11. Towards abundant democracy

This page contains the opening portion of Chapter 11 from
Sustainable Superabundance: A universal transhumanist invitation

tam graphic 11

11. Towards abundant democracy

Over the next few years, many hard decisions need to be taken. These decisions will determine whether humanity can move forwards swiftly into the era of sustainable superabundance, or will instead collapse into a state of social chaos and humanitarian tragedy.

Examples of these hard decisions can be found throughout the preceding pages of this Invitation. Consider: Which aspects of human nature should be changed, and which protected at all costs? In which circumstances should the precautionary principle override the proactionary principle? Which types of genetic modifications should be encouraged, and which discouraged – in food, in pets, and in humans? Which sources of energy (for example, nuclear energy?) should be developed and deployed most quickly? How much public funding should be allocated to the development of atomically precise nanofactories – and with what constraints? Which approaches to curing diseases of neurodegeneration should be prioritised? What restrictions should be applied to autonomous lethal weapons systems? How can surveillance of potential dangerous misuse of technology best coexist with protections for individual privacy? What kind of new social contract should be put in place – and how strongly should UBI feature in these plans? Which kinds of inequality and diversity should be celebrated, and which resisted? How can the various regulatory systems from different local markets be woven together into an effective international framework that prevents rogue elements from slipping dangerous goods and services through the cracks between these agreements? Which international alliances deserve greater support, and which should be avoided? And so on.

This chapter is not seeking immediate answers to these questions. Instead, it is seeking to understand what processes we should follow, in order to find and defend the best answers to this kind of question.

These questions are all examples where disagreements arise between thoughtful, well intentioned advocates of different answers. The right answers are by no means obvious.

These questions are all examples, moreover, where the discussion is subject to deliberate distortion, by groups who have vested interests in steering the outcome in particular directions. That is, on top of the legitimate debate, a set of intentionally misleading arguments further undermines the ability of society to pick the best solution.

With sky-high stakes, it’s critically important that cool heads can prevail. It’s critically important that key flaws in reasoning are identified promptly, before decisions are taken based on these flaws. And it’s critically important that the best insights of the whole community are heard and absorbed.

With sky-high stakes, there’s a great opportunity to use technology to improve the calibre of decisions, and to ensure that good decisions are properly followed through. But there’s also a grave risk for technology to worsen the calibre of decisions. Technology gives obstructionists more power to frustrate attempts by enlightened leaders to implement good decisions. It also gives self-serving leadership cabals more power to stick with their bad decisions despite objections from informed opposition.

In other words, technology raises the stakes even higher. Technology could enable the emergence of a superdemocracy, that will steer humanity more reliably towards the era of sustainable superabundance. But at the same time, technology could drive decision-making backwards. Rather than us moving towards collective enlightenment, technology could cause us to move towards collective confusion and collective impotence.

As this chapter highlights, the key task is to step forwards incrementally, gradually building improved capacity for a better politics. Out of these incremental improvements, an abundance of collaboration and democracy can emerge.

Two scenarios for the impact of technology

Alas, twenty-first century technology can have all kinds of detrimental impact on politics.

Twenty-first century technology enables unprecedented large scale surveillance and manipulation of members of society by forces seeking undue influence. This manipulation can be subtle rather than blatant. That’s what gives it greater power.

Twenty-first century technology strengthens those who would wield black-art psychological techniques to frighten or incite people into making choices that are different from their actual best interests.

Similar technology has been adopted by social media companies. These companies desire to increase eyeball and click-through attention. The result is algorithms that raise the visibility of social media posts that push people into emotional reactions rather than careful deliberation. With hearts on fire, smoke gets in the eyes. With emotions inflamed, online interactions frequently propel participants to champion tribal instincts. With a heightened sense of the importance of group identity, participants cheer on pro-group “blue lies” rather than respecting objective analysis.

And there’s another way that new technology can destabilise the political landscape. It is increasingly widely understood that enemy states, terrorist groups, or miscellaneous agents of aggression, could unleash potentially devastating attacks using cyber-sabotage, fast-spreading nerve agents, or various other weapons of mass destruction. The threat of a sudden near-apocalyptic attack constricts the mind. With tensions so high, the risk is that politicians will be driven towards decisions that are more extreme and less considered. The risk is that, in grasping for the upper hand in a landscape fraught with potential surprise attacks, politicians will unintentionally blunder into making an ill-advised first strike that in turn precipitates enormous counterstrikes.

