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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There’s more to democracy than voting

Suppose that the UK held another referendum on the subject of Brexit. Suppose that the numerical result was essentially the same as before: around 52% voting for the UK to leave the EU, and around 48% voting for the UK to remain.

In that case, would that referendum prove to have been a massive waste of time and money?

My answer: not necessarily. Such a vote could actually lead to the healing of the nation, rather than to continued divisiveness and chaos.

politics chaos or healing

It all depends, not on the numerical result, but on the calibre of the arguments raised during that referendum.

If supporters of Leave came forward, during the campaign, with arguments that were less contestable and more compelling than before, this could lead to a healing of the nation. People who voted for the other option in the referendum might still feel disappointed. But they could accept that there were sound arguments in favour of the side that won. And, unlike the case of the first Brexit referendum, they could move forward, reconciled to the outcome. They could tell themselves they had lost a fair battle.

A similar conclusion could apply if, in a variant potential future scenario, it were Remain that won the second referendum, even if just by a narrow margin. Again, there’s no inherent reason why that conclusion would lead to ongoing bitterness. Again, it depends, not on the numerical result, but on the calibre of the arguments raised during the campaigns.

Not just a re-run

Various critics of the idea of a second referendum are doubtful that anything positive could arise from a new round of campaigning. It would just be a re-run of the previous campaign, they say, perhaps with a few people changing their minds. Nothing essentially new could arise. Forget healing. We would just get more chaos.

But I give a much more positive assessment to the idea of a second, better, referendum.

For one reason, people have learned a great deal in the intervening 30 months. Opinions which could be seen as plausible two years ago, have long since been shown up as deeply wrong. As an example, consider the now thoroughly discredited claim that it would be “the easiest deal ever” to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU (witness “EU trade deal ‘easiest in human history'” and “All the times David Davis said that Brexit was simple”.) On such matters, we’re all wiser now.

But more fundamentally, it’s now widely recognised that it’s in everyone’s interest to cool down the debate, rather than letting matters be inflamed further.

The falsification principle

As a step away from ideology to objectivity, participants in the debate should start by reflecting long and hard about which circumstances would cause them to change their minds. This is in line with the falsification principle of science: people aspiring to scientific methods should set out in advance which experimental findings would cause them to seriously rethink their currently favoured theories.

Therefore, people favouring Remain should describe the circumstances that would cause them to consider switching to Leave instead. In this way, they would identify the potentially strongest arguments in favour of Leave. For example, to my mind, the strongest argument in favour of Leave would be if the structural weakness of the eurozone were shown to be likely to lead to huge financial chaos, of a sort that the UK could best hope to escape by being outside of the EU altogether.

Likewise, people favouring Leave should describe the circumstances that would cause them to consider switching to Remain instead. For example, they might be prepared to alter their vote if they gained confidence in the flexibility and genuineness of EU reform proposals.

Debate participants unable to set out such a “falsifying circumstance” would have to acknowledge they are driven by ideology, rather being open to new findings.

Preparing to build bridges

In parallel, participants in both sides of the debate need to set out proposals for how the UK could unwind from any state of internal hostility after the campaign was concluded.

To this end, supporters of Remain need to acknowledge that many on the Leave side are profoundly ill at ease with what they see as the direction of social development. More than that, Remain supporters need to be ready to commit to a credible programme to address key causes of this alienation, including the bitter perception many people have of being “left behind”.

Similarly, supporters of Leave need to acknowledge that many on the Remain side are profoundly ill at ease with the potential unravelling of processes of multilateral decisions, in a post-Brexit race-to-the bottom world of increasing deregulation.

Towards superdemocracy

That’s the vision – the vision of a better politics being expressed in a better referendum.

It’s a vision that goes beyond democracy-as-counting-votes. It’s a vision of emerging superdemocracy (to use a term that has featured in the last two Transpolitica books – Transcending Politics and Sustainable Superabundance).

Is this vision credible? Or are we doomed to a politics dominated by feelings of vengeance and obliteration?

That is, is a second referendum likely to lead to even greater chaos, or to healing?

Personal leadership

To an extent, the answer will be influenced by the personal qualities of the people leading each side of the debate. Do these people have high personal integrity? Are they open to learning? Are they able to build bridges? Do they have high emotional intelligence? Or are they, instead, obsessive and self-serving?

The answer (chaos or healing) will also depend on how the media conducts itself. Is the media looking for high drama? Will it seek out and amplify the most inflammatory soundbites? Or will it show restraint and care?

To my mind, everyone who cares about the future of the UK has to get behind the processes of healing, rather than the processes of chaos.

That means a commitment to debating honestly – to considering the merits and demerits of different arguments fairly, rather than with a partisan spirit.

This also means a commitment to building bridges – to discovering shared common values, even with people who express views very differently to our own.

It won’t be easy. But the cost of failure would be enormous.

Image source: “Big Ben at Sunset” – Photo by M N on Unsplash

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