Plurality: The Future of Collaborative Technology and Democracy
Introducing and soliciting collaboration on Plurality: The Future of Collaborative Technology and Democracy
We are about to embark on a journey and hope you will join us. Over the past half decade we have, in collaboration with so many of you, been developing an alternative to the usual narratives about the future of technology that focus on financialization or centralized artificial intelligence. Plurality, as we call it, is technology that recognizes, honors, and empowers cooperation across social and cultural differences. You can learn a bit more about it in the overview below. We believe Plurality is the natural technological paradigm to support the flourishing of democratic societies and can overcome many of the entrenched divisions in our world today. We want to tell the world about this possibility so we can stimulate the diverse and coordinated investment and experimentation that can make it a reality. And we want your help.
While our precise plan will evolve with the advances in Plurality research and practical realities, we are committed to embodying the ideas of the book in the way we create, distribute, and financially support it. All material will be a Free Cultural Work, among the most permissive category of Creative Commons license. We plan to write the book in public in a git-like structure, where we will solicit editorial and research assistance openly from the community and enlist those who contribute to help us prioritize pull requests and eventually control the contents of the book. We will support the financial expenses of making the book available using a range of aligned, web3-native mechanisms, including Plural/Quadratic Funding grants, NFT “signatures” on physical and digital purchased copies of the book and SALSA/Harberger NFTs for access to Glen as a speaker/consultant based on the book. We will represent a range of roles contributing to the book using Soulbound Tokens (SBTs) and will use these as the foundation for governing choices about the content after physical publication, including the disposition of much of the funds raised, roughly converting the book’s community into a Distributed Autonomous Organization (DAO). We will be partnering closely with Protocol Labs (PL) to build the technology substrate to make this work and hopefully help invent a new model of publishing for the web3 era.
At the same time, as pluralists, we don’t want to reach only “web3 natives”, and as such we hope to make it a beautiful physical object, widely accessible, distributed and reviewed in standard publishing and media channels. Thus, we need not just hackers and writers, but also designers, storytellers, marketers, translators, publishers and so forth to work with us. And we understand that some of these will prefer more individual entitlements over governance rights on speculative potential cash flows, possibilities we are open to negotiating with partners who share our goals and vision along other dimensions. In any case, neither Audrey nor Glen will receive any compensation nor royalties for their work on the text, to comply with legal responsibilities associated with their employment and to ensure that any revenue supports our mission and the community we hope to build.
We will soon be debuting the software platform that will support our writing in public and managing of participation, but if you perceive a way you want to contribute prior to that, please feel free to write to Glen. The future of technology can honor and support the values we hold dear if we work together to imagine and explain it.
Technology and democracy are at war: technology bolsters authoritarian surveillance and corrodes democratic institutions, while democracies fight back with constraining regulation and public sector conservatism. Yet this conflict is not inevitable; it is a choice we have made to invest in anti-democratic technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Cryptocurrencies. A few places, such as the Ethereum community, Estonia, the state of Colorado and especially Taiwan, have instead focused on technologies that empower diverse collaboration and have seen democracy and technology flourish together. This book, by the leaders of this new paradigm of Plurality, shows for the first time how every technologist, policymaker, business leader and activist can harness it to build a more collaborative, diverse, and productively democratic world.
When Uber arrived in Taiwan, its presence was divisive, just as it has been in much of the world. But rather than social media pouring fuel on this flame, the vTaiwan platform that one of us developed as a minister there empowered citizens opining on the issue to have a thoughtful, deliberative conversation with thousands of participants on how ride hailing should be regulated. This technology harnessed statistical tools often associated with AI to cluster opinion, allowing every participant to quickly digest the clearest articulation of the viewpoints of their fellow citizens and contribute back their own thoughts. The views that drew support from across the initial lines of division rose to the top, forming a rough consensus that ensured the benefits of the new ride hailing tools while also protecting workers’ rights and was implemented by the government. This process has been used to resolve dozens of contentious issues in Taiwan and is rapidly spreading around the world to governments, cooperatives and blockchain communities.
