Democratic Intelligence

By Stephen Oberauer, senior software developer, London


My experience of politics

I was born in South Africa in 1978, and remained ignorant about apartheid until I was about eleven years old.  I knew that different races lived in different areas and went to different schools, and that black people were generally poorer and less educated than white people, but I had no idea that there was an unnatural law, enforcing the division.

South Africa has been described as the “protest capital of the world,” with thousands of protests every year.  I had often see footage of violent protests on television, but remained safe in my parents’ suburban home, twelve miles from the center of Cape Town.  Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, signalling that change and democracy was on its way, but this did not seem to reduce the number of protests or amount of political violence.  In 1993, four men with grenades and assault rifles shot up the nearby St. James Church, killing 11 people and wounding 58, including some people that I knew.  My neighbour had shrapnel wounds.  A man I later worked with lost both his legs and an arm, and the woman who later became my mother-in-law, was shot in the arm while protecting her face.  The murderers claimed that they were following their orders and that they regarded all whites as legitimate targets as they were complicit in the government’s policy of apartheid.

In 1994, we had our first democratic elections, for which I was too young to vote.  My personal perspective of the major South African political parties was that they were usually quite easily categorized as either white or black, and ranged from extremely racist, admitting to wanting to kill people of the opposite colour, to not obviously racist.  Deciding who to vote for was incredibly simple: Racists voted for racist parties, and those who did not consider themselves to be racist, voted for the party that was the same colour as themselves, with the primary concern to get people out of power that wanted to kill them for the colour of their skin.  Had it been legal for sixteen year olds to vote, I would have voted against Nelson Mandela, partially because I, and most other white people, had no idea what a great leader he’d turn out to be.

Democracy didn’t, however, solve the problems.  I remember having to fetch my wife from work because an angry mob of striking security guards were marching in town, smashing cars and shop windows and heading straight for the shop where my wife was working.  We drove away from the centre of the city in a slow traffic jam, with thousands of other fearful workers, including the slowest Ferrari driver I’ve ever seen, eager to get to the safety our homes.

Today, after 21 years of democracy in South Africa, the murder rate has come down, but there are still about 50 murders a day, with some of the worst rape and hijacking statistics in the world.  There are regular power cuts, the government appears to be in chaos and the number of protests appears to be on the increase.  The current president, Jacob Zuma, has been accused of hate speech, for singing the song, “Kill the Boer.”  Boer is the Afrikaans word for farmer, but the meaning “white person” is implied.  He has also been to court to face charges of rape and corruption.  It seems that democracy, although the most sought after type of government today, is not the solution that South Africa hoped it would be.


According to The Economist Intelligence Unit (PDF) the countries of the world are governed as follows:

  • Full democracies: 15% of countries, 11.3% of the world population
  • Flawed democracies: 32.3% and 37.2% respectively
  • Hybrid regimes: 22.2% and 14.4%
  • Authoritarian regimes: 30.5% and 37.1%

One might think that the solution to world conflict is to get that 15% up to 100%. But while democracy sounds like a great idea, and generally is much better than a dictatorship, its usual implementations have many flaws.  Having the ability to stand in a queue for an hour or two and select one of the given choices every five years, knowing that one’s single vote in a sea of millions probably won’t make any difference at all, isn’t very much of a choice.

A modern computer system, called LiquidFeedback, has been used by the Five Star Movement in Italy to get instant feedback from whoever wishes to share their opinion or vote on a policy.  Such software makes the thought of standing in a queue every five years seem archaic.  While not everyone has access to the internet, it is a technology that is growing exponentially, and, according to the chairman of Google, everyone on the planet could have internet access within the next five years.  This might be hard to comprehend, especially if you’re not familiar with exponentially growing technology.  If so, it can be useful to think back to what the world was like about ten or twenty years ago.  For me, my internet access was 2,000 times slower just seven years ago.  Internet access is certainly growing quickly, and even if five years is an exaggeration, a large proportion of the world should have internet access soon.

