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Collaborative Technology and Democracy

By E. Glen Weyl, Audrey Tang and ⿻ Community

Collaborative Technology and Democracy

     This book was created to demonstrate in action and as well as describe Plurality: to show as well as tell. As such, it was created using many of the tools we describe in this section. The text was stored on and updated using the Git protocol that open source coders use to control versions of their software. The text is shared freely under a Creative Commons 0 licensing regime, implying that no rights to any content herein are reserved to the community creating it and it may be freely reused. At the time of this writing, dozens of diverse experts from around the world contributed to the text and we expect orders of magnitude more prior to publication, embodying the practices we describe in our Creative Collaboration chapter.

     Changes to the text were approved collectively by the community using a mixture of the advanced voting procedures described in our Voting chapter below and prediction markets. Contributors were recognized using a community currency and group identity tokens, which in turn was used in voting and prioritization of outstanding issues for the book. These priorities in turn determined the quantitative recognition received by those whose contributions addressed these challenges. Contentious issues were resolved through a mixture of the tools we discuss in the Deliberation and Voting chapters below. The book has been translated by the community augmented by many of the cross-linguistic and subcultural translation tools we discuss in our Administration chapter.

     To support the financial needs of the book during the publication process, we harnessed several of the tools we describe in the Markets chapter, including partial common ownership and plural funding. We hope to harness technologies from the Immersive Shared Reality chapter to communicate and explore the ideas from the book with audiences around the world.

     For all these reasons, as you read this book you are both learning about the ideas and evaluating them on their merits and experiencing what they, put into practice, can create. If you are inspired by that content, especially critically, we encourage you to contribute to the living and community managed continuations of this document and all its translations by submitting changes through a git pull request or by reaching out to one of the many contributors to become part of the community. We hope as many criticisms of this work as possible will be inspired by the open source mantra "so fix it!"

     While a human rights operating system is the foundation, the point of the system for most people is what is built on top of it. On top of the bedrock of human rights, liberal democratic societies run open societies, democracies and welfare capitalism. On top of operating systems, customers run productivity tools, games, and a range of internet-based communication media. In this chapter, we will illustrate the collaboration technologies that can be built on the foundation of plural social protocols of the previous section.

     While we have titled this section of the book "democracy", what we plan to describe goes well beyond many conventional descriptions of democracy as a system of governance of nations. Instead, to build Plurality on top of fundamental social protocols, we must explore the full range of ways in which applications can facilitate collaboration and cooperation, the working of several entities (people or groups) together towards a common goal. Yet even these phrase miss something crucial that we focus on: the power that working together has to create something greater than the sum of what the parts working together could have created separately.

     Mathematically, this idea is known as "supermodularity" and captures the classic idea from Aristotle that "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts". Given our emphasis on diversity, what "greater" means here is context specific, defined by the norms and values of the individuals and communities coming together. Furthermore, our focus is less on people or groups per se than on the fabric running through and separating them, social difference. Thus, what we will describe in this part of the book is, most precisely, the way how technology can empower supermodularity across social difference or, more colloquially, "collaboration across diversity".

     In this chapter, which lays out the framework for the rest of this part of the book, will highlight why collaboration across diversity is such a fundamental and ambitious goal. We then define a range of different domains where it can be pursued based on a spectrum of depth and breadth. Next we highlight a framework for design in the space that navigates between the dangers of premature optimization and chaotic experimentation. Yet harnessing the potential of collaboration across diversity also holds the risk of reducing the diversity available for future collaboration. To guard against this we discuss the necessity of regenerating diversity. We round out this chapter by describing the structure followed in each subsequent chapter in this part.

Collaboration across diversity: promise and challenges

     Why are we so focused on collaboration across diversity? Answers will naturally be diverse. One explanation that touched our hearts originates in the explanation given by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry of the Vulcan philosophy of "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" that acted as a kind of synecdoche for the series whose most consistent theme is initially conflictual encounters with "alien" species that eventually result in mutual growth:

(A)...belief that beauty, growth, progress -- all result from the union of the unlike. Concord, as much as discord, requires the presence of at least two different notes. The brotherhood of man is an ideal based on learning to delight in our essential differences, as well as learning to recognize our similarities. The circle and triangle combine to produce the gemstone in the center as the union of words and music creates song, or the union of marriage creates children.