Yet vTaiwan just scratches the surface of how technology can be designed to perceive, honor and bridge social differences for collaboration. New voting and financing rules emerging from the Ethereum ecosystem can reshape how we govern the public and private sectors; immersive virtual worlds are empowering empathetic connections that cross lines of social exclusion; social networks and newsfeeds can be engineered to build social cohesion and shared sensemaking, rather than driving us apart. And, as Taiwan’s experience has shown, the potential social benefits are vast, enabling the world’s best response to a range of recent crises from the Covid pandemic to misinformation to the creating broadly shared prosperity.
Yet while a few countries and ecosystems have put tens of millions of dollars into such technologies, the rest of the world has poured hundreds of billions into AI and Crypto, which pursue fundamentally different goals. AI aims to automate away human participation, centralizing power, strengthening autocracies, and undermining the middle class. Speculative cryptocurrencies, addictive social media and escapist “metaverses” have undermined the social fabric, reinforced social divisions, spread an infodemic and proliferated criminality. It is little surprise, then, that the countries that have invested in these technologies see democracy and technology as enemies.
But it is not too late to change paths: we can invest in technologies that establish digital human rights, empower pluralism and flourish in democratic societies, allowing them to outperform authoritarianism and hyper-capitalism. We can invest to give every person an inalienable right to digital personhood with a new generation of decentralized identity (DID) technologies that empower every person to travel, transact, conduct business, and participate in democratic communities free from centralized surveillance. We can make freedom of association real in the digital world with community-managed and accountable social networks and ledgers that form the town halls and public squares of the future while bridging the growing divides between groups. We can secure digital property rights by creating the public markets and main streets of the future with cryptographic technologies for the secure and privacy-preserving sharing of data, computation, and storage across peers, free from the control of platform monopolists. We can secure the right to commerce with government-supported, privacy-preserving, internationally interoperable digital currencies. And we can enable every citizen to access these rights by making high speed internet a human right and digital competence education core to public school curricula.
Securing these fundamental digital human rights makes pluralism in the digital world not just possible, but natural. In Taiwan, the ideographic characters for “digital” and “plural” are the same: 數位. The experience there and in similar ecosystems has shown how these foundations, even in nascent form, promotes flourishing democracy. Secure and private identities allow citizens to participate in thoughtful deliberations and reasoned compromise, as in vTaiwan, without facing attacks from trolls and bots. Private data sharing allows neighborhoods and communities to provide services (from pollution monitoring to mask availability maps) for themselves rather relying on proprietary platforms. Open and reliable payments allow creative forms of crowdfunding to support shared goods without heavy-handed bureaucracies. Peer-to-peer reputation systems empower civil society to combat misinformation, often with humor, while maintaining vibrant and open speech.
Furthermore, while these tools can transform the public sector around the world, they are not only relevant or even primarily, relevant to national democracies. Instead, they offer a way for every organization, from churches to corporations, to foster more productive and dynamic cooperation. Companies can empower intrapreneurship and cross-divisional infrastructure faster than ever before. Private and sovereign data sharing can contain and cure disease. A new media landscape can simultaneously be more trustworthy and consensual on key facts than ever before while empowering voices marginalized by traditional gate-keepers. Plurality is thus not for politics and government alone, any more than the internet was for the military and universities that first built it. Instead, it is a new technological paradigm that can transform every sector and the lives of every individual for the better if we learn how to harness it.
But just like the internet and other transformative technologies, Plurality will only thrive to the extent we invest in it. The internet began as a network established by the United States Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPANET) to experiment with new decentralized user interface designs. Yet the vision of ARPANET’s founders, like JCR Licklider, on which ours is closely modeled, was only very partially realized because it never mobilized the public and international support and multisectoral investment needed to follow it through. Instead, as Licklider predicted, it was mostly captured by monopolists who stymied its potential. Today we have the chance to correct that mistake and build a future where our technologies express and empower our highest ideals, rather than degrading them. Every activist, artist, technologist, citizen, policymaker and organization has a key role to play in the struggle for that future.
