Why Blank Ballots are the Real-world Equivalent of Facebook Likes

For a long time now, I've been convinced that blank ballot is the legitimate president of this world. Ivan Krastev has a heavy accent and a heavy idea to illustrate this :

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Democracy + Trust =

His talk is a complete questioning of democracy in our era. Only 18% of Italians and 15% of Greeks today believe that their vote matters. And I doubt that the trend is exclusively Mediterranean. Krastev concludes that “Trust in our democratic institutions is dwindling”.

Only the rationale doesn't stand. In all likelihood, never did the majority of a population believe that its vote mattered. This is probably less true in times of elections when our minds are draped in motivational speeches, of course. I remember feeling my vote mattered when Obama was running for his first presidency, though I couldn’t possibly vote for him. Many people actually got inspired (draped) by these speeches, to the extent that a website was launched to pick votes from around the world for Obama and McCain. Obama won of course. Head to this website to vote for either Obama or Romney now, whatever your nationality.

So it doesn't seem like a question of trust in our institutions. To be clear, the reason why people feel their votes don’t matter is not because they don’t. I believe a vote does count. This is not a lottery. A vote can change a nation. So that’s that. But what I’d like to do here is to go beyond introspection and actually understand why people state their votes don’t matter.

Trust + Information =

Krastev does an interesting job listing the milestones that have led to our modern view of democracy :

  • 1968 : Individuals position themselves at the center of politics. We see the rise of a culture of non-conformism. Only this very period destroys the feeling of a collective purpose. Nation, class, family are notions under attack. And it's difficult to engage people in politics when they believe that what truly matters is where they personally stand.
  • 1980s : The market revolution sends the message that governments is not the always the solution. It drives the rise of choice-driven societies. However, this is also a time where inequality increases. Until the 1970s, The spread of democracy had always been accompanied by a decline in inequality, now it's the reverse : Spread of democracy is accompanied with the increase of inequality. Here's a graph by Paul Krugman showing the share of income owned by the top 1% to prove it :

  • 1989 : Fall of the Berlin wall and end of the cold war. Only Krastev sees this as the period that teared up the social contract between the elite and the rest of the people. The latter have no more control over the former and the former don't fear the latter anymore. The currently trending "transparency" (that I'll discuss later) has been one way to make up for that situation.
  • 1990s : The Internet revolution brought about all the goodies we know. However, as we've also come to realize, the Internet created echo chambers and political clusters. It is more and more difficult to understand the people who are not like you since you're surrounded by like-minded people and familiar opinions.
  • 2000s : The revolution in brain sciences is a bliss. But it's been seen by politicians as a way to manipulate the emotions of people. One great contributor to that trend is Edward Bernays, author of "The engineering of consent".

Looking at these historical pivot points, I'm reminded of Jaan Tallinn's speech at Singularity University. One of Skype's founders, he talks about level 3 people and level 3 causes. These are issues whose outcome influences society as a whole. In his view, tackling these issues feels more and more peripheral to most of us, though it should be central. Is it due to the rise of individualism we've mentioned ?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84G6An1Ff2E]

I don't believe so. The reason we've departed from these issues is the same that's making the blank ballots the legitimate presidents of this world. Put simply, we don't feel concerned. But this is the obvious tip of the iceberg. Deep down, there was a time where we did feel concerned. This whole discussion is a reminiscence of that lost age. And transparency might be our way of getting another feel of it.

Information + Control =

Krastev mentions that transparency is back at the center of politics but makes it clear that transparency is not about restoring trust in politics today. Rather, transparency is a political way of managing mistrust. It might look like saying the same thing twice but what this means is that transparency is a solution to a problem, not an improvement within the system. Krastev gives an example towards the end of his talk, one of a small country where the prime minister decided to make his ministers' talk publicly available 24 hours after they happened. When interviewed, he said it was the best way for them to keep their mouth shut.

Transparency limits the possibility for conjectures. No more guess-work about the government's next steps. People don’t stipulate about a government’s possible decisions anymore. Transparency in a way limits informational entropy. And limiting enthropy is a way to limit the size of a system. A way to make it more manageable and hence easier to control. But why do we need the system to be smaller to be able to control it ? What human feature does it relate to ? And looking at all the above, this is an attempt to restore what's been lost when the 150 person tribe turned into a village and grew into a city. How do you solve this ? Do you find a way to make countries smaller ? Is transparency really the way to do so ?

Control + Size =

The problem is not that our politicians can’t control the country anymore. It’s rather that each and every one of us can’t. This is the culprit. We, each one of us, are not once not twice, but infinitely removed from the decision making point. The actual yes / no moment that impacts our collective being. And that is the curse of big societies. Think of how this remoteness to the decision point compares to our primal tribes. Think of how far we are from the time where our voice actually mattered not because it was meaningful, not because it was consequential but for the sheer reason that the group was simply too small to ignore it. The group in its entirety could literally hear me shout then.