     Perhaps the two most fundamental elements of life are survival and reproduction. Collaboration across diversity is at the heart of both: to survive we must avoid deadly conflicts across difference, while to reproduce the unlike must come together, especially if inbreeding is to be avoided.

     Beyond these basics, almost all the great achievements of art, philosophy and science result from, or are even composed of, a surprising synthesis of the unlike. Religions around the world and across history have celebrated those who have achieved peace and cooperation across difference. For those with a more practical and quantitative orientation, however, perhaps one of the most compelling bodies of evidence is the finding, popularized by economist Oded Galor in his Journey of Humanity. Building on his work with Quamrul Ashraf charting long-term comparative economic development, he argues that perhaps the most robust and fundamental driver of economic growth is societies' ability to productively and cooperatively harness the potential of social diversity.

     Primarily for reasons of measurement, Galor focuses on genetic diversity, among human populations. Today the word "diversity" is in many contexts used to specify dimensions along which oppression was historically organized in societies like the United States that are particularly culturally dominant in the world today. Yet diversity comes in many forms including:

  • Religion and religiosity: A diverse range of religious practices, including secularism, agnosticism and forms of atheism, are central to the metaphysical, epistemological and ethical perspective of most people around the world.
  • Jurisdiction: People are citizens of a range of jurisdictions, including nation states, provinces, cities etc.
  • Geographic type: People live in different types of geographic regions: rural v. urban, cosmopolitan v. more traditional cities, differing weather patterns, proximity to geographic features etc.
  • Profession: Most people spend a large portion of their lives working and define important parts of their identities by a profession, craft or trade.
  • Organizations: People are members of a range of organizations, including their employers, civic associations, professional groups, athletic clubs, online interest groups etc.
  • Ethno-linguistics: People speak a range of languages and identify themselves with and/or are identified by others with a "ethnic" groups associated with these linguistic groupings or histories of such linguistic associations.
  • Race, caste and tribe: Many societies feature cultural groupings based on real or perceived genetic and familial origins that partly shape collective self- and social perceptions, especially given the legacies of severe conflict and oppression based on these traits.
  • Ideology: People adopt, implicitly or explicitly, a range of political and social ideologies, organized according to schema that themselves differ greatly across social context (e.g. "left" and "right" are key dimensions in some contexts, while religious or national origin divides may be more important in others).
  • Education: People have a range of different kinds and levels of educational attainment.
  • Epistemology/field: Different fields of educational training structure thought. For example, humanists and physical scientists typically approach knowledge in different ways.
  • Gender and sexuality: People differ in physical characteristics associated with reproductive function and in social perception and self-perception associated with these, as well as in their patterns of intimate association connected to these.
  • Abilities: People differ greatly in their natural and acquired capabilities, intelligences and challenges.
  • Generation: People differ by age and life experiences.
  • Species: Nearly all of the above has assumed that we are talking exclusively about humans, but some of the technologies we will discuss may be used to facilitate communication and collaboration between humans and other life forms or even the inanimate natural world, which is obviously richly diverse internally and from human life.

     Furthermore, as we have emphasized repeatedly above, human identities are defined by combinations and intersections of these forms of diversity, rather than their mere accumulations, just as the simple building blocks of DNA's four base pairs give rise to life's manifold diversity.

     Let us return to the two basic categories of reasons why collaboration across diversity is so important. First, on the defensive/protective side, diversity is a consistent and omnipresent feature of life. If collaboration across it fails, it often translates into violent and destructive conflict. Second, on the positive/productive side, beauty, growth and progress all primarily result from collaboration across diversity.

     Yet, if history teaches anything, it is that for all its potential, collaboration across diversity is challenging. Social differences typically create divergences in goals, beliefs, values, solidarities/attachments and culture/paradigm. Simple differences in beliefs and goals alone are the easiest to overcome: by sharing information or agreeing to disagree, many differences in beliefs can be bridged and with common understanding of objective circumstances, compromises on goals are fairly straightforward. Values are more challenging, as they involve things that both sides will be reluctant to compromise over and tolerate.