Democracy applies within an entire country.  An even better system, however, would be able to affect decisions made in other countries.  If you lived in Palestine or Israel, and you wanted the other country not to fire rockets at you, how great would it be if your political system allowed you to say so?  And it wouldn’t just be to protect yourself and your family.  The ability to vote against human rights violations in foreign countries would be amazing.  People trapped in a dictatorship could still contribute their intelligence to other countries, and very importantly, the world would not have to suffer just because a few countries are generating ten times more greenhouse gasses than others.  In today’s connected world, where a company can easily exist in one country and have employees scattered around the world, geographical boundaries are losing their meaning.  Perhaps there are more important things to consider than geographical boundaries and age to determine whether or not someone should be allowed to vote, or how important their vote should be, like how much knowledge they have about what they’re voting for, how intelligent they are, or how prejudiced or objective they are.

Consider the quality of information in everyone’s heads. We know that some people are pro capitalism, some are pro socialism, some are extremely concerned about environmental issues, and others believe that global warming is a hoax.  It’s incorrect to assume that the majority of voters know better than the minority, but democracy appears to completely ignore this problem.  I think a good way to illustrate the problem is by talking about the one thing that everyone disagrees on more than politics: religion.

According to PewResearchCenter, the world’s largest major religious group, Christianity, consists of only 31.5% of the world’s population.  Democratically, would this mean that Christianity is the right religion?  Of course not, because no such rule exists.  In fact, if such a rule existed, then we could say that the other 68.5% are right, however the other 68.5% believe completely different things to each other, with Islam having the largest proportion at 23.2%.   Christianity itself is divided up as half Catholic, and half other denominations, with Catholicism itself being divided into many different denominations.  Of the religious people in the world I’d be surprised if many of them, when asked whether they believed their religion was the right one, would say “no.”

Besides politics and religion, opinions differ enormously on topics such as spiritual mediumship, UFOs and aliens, medicine and other forms of healing.  Since everyone believes different things, one has to consider how to get the most accurate and useful information.  For this purpose thinkers have come up with the concepts of critical thinking and the scientific method.  Many books have been written about critical thinking, teaching people to understand common logic errors, cognitive biases, evidence and statistics.  The scientific method is also part of critical thinking and gives us a structured approach to learning, based on evidence, testing and peer reviews.  Learning and applying critical thinking skills vastly improves the quality of information in people’s minds.

I’ve voted in about three of South Africa’s elections.  There have always been many political parties with their leaders’ faces on the ballot paper, most of whom I’ve never heard of before.  They could be geniuses, the likes of which the world has never seen, the next Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, or Einstein.  Unfortunately the vast majority of voters have no idea who these people are.  They will simply vote for the one or two parties that they’ve heard of, and for whatever reason, feel more seduced by.  Perhaps they even vote for the party that has told the most lies.

Another problem with democracy is that money is used to purchase votes, and I’m not talking about corruption.  According to the UK’s electoral commission (PDF), £31.5 million was spent on election campaigning in 2010.  That’s not only highly inefficient, but spending that kind of money to persuade people to vote for a particular political party makes the whole democratic process seem somewhat pointless, as if it’s merely a way to make us feel like we are free.

Even in America, a country whose leaders have told the inhabitants that they have been free for many years, getting electors to repeat lines like “liberty and justice for all,” managed to get 50 million people to vote for George Bush in 2000 – a man who was wrong in his claims [i] that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam was linked to Al Qaeda, and that Iraqis would be dancing joyfully in the streets to receive American soldiers.  He also grossly underestimated the human and financial costs of the war, and announced, six weeks after the start of the war, that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”  The result of the occupation of Iraq, according to sixteen American intelligence agencies was an increase in Islamic radicalism and the risk of terrorism.

But enough about the negative side of democracy.  It was the best thing that we had for a long time, and it has been around for a very long time; traceable back to 600 BC.

To quote R. Buckminster Fuller,

You never change things by fighting the existing reality.

To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Reasons for conflict

In order to solve the problem of conflict it’s important to understand why it exists in the first place.

