While walking through Hendricks Park together, Tom Atlee listened to me describe my new website CitizenDemocracy.net and asked something like, "But how do you go beyond just getting ballot initiatives on the ballot to the deeper problem of ensuring that the initiatives embody the best solutions that combine the intelligence and wisdom of all participants?"
CitizenDemocracy.net isn't really a "deliberative" process. It's more of a we-have-a-mission-let's-all-do-it site, but it begs the question of how might co-intelligent, deliberative processes be used to feed the best possible initiatives to the signature collecting engine that CitizenDemocracy.net is poised to become?
In a previous essay (Some thoughts from one cell in the emergent global brain), I lay out a framework for organizing collaborative software and web-site tools along the classic cybernetic feedback sense-decide-act loop. CitizenDemocracy.net really belongs in the "act" phase even though the initiative process as a whole is part of the larger society's decision making and policy-setting function.
So, setting CitizenDemocracy.net aside for the moment, what is the best way to harness co-intelligence to formulate the best possible intiatives?
The old etiquette formula for pleasant dinner conversation is to avoid the subjects of religion and politics. For those of us who are intensely concerned about the state of the world, it's hard to follow that advice because we think so much about religion and/or politics. For the purpose of this essay, I'm going to confess that I have no insights about co-intelligence and religion. One person's invisible world needn't conflict with another person's invisible world so long as neither tries to impose his invisible world on the other. Why anyone would bother to resist such an attempt is beyond me since there appears to be no demonstrable way to test if a given belief is, in fact, lodged in another's mind.
Be that as it may, politics remains. Politics is the art of getting one's goals met in a group situation. If we live up to the spirit of Democracy, then politics is the art of achieving the greatest good for the greatest number.
In the experience of many including myself, subjectivity is perilous in group decision making processes because it tends to be difficult and sometimes impossible to resolve differences of opinion. Different perceptions about which policies achieve the greatest good for the greatest number can often be tested statistically. For example, organizations like the Oregon Research Institute and Oregon Social Learning Center, to name two local research mills, produce a great deal of knowledge about what practices achieve the best results for dealing with human behavioral problems for example. Other research mills, produce knowledge about cause-and-effect (always couched in statistical probabilities) in economic activities and in the natural environment.
Suffice it to say, it helps to achieve democratic buy-in to a proposed solution if people do their homework and have research that shows, in measurable ways, how a proposed policy may be expected to be more effective than other competing solutions. This kind of research can be expensive, but lots of research has already been done. Perhaps the bigger problem is how to communicate the knowledge resulting from research to people participating in the decision-making processes.
Many of us are concerned with global problems-- what the Club of Rome called the "World Problematique" in their ground-breaking book "Limits to Growth". Their book was an early attempt to use computer simulations to test the results of various assumptions about global human activities projected some decades into the future.
These early simulations were limited for three main reasons:
1. Computer technology was very limited in the early 1970's
2. The sciences as they relate to the interactions of the Earth's systems, chemistry and other aspects of the World Problematique were also unsophisticated by today's standards, and
3. Perhaps most importantly, the simulations embodied the scientific knowledge of a very small number of people who were not necessarily the leading experts in the fields they were attempting to model.
It is the third point that concerns me the most. The task of simulating global processes for decision-making is daunting. Ideally, to make really intelligent decisions, one would like to be able to model the interactions between ALL of the earth's systems: Geophysical, Biological, Meteorological, Economic, Social, Agricultural and more. The complexity is such that even a Faustian Bargain of complete knowledge would still not leave you with enough time to express that knowledge in a useful way.
The only solution is to find a way for simulation to encompass the knowledge of many experts and bring their work together to build a model more complex than any individual or small group would ever completely comprehend.