     But the hardest differences to bridge are typically those related to systems of identification (solidarity/attachment) of meaning-making (culture). Solidarity and attachment relate to the others to which one feels allied or sharing in a common fate and interests, groups by which one defines who and what one is. Cultures are systems of meaning-making that allow us to attach significance to otherwise arbitrary symbols. Languages are the simplest example, but all kinds of actions and behaviors carry differing meaning depending on cultural contexts.

     Solidarity and culture are so challenging because they stand in the way not of specific agreements about information or goals but of communication, mutual comprehension and the ability to regard someone else as a partner capable and worth of such exchange. While they are in an abstract sense related to beliefs and values, solidarities and culture in practice precede these in human development: we are aware of our family and those who will protect us and learn to communicate long before we consciously hold any views or aim for any goals. Being so foundational, they are the hardest to safely adjust or change, usually requiring shared life-shaping experiences or powerful intimacy to reform.

     Beyond the difficulty of overcoming difference, it also holds an important peril. Bridging differences for collaboration often erodes them, harnessing their potential but also reducing that potential in the future. While this may be desirable for protection against conflict, it is an important cost in to the productive capacity of diversity in the future. The classic illustration is the way that globalization has both brought gains from trade, such as diversifying cuisine, while at the same time arguably homogenizing culture and thus possibly reducing the opportunity for such gains in the future. A critical concern, then, in Plurality is not just harnessing collaboration across diversity but also regenerating diversity, ensuring that in the process of harnessing diversity it is also replenished by the creation of new forms of social difference.

     A very natural analogy is to entropic systems. "Low entropy" systems are those that are organized into unlikely differentiated parts, such as two areas of distinct heat or complex hydrocarbons that have not reacted with atmospherically plentiful oxygen. All systems for producing "energy" work by harnessing this low entropy ("diversity") to produce work; such systems also have the advantage of avoiding "uncontrolled" releases of heat through explosions ("conflict"). However, every use of such low entropy eliminates it source, leading to the constant search for new sources of "power". The attempt to move towards "regenerative economies" based on renewable power sources aims to (at least temporarily) avoid this trap by ensuring that sources of low entropy are constantly replenished.[1] In the same way, we must aim for regenerative Plurality, that reproduces new diversity as it harnesses existing diversity.

The depth-breadth spectrum

     Because of the tensions between collaboration and diversity, one would naturally expect a range of approaches that make different trade-offs in terms of depth and breadth. Some aim to allow deep, rich collaboration at the cost of limiting this collaboration to small and/or homogeneous groups. While we will return to how and to what it extent it makes sense to quantify this, we can think of the "depth" of collaboration roughly in terms of the degree of supermodularity for a fixed set of participants: how much greater is what they create that the sum of what they can create separately, according to the standards of participants. Relationships of love or other deep connection are among the deepest as they allow transformations that are foundational to life, meaning and reproduction that those participating could never have known separately. However they are usually confined to a small set of people, usually with much previously in common.

     Other approaches aim to allow broad collaboration that includes very diverse and large collections of people and organizations, but at the cost of thinner and shallower collaboration. While scale and numbers are important, breadth is best understood in terms of social and cultural distance: broad approaches aim to be highly inclusive across lines that usually impede association and cooperation.

     The goal of Plurality is to mitigate this trade-off and allow greater collaboration for any given level of diversity, or greater diversity for any depth of collaboration. In fact, we can see there being a full spectrum of depth and breadth, representing the trade-off between the two. Economists often describe technologies by "production possibilities frontiers" (PPF) illustrating the currently possible trade-offs between two desirable things that are in tension. Similarly we illustrate in the figure a PPF of breadth and depth of collaboration, with various points along the frontier labeled with areas of current and developing technology instantiating these points that we spend each chapter in the rest of this part of the book exploring. The goal of Plurality is to push this frontier outward at every point along it, as we have illustrated in these seven points.

The trade-off between breadth and depth of collaboration represented as points along a production possibilities frontier, which it is the goal of Plurality to push outwards.

