I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the state of our societies lately, and in particular the way we govern them. Democracy seems to be the method of choice at the moment, something I mentioned a while back (years ago, actually) in The age of democracies. Even though I still stand by the views of that post, it was sort of a rant, with me complaining about how bad things are without really coming up with any suggestions on how to make things better. So, hence this post; what we need to do to achieve a more viable form of government; a Democracy 2.0 if you will.
For those of you who don’t care for jumping between posts or just feel a bit lazy, I’ll quickly recap what I see as the problems of today’s society:
- People don’t think. Even though we arguably have the most advanced brains on the planet, we sure don’t like to use them a lot. It’s the four levels of ignorance – people don’t read, people don’t listen, people don’t think and people don’t care. This doesn’t bode well for a democratic society where everyone’s vote is equal, regardless of one’s knowledge (or lack thereof) of current affairs. Read more in my post The limbic society.
- Modern societies are extremely complex. Today’s societies are suffering from a multitude of extremely complex issues, many of which are very long-term in scale. Our current method of government, with new governments being elected every three of four years, more or less guarantee that these issues will become marginalised and ignored. This was discussed in the previously
mentioned post The age of democracies
- No one really cares. Again, this was mentioned in my Limbic society post, where I highlighted how difficult it is to get people to care about things, even if it affects them directly. If we can’t even get people to change their habits in order to save their own lives, what hope is there for us ever getting a working democracy?
So much for the problems. Whining’s done. Now let’s focus on the solutions. What can we do to change the world?
First thing is pretty obvious: let’s extend the period the elected government stays in power. Instead of changing the government every three or four years, we could let it rule for 25 or even 50 years. This would allow it to make less popular decisions like diverting funds to address environmental problems, or tackle unemployment and welfare issues efficiently, without risking being voted out of power and replaced by some extremist fringe party.
There are some drawbacks with this method though. Being allowed to vote only once or twice in your lifetime means that making the wrong choice could result in you being stuck with a rubbish (in the best case) or malicious (in the worst case) government, that has either no capability or incentive to make any improvements. If we’re not careful we’d end up with what is essentially a one-party state – including personal cults and government mind-control and propaganda – with no hope for change for another half a century or so.
Ok, so perhaps that’s not the best way to go. But the pseudo-dictatorship of long-term democracy could point the way to another possible solution: getting rid of democracy all together.
Dictatorship is such an ugly word. It conjures images of cold-hearted tyrants, oblivious of their subjects’ lives and problems and with little or no interest in making changes for the better. But in the early days of European democracy, back in the 18th century, it was seen as a viable alternative to letting the unwashed masses in on the power. After all, what did a peasant from Cornwall know about the diplomatic issues between Germany, France and Britain? Or a goatherder from Lyon? No, it would be better if a well-educated and benign ruler took charge of the society, and – with the aid of advisers – ruled the country in the best interest of everyone.
This form of government does have its merits. With a single powerful person in charge, necessary changes can be made swiftly and efficiently. And if that sounds like the way successful businesses are run it’s no coincidence; they’ve all recognized that democracy is not the way to go when you need to get things done – a strong and dynamic leadership is required.
Dictatorship is not all sunshine and fluffy bunnies though. Get the wrong person in charge and you’re in for a lifetime of suffering. And, let’s admit it, there are plenty of wrong people around.
Robots to the rescue
A third possible solution would be to get rid of human rulers all together and replace them with autonomous systems controlling all the complex aspects of modern society. If we could come up with computer systems clever enough to pass laws, manage the global finance and conduct diplomatic negotiations, we should have no need for humans in our governments. And, hand on heart, are we really doing all that good of a job ourselves currently? Or historically?
Technical issues aside (for one thing, making sure no one could maliciously add code to modify the system), this approach has some drawbacks. It would need to be a self-improving system, capable of learning from its own mistakes. And being an artificial system, people might have issues with it, not wanting to be governed by machines. (Humans are strange like that.) I can foresee an anti-machine underground movement, performing terrorist attacks against what they would see as an evil dictatorship, even if things would be better than ever. The perceived lack of freedom could potentially fuel a violent revolt, bringing us back to a world of scarcity and suffering.
As you can see, the solutions outlined above all have potential downfalls. None of them would be able to fix all the problems by themselves. This seems to be more difficult than I thought.
But then I had an idea. I was reading Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock, where he described how we’re willing to abdicate our free will to apps and programs as long as they are convenient and make our lives easier. Think of Facebook, Amazon, FourSquare, PayPal and many others. Even when news reaches us of new freedom-limiting terms and conditions for these apps, we keep on using them. After all, how could we not? They’re just so convenient. And anyway, everyone else is using them, so how bad can it really be?
My idea was that we create a kind of butler-ware app. An app that is designed to make the complex issues of modern-day society easily digestible and understandable. It would become your personal advisor, not only in political matters but in any aspect of our lives where we need some guidance. Do you wonder how refined sugar affect our bodies? The app would inform you of the latest findings. How could you make sure your daily commute had the least possible negative impact on the environment? The app would know. Will computer games harm your children’s brain development? Ask the app.
And when it comes to voting, it wouldn’t even have to work. It’s main purpose would be to give the impression that we still had some input on the governing of the society. The actual governing could then be taken care of by autonomous systems (see above) behind the scenes. This ruse would take away the issue with humans revolting to ‘free us from the tyranny of the machines’. It might not be democracy, but it would be an efficient, peaceful and humane form of government.
A brave new world
So there you have it. We’ve just solved the combined problems of environmental issues, political turbulence, poverty and over-population. With a docile and malleable populace, and powerful automatic systems governing the world, we’ve essentially created a utopia. Well, apart from the fact that people are never happy anyway. They will always find something to be upset about. But the main point is that the world is safe, and the humans are safe with it.
By the way, sorry about the length if this post, but we have after all saved the world. That’s worth a few extra words, is it not?