The muscles needed to sustain a large democracy get built in small ones
Katy Peters is an old college friend I’ve been lucky to keep up with. She is always thinking a little harder and more clearly than most, so I got quite excited to see her recent post reporting out on a recent conference, the Second Interdisciplinary Workshop on Reimagining Democracy.
The organizer, technologist Bruce Schneider, put out a wonderfully overwhelming summary of the two-day gathering. But what most excited me was Katy’s first takeaway:
Finding fellow travelers on that kind of adventure is always exciting; finding an old friend already walking a parallel path is a marvel.
I came to be interested in small-scale democracy by way of learning about employee ownership. At the same time I, like many Americans, had become anxious about our large-scale democratic institutions that are, at the very least, in need of serious renewal.
If we are struggling to govern ourselves well at a national level, I wondered, might we be a part of smaller institutions—churches, clubs, families, neighborhoods, workplaces—where we could relearn the habits of democratic self-governance? Of how to build and maintain rule by, for, and of the people?
A handful of other summary quotes from the conference, compiled by Schneir, also caught my attention:
Jon Evans: Wide adoption is required to recreate democracy, and this needs to start on a small scale, with democratic testbeds. Traditional testbeds include civic groups, fan clubs, churches, grassroots communities… New testbeds include decentralized autonomous organizations, CityDAOs (for particular cities), “network state” movements, online spaces (Discord, subreddits).
I would love to talk with Evans about whether the technological avenues he mentions here are best deployed as alternative testbeds, or as complementing some of those older forms and then subsequently scaling them up.
Nathan Schneider: Towards “modular politics” (e.g., at Metagov), a mode of doing governance tooling, with interoperability between diverse governance forms, and self-governance rather than top-down control.
The phrase modular politics lit up my brain; learning only a little about MetaGov might have broken it. I’ve got homework to do here.
Helene Landemore: Infusing more democratic processes in corporate governance, there are two main alternatives: technocratic oversight boards (e.g., Meta, but unclear whether truly independent and representative) or citizen assembly representative of humanity providing direct inputs, faster than regulatory processes.
This! I strongly suspect Landemore (whom we’ve written about before) listed these as just two of many possibilities for infusing more democratic processes into corporate governance, given how many more are out there.
Archon Fung: Principle of affected interests: an individual should be able to influence an organization if and only if that organization makes decisions that regularly or deeply influence that individual’s important interests.
I learned about the principle of affected interests from W. Watson, a guest speaker of ours from last year, who is working now on a paper applying it to the design of open source technology projects, which… 🤯. The idea has been stuck in my brain and conversations ever since.
Signing off for now. Hopefully much more to come!