     One example illustrating this trade-off is common in political science: the debate over the value of deliberation compared to voting in democratic polities. High quality deliberation is traditionally thought to only be feasible in small groups and thus require processes of selection of a small group to represent a larger population such as representative government elections or sortition (choosing participants at random), but is believed to lead to richer collaboration, more complete airing of participant perspectives and therefore better eventual collective choices. On the other hand, voting can involve much larger and more diverse populations at much lower cost, but comes at the cost of each participant providing thin signals of their perspectives in the form (usually) of assent for one among a predetermined list of options.

     But for all the debate between the proponents of "deliberative" and "electoral" democracy, it is important to note that these are just two points along a spectrum and far from even representing the endpoints of that spectrum. As rich as in-person deliberations can be, they provide nowhere near the depth of sharing, connection and building of common purpose and identity that the building of committed teams (as in e.g. the military) and long-term intimate relationships do. And while voting can allow hundreds of millions to have say on a decision, it has never cut across social boundaries in any way close to what impersonal, globalized markets do everyday. All of these forms have trade-offs and the very diversity of the ways in which we have historically navigated them, the ways in which these have improved overtime (e.g. the advent of video conferencing) and in the future navigate them should be a source of hope that concerted development can radically improve these trade-offs, allowing richer collaboration across a broader diversity of social differences than in the past.

Goals, affordances and multipolarity

     Yet aiming at "improving" this trade-off requires us to specify at least something about what would count as an improvement. What makes a collaboration good or meaningful? What precisely constitutes social difference and diversity? How can we measure both?

     One standard perspective especially in economics and quantitatively-inclined fields is to insist that we should specify a global "objective" or "social welfare" function against which progress should be judged. The difficulty, of course, is that, in face of the limitless possibilities of social life, any attempt to specify such a criterion is destined to crash land on the shores of the unknown and possibly unknowable. The more ambitiously we apply such a criterion in pursuing Plurality, the less robust it will prove, because the more deeply we connect to others across greater difference, the more likely we are to realize the failings of our initial vision of the good. Insisting on specifying such a criterion in advance of learning about the shape of the world leads to premature optimization, which one of has labeled the root of all evil.

     One of the worst such evils is papering over the richness and diversity of the world. Perhaps the archetypal example is conclusions about the optimality of markets in neoclassical economics, which depend on extremely simplistic assumptions and have been often used to short-circuit attempts to discover systems for social resource management that deal with problems of increasing returns, sociality, incomplete information, limited rationality, etc. As will become evident in the coming chapters, we know very little about how to even build social systems that are sensitive to these features, much less even approximately optimal in the face of them. This shows why the desire to optimize, chasing some simple notion of the good, often seduces us away from the aspirations of Plurality as much as it aids us in pursuing it. We can be tempted to maximize what is simple to describe and easy to achieve, rather than anything we are really after.

     Optimization, especially the pursuit of a "social welfare function" carries another pitfall: of "playing God". Maximizing social welfare requires taking a "view from nowhere" and imagining one can influence conditions on a universal level available to no one. We all act from and for specific people and communities, with goals and possibilities limited by who we are and where we sit, in a network for other forces that hopefully together form a pattern that can avoid disaster. Tools that are only good for some abstractly universal perspective do not just overreach: they will appeal to no one who can actually adopt them.

     At the same time, there is an opposite extreme danger. If we simply pursue designs that imitate features of life and thus engage our attention with little sense of purpose or meaning, we can easily be co-opted to serve the darkest of human motives. The profit motives and power games that organize so much of today's world do not naturally serve any reasonable definition of a common good and the dystopian novels of Neal Stephenson and the Black Mirror series remind us of how technical advance decoupled from human values can become traps that fray social bonds and allow the power-hungry to loot, control and enslave us.

     Nor need we look to hypothetical scenarios to perceive the danger of compelling technologies pursued without a broader guiding mission. The dominant online platforms of the "Web2" era such as Google, Facebook and Amazon grew precisely out of a mentality of bringing critical features of real-world sociality (viz. collectively determined emergent authority, social networks and commerce) to the digital world. While these services have brought many important benefits to billions of people around the world, we have extensively reviewed above their many shortcomings and the dangerous pass they have brought the world without a broader set of public goals to guide them. We must build tools that serve the felt needs of real, diverse populations, meeting them where they are, and yet we cannot ignore the broader social contexts in which they sit and the conflicts that we might exacerbate in meeting those perceived needs.