Notice that Deliberative Councils would very likely fail to achieve the result of integrating human knowledge on the scale necessary to make co-intelligent decisions about global environmental problems because the very nature of the World Problematique is that all the problems are interrelated. Population Growth increases economic activity increases pollution increases global warming pushes plant species' habitats closer to the poles affects wildlife migratory patterns impacts disease vectors etc., etc. etc. Everyone will always have partial knowledge and discussion will inevitably get bogged down in the process of everybody educating everyone else about their particular expertise. The story of the seven blind men and the elephant is a springboard for understanding this problem. Now imagine 7,000,000 million ants trying to agree on what an elephant is.
And, yes, this ant has the hubris to suggest a way to solve this communication problem. I'm aware of the irony in that.
Nonetheless, the amount of information that must be considered is huge and world experts speak many different human languages. Therefore, the language of these deliberations is probably going to be largely mathematical and the expression will almost certainly be computer visualization because humans can process more information faster in visual form than in other forms (sounds, especially rhythmic sounds, can certainly augment the presentation of visual information).
I was lucky to work at a company called Analogy in the late '80's. There, a mathematician-programmer named Martin Vlach developed software for integrating mathematical models of diverse analog electronic components written in "SABER" in order to simulate the precise behavior of complex analog circuits. As time went on, it became clear that the market demanded simulation of more complex products with digital, hydraulic and mechanical components as well as analog-electronic. Interestingly enough, it was not so hard to describe wheels, gears, pistons, hinges and other mechanical components in the SABER language. When I left the company, some researchers were even looking into modeling biological brain functions as well. Clearly, SABER was a very successful modelling language in its ability to describe a broad range of components.
That got me thinking, "what if you could describe the oceans, the atmosphere, incoming solar energy, ice caps, economic and industrial processes-- everything needed to model the whole earth system in sufficient detail to make sensible policy decisions?" Would you use something like Saber? Probably not, but maybe something very similar. The main limitation of SABER is that it is tied to fixed interconnections between components and might fall down when considering large fluid systems such as the ocean or the atmosphere. Even so, fluid systems are typically modelled using approximations of fluidity that are actually interconnection much like electronic circuits.
For example, even though the atmosphere is fluid and you can't ever describe the details of chaotic eddies and gradients of temperature and pressure, you can approximate by sampling the atmosphere's characteristics at discrete points (think weather stations or weather stations positioned in 3-D at the corners of every cubic kilometer of air on the planet).
We might never be able to describe all the research-derived predictive models to each other in human language, but we just might be able to describe them all mathematically to a computer that could display the results of various assumptions to us visually to let us test different approaches to solving the world problematique.
And then the computers could mediate a global dialog on a scale almost unimaginable.
But, imagine if you will, that a common, modular, mathematical/programming language could be devised that is capable of integrating predictive models of behavior from nearly all fields of human study from biology, geology, medicine, physics, chemistry, economics and much much more. Imagine that your PC is part of a global network of computers that could be dedicated to computing the answers (like the SETI project). You still might run a SIMEarth or SIMCity-on-steroids program on your own PC to play with your own ideas about how to save the world, but for the detailed analyses and finer points of decision-making, you'd let others drive your computer some times and other times you might get to drive others' computers.
You might find that the best use of tax dollars is educating young women to make good choices about health, nutrition, family planning, etc. You might find that one program for prison inmates has a lower cost and much lower rate of repeat offenses for inmates completing the program. You might find that Organic foods cost more to produce but save ten times that amount in health care costs down the road.
All of the system behavioral models could be updated with the latest research in a manner similar to how PC virus scanners are updated over the internet to scan for new viruses.
People all over the planet could try slightly different public policies and compete with each other to see which policies achieve the best measurable results. What if all the energy and enthusiasm that currently goes into video game competitions went, instead, into earth policy simulation competitions? And what if some 14-year-old pinball wizard from Cambodia has an idea and can show with the simulator that it would save millions of lives and billions of dollars in his lifetime?
Of course, I have no research to prove that investing in such a system would allow humanity to greatly improve its chances of survival. Ironically, it's just an intuition.