What has been destructive to society is the distance that's grown between the individual and consequential decision. Democracy is a mascarade of what detribalisation led to. If the Dunbar number means anything, this must be it : It  illustrates that very existential malaise. Dunbar, as many know, theorized that meaningful relationships cannot be built in a group exceeding 150 person in the human species. His major input was a correlation between the size of the brain of a given mammal species and its group size. In 150 person group, the individual can still influence the direction the community decides to take. At 500, with no exceptional oratory skills, he has no way of doing so. Demosthenes and the importance of the mastery of oratory arts in ancient Greece are a reminder of this constant attempt to retrieve power over one's destiny. How so ? Because one's destiny is so closely related to that of others and influencing the group through words, through eloquence, can influence its destiny. Politics is about eloquence. Obama's success goes on to prove that.

That is proof that distance between us and the decision point ends up uninteresting us in all collective issues. The rise of individualism only seems natural then. Bigger societies don't enable us to relate to and realize our interdependence. On the contrary they lead us to center on our selves. And to go back to voting, it's only natural that the bigger the community, the more it seems like a profoundly absurd act. This is why people feel more engaged about municipal elections in small cities than national ones. Their voice matters more comparatively. In big cities, people don't care either way. The voting process looks like a hoarded lottery. Worse, it feels useless compared to a lottery. When the group gets bigger, just as when information input gets larger, it becomes harder to be near the decision making point. People end up in the periphery. Some try to stay involved. Some fail to do so. They actually won't even try. And this very display is bound to produce free riders.

Size + Efficiency =

The free rider problem is a situation where an individual or a group of individuals is reaping the benefits of the group's cooperation and bringing no value to the table. It's a pure weight, an absolute write-off : x output, 0 input. It's a drain on the system. I don't know whether evolution has developped a way to find and eliminate free riders. Come and think of it, it feels as if free riders don't exist in efficient systems actually. Why ? Well, think of nature's free riders : parasites. They're actually essential to the ecosystem. In a sense they're not free riders, they do have a certain x input. This is probably the reason why they and the systems they belong to are still around. Maybe systems where real free riders (o input) got the upper hadn didn't even make it this far and aren't here anymore to show us what a self-destructive mechanism looks like. Here's the super-sized flea that developed to feed off dinosaurs for example :

So when we put in place systems to sustain free riders - people bringing 0 input - are we setting ourselves up for failure ? Unemployment benefits comes to mind of course. And the answer is no, at least in my opinion. These are investments. A trusting belief in the human ability to rise and thrive. But does this rationale stand true just as much in the short, medium and long term however ? No. Because the constituents of every system have the power to change behavior on the one hand and because, just like evolution, we are lazy and will always look to reap maximal gains for a minimal effort. In all scenarios, the free rider problem prevents the virality of action and the full power of impact. Things don't spread as well when you have dead weight hanging.

Efficiency + Impact =

In one of his TED talks, Jonathan Haidt says that "If a group cannot solve the free-rider problem then it cannot reap the benefits of cooperation and group selection cannot get started".  And one wonders whether our latest platform of evolution, namely the Internet, can contribute to that solution. A Nielsen study shows increasing trust in online ads mainly due to the social dimension that's been infused in them. Friends' recommendations spreading around the web are making us more trustful. Does that mean we're reducing the scale of the web ? Are we reforming our tribes thanks to social networks pervasiveness ?

In The Edge's last edition, June Cohen writes about  primal tribes reconstitution thanks to the web. As if we had finally found a way to go back to our initial configuration. The 150 person group we longed for. But that's wrong. Not because you have 2000 friends on Facebook but rather because the Internet does not allow for the same interaction as real life does. The biological side of it lacks. And that is a one major side. We are more than brains. And that's where the idea of Web 0.0 comes in.

This is the experience a friend of mine had with his organization: Make Sense. A Facebook for good-doers and social entrepreneurs to take action. What he discovered is that you can't inspire action solely online. You need to be on the ground. For a group to be optimally efficient, free of free riders, its members need to know each other and more importantly to meet each other. That is the ultimate way to limit information entropy : see the other person, shake his hand, look him in the eye, see him at work.

Our relationship with technology and especially communication technology is still in its infancy. There's still an immaturity to it. Where will it head however ? What will it eventually end up looking like ? This is an interesting question. It echoes another : Do we divert our use of a given tool to fulfill a need we have as a society ? Does a tool evolve to answer a question that's bugging us or to solve a problem that's immobilizing us ? Or is its evolution shaped by a more random process ?

= ?

Whatever the answer, there's a lot the almighty tech can't do. And one needs to get back in the field. Back to Web 0.0. One of my favorite quotes is a saying by Ted Roosevelt :

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who have never tasted victory or defeat.”

The blank ballot is the SOS in a bottle of our era. It is the underlying equation to the sum I've tried to draw throughout this article with an equation : Democracy + Trust + Information + Control + Size + Efficiency + Impact. Web 0.0 is the place we need to go back to so as to enable our communities to be optimally efficient, away from the big haze the Internet throws over action attempts. Democracy, to our societies, represents that same overarching supra-structure the Internet has become for our communities : in many ways, it's beneficial but it distances us from the decision point and hence leads us to inaction. In many ways, the blank ballot is the "Like" you leave to a status when there are too many comments for yours to matter.