In South Africa we were divided into blacks, whites, coloureds and Indians, as well as rich and poor.  The separation caused animosity between the groups.  Without separating people into groups there cannot be a concept of war.  Wars are fought between religions, races and across country borders.  Even civil war is fought between different groups; people who are categorized by their political preference, or their status.  When people are united, and not classified into a group, they will not be able to find a group to fight.  Unfortunately democracy encourages the formation of groups, placing people in boxes such as left wing, right wing, republican and democrat, instead of acknowledging that perhaps we are all members of the same species, each with our good ideas and our faults.

Modern terrorism is a consequence of people having extreme ideas, being brainwashed and unable to be critical of their own thinking.  This is partially due to being part of a group with similar ideas, but also partially because they have not been taught critical thinking.

Poverty also causes conflict.  When people become desperate they act.  Those who are comfortable have no reason to get out and protest.  This is quite obvious in South Africa, where the people who protest are usually poor people who believe they should earn more, or that the government should supply them with a need that is not being met.

Lack of transparency in governments means that governments can get away with doing things that the people don’t know about.  This lack of transparency can lead to corruption, lack of trust, and anarchy.

The last reason for conflict that I want to mention is the lack of a systematic method to change what we care about.  Petitions are often used in an attempt to change the world around us, but unfortunately they often don’t work.  There are usually no requirements for the number of signatures, and often no official person to send the petition to.  They are arbitrary claims that at least a certain number of people want a specific change, but do not mention how many people refused to sign.  They can be generated from misinformation about something that may or may not be true, and stir up feelings of anger, and when they are posted off into the void, they become anyone’s guess as to whether or not something will be done.

I’ve always thought of striking as the most pointless exercise in the world; not working in an attempt to earn more money.  From my experiences in London and France, it feels like strikes are almost regular, as if it’s just a randomly occuring holiday, by people performing important services like transport, education, mining and security.  Transport strikes disrupt millions of parents trying to get home to their children, and holiday makers trying to enjoy what little bit of time they have away from their stressful jobs, and the next month they will strike again, and continue to earn the same, low salary.

When petitions and striking don’t work, people turn to demonstrating, which can turn into riots, and when nothing changes, civil war, simply because people don’t have a systematic method to change what they care about.

I would like to suggest therefore that the kind of government that would be far more effective at making the world a better place and achieving peace would be a…

Self-improving, Transparent, Democratic, Meritocratic, International System.

Let me start by explaining this idea by writing a bit about modern systems, and explaining why they are so effective.

The StackExchange group of websites, with perhaps a hundred sub-sites, each for asking and answering questions about a particular topic, are great examples.  These are similar to many other sites that use a concept called gamification.  Gamification gives the user, or player, a goal, or number of goals, and usually awards the user with points.  In the case of StackExchange, badges and virtual medals are also awarded.

On StackOverflow, their sub-site for asking programming questions, one can ask a programming question, and, if it is a well written question, based on their guidelines, one usually has the correct answer within minutes.  Amazingly, this is a free service.  I’m not quite sure if that explains just how incredible the system is, so let me try another way:  One can either spend hours or days trying to solve a complex programming problem, or type it into StackOverflow and have it answered in minutes!

Stack Overflow Profile

My StackOverflow profile

So, how does the system work?

Everyone can earn points by asking questions, answering questions, doing reviews, improving formatting, etc.  One earns these points democratically, meaning that one earns points by other people looking at what one has done and awarding or deducting points.  Once one reaches a certain number of points, one is considered more trustworthy or knowledgeable and therefore more functions are enabled for that person.  The details are quite complex, but the system has obviously been shaped over many years into what it is today, a beautiful and elegant solution.

Imagine what a self-improving and transparent, democratic, meritocratic system could be like…

It starts with a well defined end goal, perhaps along the lines of “Increase happiness and unity worldwide,” in order to focus the users and help the system to evolve with a purpose.

Ideally the system would be universal, however, realistically it would require the ability to make changes in specific geographical areas where there may be a different need, or more users, or perhaps the system is used by a political party.

Perhaps you, as a user of the system, came up with the idea that it might be good for everyone to get benefits instead of just people who are not working, so you go to the website and type your proposal, “Give benefits to everyone, not just those who are unemployed.”

