AMPU - Delivering Direct Democracy through Technology

I've been thinking of a project for a while now, and mentioned bits and pieces of it in comments on K5. There seemed to be some interest, although people were asking for more details.

So here's the whole story, as it's panned out so far. I could use some help on it, if there are any politically-minded coders around here =)

The problem

For a while now, many people have been bored with voting, and with the governments and political parties for which they can vote.

Some say people aren't entertained enough with the system, and it needs to be better understood or more fun.

I think the problem is the opposite one. I think that people have come to understand the system too well. Many have said that democracy as we know it is inadequate. And, while these arguments are fairly unknown, I think many people are beginning to see the cracks in the system, even if they aren't yet fully aware of the flaws.

In short, I think we have outgrown the typical version democracy being sold, just as we outgrew everything before it.

The solution

What I propose is a new system, not so new that it hasn't ever been talked about. Not even so new that it has never been used. When it was used, however, the world was not suited for it. Now, with the advent of the Internet, Direct Democracy's time has finally come. It is time for people to make decisions on their own.

What the 'net gives us

The Internet gives us two very important things. First of all, we can now organise ourselves based upon interests. No longer are we limited to essentially irrelevant criteria such as location, language, education, and wealth or status.

What we can do now, and what we have been doing on the 'net for some time, is to get together and discuss the things we care about. Not only that, we can ignore the millions of other subjects that we don't care about at all.

This is crucial. These possibilities, each of which the 'net delivers to us so easily, are exactly the issues which we once needed. These problems are the very ones that democracy as we know it was designed to solve. Since we couldn't organise ourselves, and get together to make decisions without getting lost in a myriad of decisions we knew nothing about, we gave away our rights and elected representatives to do our decision making for us. This "representative democracy" solved a problem, but make no mistake.. in order to solve that problem, we gave up a major portion of our rights, and in the process we put too much power in the hands of too few. Most democracies are formed when kings and dictators are overthrown. We risked our lives for freedom from the imposed rules of another, and then proceeded to replace those overthrown with new people to make our decisions.

Ever since the dawn of the Internet, people have been making decisions on it. In fact, it's been those very decisions which caused the Internet to take the shape it did. The model of free decision making which the Internet follows is the precise model which brought freedom of communication and expression to the world. What's more, it didn't happen in the centuries that other methods of decision making take to produce political change -- the web is only ten years old. That's right - by collaborating over the net, we can progress at a phenomenal rate. The very fact that local laws of countries have been unable to keep up with the inter net's rate of change proves that it is a superior system -- one that can adapt to new circumstances, situations, and social needs faster than any before.

What's to be done with this new potential

There is only one thing to be done with this great new opportunity -- take advantage of it. Build an organised system out of it, and start to take back control from the governments which are no longer needed. After all, governments didn't create the net. Almost every person on the planet who knows it loves it, except those in power. I doubt there is a government in the world which hasn't planned or tried to limit it in some way. The Taliban wanted it completely stopped throughout their country, except for their own use.

So, given that this technological "direct democracy" or "demarchy" is more sophisticated than normal "representative democracy", does that mean it's perfect? No, it has many flaws. But not as many. For one thing, it does not guarantee good results. Just like the normal democratic system which it has a lot in common with, direct democracy can be used to decide that evil things should be done, if that is the will of those making decisions. What cannot happen, though, is for one person to be elected to power, and do lots of evil things throughout his reign. That's exactly what can happen with our current system, and did happen when Hitler was elected to power in democratic Germany.

Direct democracy is much more sophisticated, though, while bearing enough similarities to our current system that it wouldn't feel too alien for us. With direct democracy, normal citizens are elected to make minor decisions, and when they have done so, they immediately become normal citizens again. The system, in this respect, is similar to jury service.

This is a nice enough system. However, I simply don't believe it provides enough incentive to replace our current system. Neither do I feel, as many others didn't, that it is workable without some assistance from technology.

So what can technology give us which fills in the gaps? Well, most of Internet's decision making was done on Usenet, sometimes known as "Internet Newsgroups". This system, for readers who came to the net a little later and might not be familiar with it, is very similar to newer website ideas like forums, or bulletin boards, and also with mailing lists.

Of course that's nothing new. It is, however, the first part of what we need -- a way for people to organise themselves based on what they care about, not on which county they are in, or on their income level.

What makes this new?

What else do we need then, and how can we combine this? We've got our information on a subject of interest and an ability to discuss issues from the newsgroups. What we need now, then, is the ability to vote on those issues. That is a simple enough addition. Newsgroups are organised into hierarchies, so that the top group might be environment, and the group underneath specialises that discussion to a sub-issue, such as discussions of the ocean environment.

To create a specialised discussion about a particular jury to vote upon an issue such as global warming, then, we simply need to add a subgroup, as is done almost every day on Usenet newsgroups. No technical issue there.

The members of this jury then, would be elected to jury service from members of the community who already care about the environment enough to spend time listening and discussing the issue by joining the environment newsgroup. This solves a problem many people have had with previous suggestions of direct democracy - that people don't know enough about the issues. Another problem often raised, is that people may simply not take the vote seriously. This has been proven wrong by studies in real life though, with normal citizens taking decisions very seriously, just as we know they do. Why do we know they do? Because we use this very system for juries -- our most important decisions. We have juries elected and given the facts on specific issues precisely because we do not trust our governments to do the job of deciding our fates properly.