When we see “internet of things”, let’s make it an internet of beings.
When we see “virtual reality”, let’s make it a shared reality.
When we see “machine learning”, let’s make it collaborative learning.
When we see “user experience”, let’s make it about human experience.
When we hear “the singularity is near”, let us remember: the plurality is here.
Below is an outline divided into parts and chapters. Each chapter lists estimated page length and gives a summary of the argument of the relevant chapter, in a proportion of roughly one sentence to each 5 pages. All of this is a first draft sketch.
Preface: Seeing Plural (5 pages):
We will open the book with a poetic-spiritual reflection on the omnipresence of plurality at every scale of reality and what an extension of this into our technological future might feel like.
Introduction: The War Between Democracy and Technology (10 pages):
The headline-grabbing conflicts between tech and democracy at once reflect and conceal a deeper tension between the directions technology has developed and the principles of a democratic society. While specific technologies that have come out of the AI and web3 traditions have significant potential, they are fundamentally anti-democratic political ideologies rather than technologies, committed to the centralization of power and extreme individualism respectively.
- Living in a Plural World (15 pages): From the most basic physical level of quantum mechanics to the greatest heights, “beauty, growth, progress – all result from the union of the unlike.” (Star Trek quote). These all therefore depend on maintaining and proliferating diversity, while also strengthening communication and cooperation across difference. Information and communications technology can map the dynamic landscape of social relationships and facilitate new connections and organizations that span such networks.
- The Lost Dao (15 pages) The idea of a network society, where individuals and social groups are both dynamic intersections of each other, originated in the theories of sociologists, economists and philosophers like Henry George, Georg Simmel and John Dewey. This vision was the foundation of what become the internet, but was never articulated with philosophical clarity, allowing it to be forgotten and superseded by other philosophies, focused on imitation of human intelligence or the liberation of individuals from social bonds. This book aims to recover that lost vision, show how it has and can succeed and chart a path forward for it to flourish.
- A View from Yu Shan (20 pages) Taiwan sits at the intersection of the continental plates of Eurasia and America, and at the ideological intersection of the Chinese centralized AI ideology, the American hyper-capitalist ideology and European values-based regulatory states. As the physical fault line has pushed the highest point in Taiwan, Yu Shan, higher, so too these ideological tensions have pushed Taiwan to develop a pluralist synthesis that allowed it to become the most technologically advanced and most actively democratic country in the world. This chapter will give a vivid and emotive portrait of the life in Taiwan’s digital democracy from multiple vantage points: that of the minister, that of a civic activist, that of an ordinary digitally disengaged citizen, that of a businessperson, etc. It will also briefly tell the history of how Taiwan’s digital democracy emerged, drawing parallels and contrasts to the circumstances of other liberal democratic countries today.
- Human Rights as an Operating System (5 pages) Just as industrial democracies are built on the foundation of universal human rights, digital democracies depend on the universal defense of human rights in the digital realm. Access to these capabilities is currently limited and proprietary, undermining the potential of Plurality. Each chapter in this section will begin with a short sketch of an interaction that the realization of this right will enable.
- Personhood (10 pages) The rights to life, travel and personal recognition are the most fundamental of rights and yet the identity systems that make these possible online are controlled by a few proprietary platforms. Decentralized and pluralistic identity systems that are now emerging from the web3 space can empower a range of new functionalities that take the internet as far beyond its current state as the internet took prior modes of communication.
- Association (10 pages) Social networks map association in the digital age, while blockchains provide the digital equivalent of public squares. If these can be extended by public-interested investment to enrich the reputation and social relationships these convey, they have the potential to extend the reach of social relationships far broader beyond today and substitute for many of the functions traditionally assigned to anonymous market exchange.