The website gives you a list of similar suggestions, and noticing that your proposal is already on the system and is number 273 in the queue, with 834 votes, you click the vote button to increase the value of the proposal and write a comment explaining why it would mean so much to you.


Screen for suggesting a proposal in hypothetical democratic, meritocratic system

The proposal now has 835 votes and with its new value it is bumped up to position 272 in the queue.  Within the next few weeks a further 7,433 people vote for the proposal and it eventually reaches the number one place in the queue.  Your comment on the proposal has been noted by many people and voted up so that it is number five in the list of comments.

People who have earned the most points on the system vote for or against the idea, based on feedback from a group of experts on the subjects involved, including mathematicians and people who are highly clued up about benefits.  The experts each record a ten minute video, or write a short article, explaining anything that they think is relevant, and then the videos and articles are uploaded to the site and linked to the question.  The people with the most points (trusted) watch all the videos and then vote on whether or not to go ahead with the proposal.  Each vote includes the voter’s reason for voting for their choice.

70% of the voters decide that it is not a good idea to give everyone benefits, so the proposal is disapproved, but you are not happy.  You believe that the system is faulty and you should be one of the people with a large number of points, so you can be included in the final round of voting.  For this reason you need to increase your points to 200.  This takes a lot of work.

You answer some critical thinking tests, which bump up your points from 50 to 100.  Then you read all of the recommended books… some history, some logic, some science, some psychology, etc.  One of them doesn’t appeal to you, so you create a proposal that the book is changed.  Eventually you do all the tests on the books that you read and your points are bumped up to 150.  Unfortunately you don’t quite get the points that you need, so you decide to try to become an expert on benefits.

You go to the expert section on the website and follow the strategy to become an expert.  Eventually you write an amazing article on benefits and are selected as an expert.  The next time the benefits proposal makes its way to the top of the list you are ready with your well researched video on how amazing the world would be if everyone had benefits.

Your video is watched by the people with the most points and 80% of them vote for everyone to have benefits and the new policy becomes reality.

Unfortunately the new policy doesn’t work out as well has you’d hoped, but since there is a democratic way to change things, people propose an even better system and the better system is implemented next.

Of course this is a rough idea of a transparent, self-improving, democratic, meritocratic system.  You can probably find faults in this solution.  I can see some already, but this is just the start.  The real system should be thoroughly discussed and thought out and would become more complex as it matures and improves.  The main point, however, of this system, is that it is self-improving and focused.  While existing political systems sometimes have the ability to improve and mature, they are very difficult to change, and can only be improved up to a point, because ultimately their party’s purpose is to stay in power.  They will not hand over the reigns to a system which makes them obsolete.  The purpose of the solution I’m proposing is not for it to remain in power, but for it to improve itself, and recursively replace itself with better systems that also generate solutions.

The system could be used not only for international change, but also for smaller groups, like charities or researchers, trying to figure out the most efficient way to solve a problem.

But imagine if it was used internationally.  Imagine if you could see a clear and well defined path that you could take to suggest any change, or become an expert on any matter so that your knowledge, experience and desire for change could make a difference.

Comparing the idea to existing systems

The White House already has a petitioning system.  This is a great step forward, since it is a formal way to request change, the petition goes to the right people, and the White House have promised to respond.  Unfortunately it still does not make it easy enough to change policies.  For example:

  • It’s up to you to get to 150 signatures in order for your petition to be publicly searchable. It doesn’t matter if you are a genius and spent the last twenty years coming up with your idea. You still need to be able to find 150 people who agree with you, by yourself.
  • You have just 30 days to get 100,000 signatures in order to get a response from the White House. Now that is a lot of signatures.
  • Your petition has limited power. I doubt very much you could petition the president to resign, or ask the government to shut down all the coal power stations and force energy companies to use renewable energy instead, because you believe that long term environmental concerns are more important than short term profit.
  • Lack of transparency. There is no way of knowing who reads the petitions, what their area of expertise is, besides public relations, and whether or not they actually have the power to change anything.