     Luckily, a middle, pragmatic, plural path is possible. We need not take either a God's eye nor a ground-level view exclusively. Instead we can build tools that pursue the goals of a range of social groups, from intimate families and friends to large nations, always with an eye to limitations of each perspective and on the parallel developments we have to connect to and learn from emanating from other parallel directions of development. We can aim to reform market function by focusing on social welfare, but always doing so based on adding to our models key features of social richness revealed by those pursuing more granular perspectives and expecting our solutions will at least partly founder on their failures to account for these. We can build rich ways for people to empathize with others' internal experience, but with an understanding that such tools may well be abused if not paired with the discipline of deliberation, regulation and well-structured markets.

     And we can always anticipate that whatever connections we make and conflicts we resolve are but one stage in a process of collaboration across diversity. Every successful step forward should bring even more challenging forms of diversity into the world we can perceive, reshaping our understanding of our selves and our aspirations and demanding we struggle that much harder to bridge them. While such an aspiration lacks the satisfying simplicity of maximizing an objective function or pursuing technical advance and social richness wherever they lead, this is precisely why it is the hard path worth pursuing Following another Star Trek slogan, ad astra per aspera: "to the stars, through adversity" or in the words of Nobel laureate André Gide, "Trust those who seek trust, but fear those who have found it."

Regenerating diversity

     Yet, as noted above, even if we manage to avoid these pitfalls and successfully bridge and harness diversity, we run the risk of in the process depleting the resource diversity provides. This is possible at any point along the spectrum and at any level of technological sophistication. Intimate relationships that form families can homogenize participants, undermining the very sparks of complementarity that ignited love. Building political consensus can undermine the dynamism and creativity of party politics. Translation and language learning can undermine interest in the subtleties of other languages and cultures.

     Yet homogenization is not an inevitable outgrowth of bridging, even when one effect is to recombine existing culture and thus lessen their average divides. The reason is that bridging is plays a positive, productive role, not just a defensive one. Yes, interdisciplinary bridging of scientific fields may loosen the internal standards of a field and thus the distinctive perspective it brings to bear. But it may also give rise to new, equally distinctive fields. For example, the encounter between psychology and economics has created a new "behavioral economics" field; the encounter between computer science and statistics has helped launch "data science" and artificial intelligence.

     Similar phenomena emerge throughout history. Bridging political divides may lead to excess homogenization, but it can also lead to the birth of new political cleavages. Families often bear children, who diverge from their parents and bring new perspectives. Most artistic and culinary novelty is born of "bricolage" or "fusion" of existing styles.[2] The synthesis that emerge when thesis and antithesis meet are not always compromises, but instead may be new perspectives that realign a debate.

     None of this is inevitable and of course there are many stories of intersections that undermine diversity. But this range of possibilities gives hope that with careful attention to the issue, it is possible in many cases to design approaches to collaboration that renew the diversity that powers them.

Infinite diversity in infinite combinations

     In this part of the book we will (far from exhaustively) explore a range of approaches to collaboration across difference and how further advances to Plurality can extend and build on them. Each chapter will begin, as this one did, with an illustration of technology near the cutting edge of what is possible that is in use today. It will then describe the landscape of approaches that are common and emerging in its area. Next it will highlight the promise of future developments that are being research, as well as risks these tools might pose to Plurality (such as homogenization) and approaches to mitigating them, including by harnessing tools described in other chapters. We hope that the wide range of approaches we highlight draws out not just the substance of Plurality, but also the consistency of its approach with its substance. Only a Plurality complementary and networked directions can support the development of a plural future.

  1. One possible disanalogy is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics implies that in a long-term and broad scope sense, regeneration can never succeed. Whether the same applies to diversity is less clear, though given how long term the relevance of the Second Law is, the analogy is quite strong for practical purposes. In the long run, we're all dead. ↩︎

  2. Cite Levi-Strauss here ↩︎