So what is left then, to make a system that can truly organise our societies the way our current governments do? Well, we can make decisions. That generic system will cover any decisions we need to make, from what temperature toilet seats should be, to whether the entire system of government needs to be abandoned in favor of a better one just discovered. But we need some way to implement our decisions once we've made them. That's easy enough. Create another subgroup, a taskforce. Invite people to join the taskforce, either on a voluntary basis, or by asking contractors to estimate their prices just as government does now. The taskforce can complete it's work, and report back to the newsgroup which originally created the decision to do the work. Of course, the jury is disbanded by now, moved on. So if the taskforce comes back and says that things aren't working out as planned, a new jury elected to decide whether or not to continue the work will have new members, with unbiased opinions on which options are best. Since the jury who started the work reported all their decisions and plans to the group in order to let them create the taskforce, everything decided is a matter of public record, and can easily be recalled for further study.

Documentation is always important

Keeping documents as a matter of public record is another necessity of this system. The system requires information to be public, of course. Moreover, it requires information to be revised. As new decisions are made, plans will change. Comments on issues need to be stored, just as comments and revisions to documents do. Information therefore needs to be tracked. Thankfully, programmers working together over networks have had this issue for many years, and have devised and extensively tested very good solutions to the problem. You may have used a version of the system, in fact -- the revision system in modern word processors such as Microsoft's "Word". This technology is not simply for text documents, though.. with revision control, it is a simple matter to track new versions of photographs, diagrams, music, and anything else imaginable. What's more, every document related to a project can be stored together at a certain point in time, so that, say, every document relating to the state of the farming industry during 1991 can be frozen in time. This flexibility of information is exactly the power needed for people to take power back into their own hands, and to manage their situation both effectively and intelligently. In fact, it is likely more power than most governments can easily access now.

One issue which may be familiar is that of importing, or linking resources. This is much like the hyperlinks used on websites so well to effectively make one giant book out of every related subject on the net. Groups often need to share information and decisions. By linking rules and decisions made in one newsgroup (or SIG -- special interest group), it is possible to simply follow the outcomes of other discussions which only have a minor influence on your favorite issue, without actively following their discussions. As their decisions are modified, the new version automatically becomes available to everyone who needs to know about it. This is where the version control system becomes even more powerful. When deciding to construct a building, a certain version of the safety standard may need to be chosen and worked to. It is no good working to a moving target, which might be in the process of being reconsidered by the Health and Safety Working group. It is possible, then, to link a project's specifications to the version of a document which is current at that time. Then, work can follow that standard, and a later project could choose to update the building to later standards when it is deemed necessary.

Besides importing, there is one more feature needed, which is related to importing links, is that of hierarchies. I've touched on this before, for the most part describing how it is used in standard Newsgroups. I would like to go into a little more detail about how it would work in AMPU, though. By defining rules in a parent group, at the top of the hierarchy, it is possible to define global decisions. These decisions would filter down through the hierarchy to subgroups, so that, say all the rules of the global environment group would also become rules of the subgroups environment.USA, and environment.UK. This would work similarly for, say, a school, which would inherit all of it's rules from the parent group, which would define rules for every school in the country. Schools can then define their own special rules for things which only apply to them, such as "Insulting Mr. Bard's hairstyle is not allowed." Of course, in a true democracy, very few things are set in stone, and it is possible for an individual community to override to override standard laws. For example, Amish communities could greatly benefit from such features. Special needs schools could also use such methods. In fact, though, it would be easy for all Amish communities to import a the rules of a group such as religion.amish, just as special needs schools could easily import psychology.carer_methods.special_needs, to have their guidelines always follow the very latest practices in caring for special needs children. Should it ever be globally agreed that certain things are intolerable, then it would also be a simple issue to lock laws, and apply them to all subgroups within the hierarchies.

Is there anything left, then? Surely a new form of government which is superior to everything we've relied on for years isn't specified so easily? Yes, there is a lot left. Much of these simple additions have technical considerations which will take a lot of work to implement. However, given the complexities of our current governments, I think the system proposed here is incredibly simple and efficient by comparison. What is more, the system is transparent. There are no complex dealings obscured from public view. All successes and failures are made in public, where everyone can see them. Corruption is next to impossible, as far as I can foresee, since no one is extraordinarily powerful except for the moments when they become jurors for the duration of a single vote an issue. Even then, they are individual members of a randomly-selected panel, each of which can see the same issues they can.

There is a way

Assuming we're convinced, and this is such a great system, how could we go about bringing this to the world as a new form of government? Well, for one thing, not every country is ready for democracy, let alone this. Societies go through stages of development. Democracy is one of the later stages, coming after monarchies and dictatorships. Even in countries like the USA, and the UK, where I think standard democracy is "on it's last legs", so to speak, it is difficult to imagine either current governments, or people who are set in their ways simply accepting such a huge change.

However, I believe there is a way. Regardless of political beliefs, this system would be a very valuable tool in the organisation of individual associations, clubs, and other limited groups. From there, it would not be such a large step if the system were adopted in colleges and other institutions. Businesses would surely adopt such a system eventually, assuming it truly proved to be an efficient tool. The profits would demand such adoption. Given gradual adoption in Internet-wide projects, clubs, societies, institutions, and companies, government itself is really the only thing left. I believe, by that stage, people would be more than ready for AMPU. In the end, it would be relatively easy to simply import these individual organisations into subgroups of a global hierarchy, possibly applying some kind of transformation map to rename things defined within the organisation itself to conform to naming standards used globally.

A name, for this beast?

What then, would we call such a system? AMPU? What does that mean? That's hopeless! Actually, I quite like it. It stands for something you might have heard of, especially if you're from the United States of America. It stands for "A More Perfect Union".

Anyway, I ain't the best programmer on the planet, and I'm a little rusty at non-web code too, but I do enjoy coding, and think this is worth building, if not actually using. For one thing, I think the Debian and Linux communities might find it useful. I know the Debian project uses a voting system right now. If you like the idea too, get in touch -- maybe we can get something started. Funding, anyone?

- Jel,