Governing a decentralized internet without votes

When we think of democracy, we generally think of voting: the people are polled, the people decide. But voting is zero-sum: it has winners and losers. There are other models of governance that can make claim to democratic legitimacy that produce wins for everyone.

Nadia Eghbal, who writes about "money, governance, and the internet," turns a skeptical eye on the prevalence of voting as a means of settling governance questions in the decentralized internet movement, which includes things like IPFS, blockchains, and distributed hash cacheing.

As Eghbal points out, many of the worst aspects of voting are even worse in decentralized voting: voting is subject to all kinds of manipulation including mobilizing or suppressing blocks of voters through questionable tactics. When the actual number of voters is unknown and unknowable (which is practically a design spec for the decentralization movement), then these problems are exacerbated.

There are alternatives to voting: cooperative models for constructing governance questions that treat voting as a failure, not a default (think of the "stag hunt").

These cooperative models need to be designed into the system from the start, and Eghbal has some practical design suggestions to that end:

* Default to failure: set up the system so that an inability to achieve consensus creates consequences for everyone

* Bias toward action: design the system so that "bad thing X will happen unless you do something to change it"

* Use deadlines: set a clock ticking so that a decision has to be reached in finite time

I've worked in situations like this and seen them horribly gamed by powerful blocks of incumbents — it's basically how the worst standardization efforts work, especially in the DRM world. And indeed, Eghbal points out all the ways that these systems can fail: a lack of representativeness (who has the time and expertise to participate in the debate?); signal hijacking (who has the biggest megaphone with which to recruit people); oligarchy and cults of the individual (think of all the problems with the internet's benevolent dictatorships); and forking and fragmentation.

Despite the many ways that cooperative governance models can go wrong, they are not objectively worse than voting, and yet they aren't even on the table when we talk about the future of governance. That shouldn't be the case. There are certainly situations in which cooperative models are superior to voting and unless they're in the mix as we design the future of systems, we're going to have an impoverished decision-making future.

Under voting, it's cheap to veto (i.e. vote against something), which has led to an anti-pattern of outrage today. Not only is it cheap to disagree, but you're often rewarded for it (in the form of attention and/or reputation).

Cooperative mechanics flip this around, so it's cheap to do nothing and expensive to raise an objection. That means people reserve their objections for stuff they really care about. If you object too often, other people are likely to start discounting your opinion.
You can focus on what you care about

When voting, the expectation is that everyone ought to participate. Even abstaining is a conscious decision. But in a cooperative game, you can participate as much or as little as you'd like.

It's no secret that we're drowning in information. As Albert Wenger suggests, today's challenge is not finding time to actually read everything, but rather deciding where to spend your limited attention.

It's impossible to maintain deep knowledge of every political topic of importance. Cooperative governance gives us permission to be curators, focusing on just our areas of passion and expertise.

Reputation is quickly becoming more important than money. (Or, rather: perhaps money was just a historic proxy for reputation.) Cooperative games leverage the power of reputation really well, because you need reputation to capture attention. And whomever captures enough attention, gains influence.

While this may sound bleak at first, when compared to wealth, reputation strikes me as a more democratic alternative. Black Lives Matter started as a hashtag. The Women's March started on Facebook. For all that was terrible about the U.S. presidential election, Trump broke the mold of how people become president, simply with a powerful enough megaphone.

The problem with voting [Nadia Eghbal/Medium]

(via Four Short Links)

Colm Callanan