- Commerce (5 pages) With the participation of legitimate institutions (such as central banks, governments and banks), digital currencies can have a network structure that allows both the benefits of sovereignty and privacy and of international interoperability, freeing payments both from the chaos of cryptocurrencies and the inefficient monopolies that currently dominate payments.
- Property (10 pages) While the fundamental assets of the digital world (data, computation and memory) are created in a distributed manner, the lack of open standards for securely sharing them has concentrated power in a few big tech companies. Public investment in developing open standards for secure sharing in these areas will allow civil society and business groups to achieve far more ambitious collaboration, more efficiently, with greater trust, privacy, and sovereignty.
- Access and education (5 pages) Online human rights are only relevant to those who can access and navigate cyberspace. High speed broadband access and digital competence, not just literacy, education must therefore be universal human rights.
- Democracy as Applications (10 pages) Democratic institutions are applications that can run on these foundations and have three fundamental components: deliberation, compromise and pluralism. These institutions can not only transform the public sector but also the private sector, democratizing business, and depend in turn on such democratized financing models. Each chapter will begin with a vignette of ways technologies are being used today to achieve digital democracy.
- Deliberation (5 pages) Advances in statistics (often associated with AI) make it possible “broad listening”, where millions of people can hear the distilled essence of the distribution of opinion of their peers, empowering democratic deliberation at scale.
- Compromise (5 pages) Advances in mechanism design (often associated with web3) make compromise and horse-trading at scale possible, allowing direct democracy that doesn’t fall into the traps of tyranny of the majority.
- Pluralism (5 pages) Social networks allow us to trace social cleavages and divisions, allowing us to both empower “local” communities to self-govern and to actively create incentives for bridging these divides.
- Finance (5 pages) New forms of social organization emerging from the web3 community allow us to transcend the market-state divide by creating an emergent social sector that can provide democratic services at scale.
Impact (Intro 5 pages):
Democracy has gotten a bad reputation in much of the world for failing to deliver on critical global challenges. This is because it hasn’t kept pace with technology; when it does, Taiwan’s experience shows it can outperform authoritarian regime. Each chapter will highlight statistics illustrating the success possible in countries like Taiwan and Estonia that have made digital democracy a reality.
- Media (5 pages) Misinformation can be contained while maintaining vibrant free speech with algorithms that surface content with surprising consensus and active participation of civil society groups that harness humor.
- Health (5 pages) Pandemics and other public health crises can be identified and responded with agility and minimal economic costs if civil society can rapidly design systems for allocating scarce health resources and targeting chains of transmission.
- Environment (5 pages) Environmental harms, from the local to the global, can quickly be identified without invading privacy if citizens can form horizontal “data coalitions” that can bargain with governments to live up to their responsibilities and ensure community members do the same.
- Jobs (5 pages) By harnessing digital technologies for human engagement rather than replacement, digital technologies can create better jobs than they eclipse, leading to naturally broadly shared prosperity and participation.
- Institutions (20 pages) The large-scale investment necessary to realize Plurality will require fusing together funding sources from a variety of sectors and countries to combine and transcend the motives of national interest, profit and charity. Experimentation with diverse communities across many geographic locations will have to closely tie to the standardization that can achieve international scale, harnessing a network of digital ministers like that in Taiwan. Private sector businesses, academic institutions, charitable organizations, and activists will all have to be drawn into contributions lured by the prestige and vision of the future that comes with contributing to the future of open standards. While ambitious, this plan largely extends the history of the internet stimulated by the network of user research laboratories funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPANET), extending it to our current multipolar world.
- Action (10 pages) While success will require coordination at the highest levels, every citizen has a role to play to build the momentum to make this possible. We will show how hackers, investors, businesspeople, activists, artists, voters all can be part of a movement to make our tools serve our values rather than be dictated by them.
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