LiquidFeedback is a website used by The Five Star Movement.  It appears to be a very effective tool for holding an instant referendum.  It allows users to vote and select a proxy to vote in their place.  It sounds vaguely similar to the idea that I’m proposing, which I call Democratic Intelligence, so, for clarity, here are the differences:

  • With the default implementation of Democratic Intelligence, the experts, made up of users with the best knowledge of the topic, make the decisions. This, as with all features, could change to a better way of making decisions.  With LiquidFeedback it’s just a referendum, so the decision is still up to the party.
  • LiquidFeedback allows one to select a proxy, meaning that some people will have more voting power than others. In Democratic Intelligence, one does not choose a proxy.  The default implementation is that voting power is based entirely on points based on knowledge; however it could be updated to also include points based on the user’s contributions. Democratic Intelligence is completely systematic, and therefore a user’s popularity shouldn’t make much difference.
  • LiquidFeedback, like Democratic Intelligence, can be used by political parties or other organizations, however one of the main goals of Democratic Intelligence is unity, and therefore to be used globally.
  • Democratic Intelligence is self-improving, whereas in LiquidFeedback, it seems that users only have the ability to make political decisions, not decisions to improve the system.
  • LiquidFeedback does not appear to use gamification.

To summarize, the principles of Democratic Intelligence are:

  • Self-improvement
  • Transparency
  • Democracy, enabling everyone to say what is important to them, and by creating suggestions and ranking the importance of existing suggestions.
  • Meritocracy, in that knowledge is required do do various things like voting and sharing videos and thoughts on suggestions.
  • Unity, wherever possible, with the aim of becoming a global system.
  • Gamification
  • Goal orientation
  • Critical thinking

Practical aspects

How to build it

Building the system is the easy bit.  The system is currently in development, and will be ready to be improved when it is live.  I expect it to go live at around May, 2015.

How to make it grow

The system would require regular use by a large enough group of people in order for its usefulness to be seen and to attract more users and grow.  For this reason it could start as simply a way for a charity similar to GiveWell to decide the most effective way to spend donations.  Perhaps it could be used by activist communities like Zero State and Humanity+ to collaborate internationally.  It could also be used to run a public company, although if the goal of the company is to make money, this could work against peace – seeing as the most effective ways to make money are not necessarily the most moral.

As the system matures, the charity or activist community could, for example, use the system to figure out better ways to find users.  It might decide to accept donations, and it might decide to use some kind of international currency like bitcoins, or it might simply rely on volunteers to complete any tasks that come out of the system.

Imagine an international, virtual community, voting and discussing what to spend money on in an organized fashion in order to achieve their goals.

My dreams are:

  • that the system could expand to become so large and mature, that the best ideas for peace leap out of it like popcorn
  • that petitions, striking, demonstrating, rioting and civil war become obsolete
  • that other, better systems emerge as a result
  • that eventually the entire world is part of a single system that works for everyone

What you can do

If you would like to get involved and help this kind of system become reality, start by joining one of the following groups to follow the progress of the idea, find information to share, discuss ideas that you have about it, and show your support:

Once the website is live, at, you can help out by registering and using the site to share your suggestions, to learn, to vote and to volunteer.  If you know of anyone that would like to use the site, let them know about it.  Share information and videos about it.

Some readers will be skeptical, which is great.  One should not just accept anything that one reads.  If you’re skeptical, I’d love to have your involvement as well.  Visit the groups and share your wisdom so that we can learn from you.  As with any project I get involved in, I like to think of Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb.  Edison invented hundreds of light bulbs that didn’t work before inventing ones that worked well.  His famous quote is “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  Regardless of how well an idea works, it’s important to keep trying and refining, learning from past mistakes.  I hope we can apply this to politics, continuously trying out new ideas and making old ideas obsolete.


[i] From the book, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson, pages 2 & 3


The article above features as Chapter 2 of the Transpolitica book “Anticipating tomorrow’s politics”. Transpolitica welcomes feedback. Your comments will help to shape the evolution of Transpolitica communications.