changes over time (e.g., blockchain) and with solid encryption to anonymize identities. These characteristics can then be processed with various analytic programs to dynamically display all categorical and positional groupings on any particular issue and any respective changes over time. Finally, rules and policies will need to be formulated for the abuse of participation privileges, in particular to preclude partisan and special interest attempts to game, confuse or otherwise alter operation of external parallel process.
Despite the magnitude of the challenge associated with creating and operating this parallel process it is eminently doable, straightforward way to upgrade and improve the prevailing governance systems. It also seems fair to estimate that once set up the annual cost might be equal to that of Wikipedia, and thus relatively inexpensive.
Regardless of the cost, no one should assume that establishing such a parallel process will be easy or that it will not repeatedly experience serious setbacks and mistakes. That goes with the territory. But, as an iterative experiment in a long term learning experience aimed at better developing and guiding our priorities for collective action — and compared to the status quo alternative and its associated risks — clearly it is well worth the effort.
You & me
As now constituted, career politicians, partisan political parties, and special interest are a counterproductive legacy of the original design of the prevailing U.S. governance systems. We are all dynamic, multi-dimensional beings living in a much more complex and dynamic world than when this system was designed.
On any specific issue our preferences may fall anywhere on the political spectrum. Moreover, at any point in time new information and or perspectives can change our preferences on that spectrum. That is fine. It is how life is. It adapts. It is how the plasticity of the brain changes in response to experiences. They adapt. It is how our minds respond to challenges in the environment. They adapt. It is how governance systems need to operate.
We cannot and should not let our priorities for collective action be locked into an anachronistic election cycle any longer. Nor can we be wholly dependent on the good intentions of so-called representatives or partisan rhetoric. It is our collective future and well-being that is at stake.
The reality is that we only care about and must focus on finding the best solution to issues confronting us going forward. More importantly, to set and provide politicians with clear, worthwhile priorities and goals for collective action. Thus, in connecting our interactive social-biological communication skills to our hardwired sociobiological scenario building skills we should, for the first time in human history, genuinely encompass the real body politic as a single unified and intelligent system.
Another and better option exists. It is an option that simultaneously enables us to exit our political conundrum and engage in a new and different process that benefits us all. It is an option that reflects the experimental character associated with forming a more perfect union. It is now time to experiment some more.
Those of you contributing to political campaigns, especially all of you with deep pockets, please stop what you are doing now. Make a genuine difference for substantive change in the right direction.
This is the sixth in a series of articles. Individually they will step you through the past, present, and future of the sociopolitical system and the options we are soon likely to confront.
If you like this and rest of the series, please share it wherever and recommend with whomever you like. My only request is that you keep the “learn more” links back to my website at the end of every article you republish or share.
You can learn more about my work at http://www.dochuston1.com/evolving-systems-cartography.html You can also find me on linked-in or Facebook.
In any case, may you live long and prosper.