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Why Can't We Be Citizens?
Social media needs re-engineering.
I want your help.
I want you to be as interested in making America’s democracy work as much as I am. The problem is that I’m probably not the best example. I have never been one of those do or die kinds of people. I have not found a hill I’m ready to die on. When I have come close to death it never made me feel excited and thrilled to be alive. I can’t really apologize for that. Nevertheless, I’m interested in making America’s democracy work, with something like social media as it has never worked before.
When I say democracy, understand that I mean democratic processes. There’s nothing magical about liberal democracy. You can’t just sprinkle magic words into a paragraph which makes it democratic. It’s about the process of managing power. That’s where the rubber meets the road. Following James Lindsay who quotes Jonathan Rauch, liberalism means:
Nobody has final say.
Nobody has special authority.
In short, we’re not God. We are humble and we embrace humor, reason and discovery in a process that leads to wisdom. You know that social media does not facilitate this process. I want to recenter civics in American life. Not populism. I want software to help us get there.
I want you to be able to click and see the items before your city council as easily as you can click and see what’s trending on Netflix. I want you to be able to see the authors of every piece of legislation as easily as you see the actors starring in every movie. I want you to see how much lobbyists contribute to those legislators as easily as you click and see the stock price of Google. I want you to be able to trust that your vote is as secure as your ATM transaction. I want you to be able to craft legally binding legislation in comprehensible language as easily as you fill out your taxes. I want you to be able to click a button and have a real attorney review it. Considering that we graduate 35,000 JDs every year, it ought to be easy enough to find one.
I wanted all of these things 20 years ago. As well, I thought I would be free about this time to dedicate myself to building such a system. I thought I would know more people with the time. I still want all these things, so I’m writing it all down at length.
I want you to be able to click and see the docket at the city courthouse, the superior courthouse. I want to you to be able to find out which prosecutor has sent the most violent criminals to serve time and pay their debt to society. Just click. I want you to be able to ask “What was the State of Alaska’s position on the death penalty since 1960?” and get a clear, sensible answer, quickly.
Some of these things I want for you, you can already do. Like that last question. I got the answer from GPT-4 for which I pay $20 per month. This is a happy side effect of something we might all get. I’m disappointed that I haven’t been able, in all of my career, engage with people who could commit to building such an aid to citizens. I’m a bit upset that I have to ask an AI. Then again, I’m just a peasant. Like you. This is all we get for our curiosity. Maybe we could be satisfied. I’m sure that’s what the powers that be hope.
But there’s one kind of satisfaction the AI will not provide. That is the satisfaction of being a patriotic citizen working in concert with your fellow citizens and making self-government work. Working for an AI is the opposite of self-government. Working on social media platforms that operate at the whim of politicized censorship is the opposite of self-determination. I tell you honestly this is why I don’t do politics. I don’t get to vote and debate on social media. I get to like and ignore. Those are not enough verbs for a competent democratic process.
But maybe my kind of system could be built. Perhaps maybe AIs could assist.
See my old code? It’s dated. It’s not sexy. We made that decision about marijuana in California without the help of any computerized information system. Well, the parties had theirs, but did you have yours? When you lived on that other street in that other neighborhood where the drug deals were going down, did you have your computerized information system? When the street dealers got their legal break and that old barbershop got converted into a dispensary, did you have your online discussions in your district? Do you even remember how that all happened? When the dispensary was robbed by a rival gang were you able to track the arrest and the court case? Did you get the name of the officer who was wounded in the shootout?
I know. There’s a Chinese company and they made this thing called TikTok and everybody has it on their phones. We can watch people in Russia wreck their trucks. But it’s so hard to get Americans to build apps for civics. It seems like too much to ask, but I’m asking. Am I too late? Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care? I want all of my verbs.
I sent my email to Elon Musk. I sent my email to Jeff Bezos. I know my chances are slim. Maybe I’ll just wait for the side effect of the AIs.
Here’s the thing, and I was just talking about it last night with a couple friends. One is an attorney. One is a college professor. They are trapped in the American middle class like me. We’re materially comfortable but we always feel our grasp at power and influence is… well, we’re peasants. It’s very frustrating to know that we are like Adam and Eve. We have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We know the difference between right and wrong, there just doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it.
In theory we should have self-determination. It’s supposed to be our right in this representative, constitutional democracy. But we don’t have the computerized information systems that help us collaborate across time and space. Not like the powerful parties have. Not like the powerful media companies have. Not like the intelligence services have.
Well, we can still think, and we can still use our imaginations, and we can still work together. It ain’t illegal yet. Here’s what we could build. Something so genuine that it cannot be ignored.
I call it Citizen Media. It allows us to vote. It allows us to take ourselves more seriously.
Here are some of the principles of Citizen Media.
It is computer assisted, but it is driven and owned by citizens. People. Not bots.
Citizens can form and disband any kind of advocacy group of any practical size.
Citizens can collaborate on statements related to law and policy. Individual authors are recognized, just like with comment sections.
Citizens can vote multidimensionally. Not just upvote, but downvote. Citizens can vote with various levels of seriousness.
Citizens can indicate the validity of artifacts submitted into debate.
Citizen media never closes.
Citizen media validates every citizen with strong KYC.
Validated citizens may act anonymously.
Are you starting to see what I’m talking about? I’m talking about an instrument of local control. I’m talking about a system that works for the citizen that is as well maintained as the television and radio studios that broadcast junk news and infotainment.
I’ve gone down the rabbit hole with this to some depth. Here is a lot of old work that could use some going over. I used to call it XRepublic.
The XRepublic is the description and implementation of a computer mediated deliberation process. It is conceived as a system which can fundamentally change the way that people share ideas for the purposes of collaborative decision making. This includes but is not restricted to democratic voting & policy making, logical problem solving in expert domains, brainstorming and intelligence gathering.
The XRepublic can be thought of as a virtual parliament and it is from that perspective, using the terminology and technology of web-based online conferencing, that it was originally conceived. It is designed from the ground up to take advantage of Internet technology in order to make the kinds of deliberative processes currently found in governments, universities, intelligence organizations and other deliberative bodies available to a distributed group of people connected by networked computers.
XR provides a series of computer mediated spaces as well as a variety of tools which allow its participants to craft findings of fact, arguments pro & con, opinion polls, votes, and other artifacts associated with the construction of multi-authored, negotiated, subjective statements.
It is primarily designed as a communications medium and deliberative forum which captures statements from human participants in realtime. It then encourages participants to judge that information at their leisure and allows motivated individuals or interest groups to structure the information judged most useful. XRepublic facilitates through a variety of polling, categorization and voting methods, collective judgements to be passed on said structured information in the form of resolutions. These resolutions are then, with their supporting arguments and artifacts, kept on record for future reference, and for related and derivative works.
If you think this is a good idea, please restack and comment. I’ll be talking and thinking more about Citizen Media, but I need your help, citizens.