But the same technology can have beneficial impacts on politics too.

In an extension to current technology that highlights misspellings or incorrect grammar in a document, new tools can highlight which factual claims have been assessed as false or misleading. Other tools can highlight logical flaws in arguments. They can also draw attention to cases where the provenance of data is suspect – such as when photographs have been edited, or videos synthesised, to give a false impression.

Twenty-first century technology can facilitate the systematic collection and analysis of information relevant to decisions, in ways that build on the successes of Wikipedia.

By analysing arguments, technology can in due course suggest new proposals that integrate different perspectives in compelling ways, and thereby help build bridges between opposing sides in a debate.

Technology can create and maintain vast virtual worlds – simulated environments – in which the potential outcomes of policy changes can be investigated in advance.

Finally, technology can assist politicians to deliberate more calmly on decisions, rather than being panicked into flawed decisions in tired or emotive circumstances.

In short, just as technology can have either a bad or good influence on society, so also it can have either a bad or a good influence on politics.

In both cases, the determining factor is the level of wisdom, strength, and agility brought to managing the technology. The more powerful technology becomes, the greater the need for wisdom, strength, and agility – the greater the need for clear thinking, and the greater the need to be ready to set aside previously long-cherished “instincts” or “identities”.

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A reliability index for politicians?

Reliability calcuator

Imagine there’s a reliability index (R) for what a politician says.

An R value of 100 would mean that a politician has an excellent track record: there is no evidence of them having said anything false.

An R value of 0 would mean that nothing they said can be trusted.

Imagine that R values are updated regularly, and are published in real-time by a process that is transparent, pulling together diverse sets of data from multiple spheres of discourse, using criteria agreed by people from all sides of politics.

Then, next time we hear a politician passing on some claim – some statistic about past spending, about economic performance, about homelessness, about their voting record, or about what they have previously said – we could use their current R value as a guide to whether to take the claim seriously.

Ideally, R values would also be calculated for political commentators too.

My view is that truth matters. A world where lies win, and where politicians are expected to bend the truth on regular occasions, is a world in which we are all worse off. Much worse off.

Far better is a world where politicians no longer manufacture or pass on claims, just because these claims cause consternation to their opponents, sow confusion, and distract attention. Far better if any time a politician did such a thing, their R value would visibly drop. Far better if politicians cared much more than at present about always telling the truth.

Some comparisons

R values would play roles broadly similar to what already happens with credit scores. If someone is known to be a bad credit risk, there should be more barriers for them to receive financial loans.

Another comparison is with the “page rank” idea at the heart of online searches. The pages that have incoming links from other pages that are already believed to be important, grow in importance in turn.

Consider also the Klout score, which is (sometimes) used as the measure of influence of social media users or brands.

Some questions

Evidently, many questions arise. Would a reliability index be possible? Is the reliability of a politician’s statements a single quantity, or should it vary from subject to subject? How should the influence of older statements decline over time? How could the index avoid being gamed? How should satire be accommodated?

Then there are questions not just over practicality but also over desirability. Will the reliability index result in better politics, or a worse politics? Would it impede honest conversation, or usher in new types of implicit censorship? Would the “cure” be worse than the “disease”?

Next steps

My view is that a good reliability index will be hard to achieve, but it’s by no means impossible. It will require clarity of thinking, an amalgamation of insights from multiple perspectives, and a great deal of focus and diligence. It will presumably need to evolve over time, from simpler beginnings into a more rounded calculation. That’s a project we should all be willing to get behind.

The reliability index will need to be created outside of any commercial framework. It deserves to be funded by public funds in a non-political way, akin to the operation of judges and juries. It will need to be resistant to howls of outrage from those politicians (and journalists) whose R values plummet on account of exposure of their untruths and distortions.

If done well, I believe the reliability index would soon have a positive impact upon political discourse. It will help ensure discussions are objective and open-minded, rather than being dominated by loud, powerful voices. It’s part of what I see as the better politics that is possible in the not-so-distant future.

There’s a lot more to say about the topic, but for now, I’ll finish with just one more question. Has such a proposal been pursued before?

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