Review: Digital Nation States and Digital Political Parties
John Palmer thinks about what a digital revolution could mean for politics and governance
This post explores the idea of digital governments and how the growing phenomenon of software eating the world shall rethink geography and bring out new ways for people to form communities that are governed with the efficiency of a business.
Interestingly it was written in July 2016, just a few months before the beginning of the most explosive chapter in American politics; one that was marked by numerous natural disasters, culture wars, tech-media hostility at an all time high and ended with the world almost plunging into WW3 followed by a pandemic that brought the world to its knees. Software was the crutch that helped it stand up and prophetically it did gobble up significant chunks of the world. Digital money took off paving the way for DeFi summer of 2020 so yes, John must be grinning to himself now.
It starts off with the observation that the physical world and the networked (digital) world have been around for a while and software has disrupted antiquated, inefficient systems and practices with profound success in a relatively short span of time (who knew of Fintech, Uber, Twitter, Amazon etc even twenty years ago; the physical world has been around for millennia though). However when it comes to governments and policies, they somehow haven’t adapted with the changing times much and are still saddled by their inefficiencies thanks to ineffective political parties.
Comparison between politics and business
The triteness of ‘disruption’ for the sake of it has been acknowledged but considering the premise of this topic, rapid improvements in governance structures akin to business solutions, he does take a closer look.
In any industry there is an incumbent. If a new group wants to test their thesis, they form a new organisation, deploy capital and present their creation to the public, and then it gets voted by people’s wallets. If it’s a success then it dethrones the incumbent. But the other players are always around. People test out various options and vote for the one they personally prefer; the majority player is merely one of the options and essentially we have a functioning, competitive marketplace of ideas. Samsung might dominate the smartphone market with its long list of offerings but if you’re an all-in FOSS nerd, you do have the option to get something like the Librem. The ‘voting‘ referred to here is only capitalistic in nature. But with governments, they’re bound to the machinery of the nation state which allows only one government at a time.
If we apply the same disruption framework to politics, we’d start a new political party. But the problem is that people’s ability to test this party out (like a new product) is limited to sloganeering and waging keyboard war on the internet. If this new party were to be evaluated truly then they’d have to form the government and serve a term and who knows which way that might go. Even with whatever establishment we have, it is difficult to bring about any reform quickly because of how power is distributed is between different opposing groups (kind of ironic considering we are batting for distributed systems here). One does not have to look further away from the government shutdown of 2018 or the filibuster that is deviously employed from time to time.
Of course there is a reason for this as John mentions, it is to prevent chaos brought upon by rapid decision making. One cannot ‘fail fast’ in a government. The reason some countries are favoured places for conducting businesses and financial activities is the stability of their governments and the implicit belief that there won’t be any overnight sweeping changes that threaten this stability. So there is some merit to why nation states work this way. But considering the example of the USA, where the president can whip up executive orders at will, the system overall is as dysfunctional as its ability to enforce carefully considered middle ground legislation.
He reminds us:
Look at how disappointed people are with the parties we do have in the United States. Each party is marketing its candidate as “not the other one.” Longtime Republicans and Democrats aren’t even happy with their own parties’ ability to execute.
This is a part of a bigger problem, not problem really but rather a change wherein simply put, ideology is dead. Thanks to globalisation and the monopoly the west has had on cultural export in the post-colonial age there isn’t much “culture” left practically for a large enough group of ideologues to get together and defend. We vote for the “best amongst the worst“, come to think of it that’s a terrible compromise to arrive at. As a result there are different traditionalist movements popping up in major nation states. But change is eternal, what we are dealing with isn’t something to bemoan, rather something we embrace and grow along with. The stubborn shall only be left behind by the pace with which the world is evolving. Our modern societies are only an evolutionary product of that change.
And this just makes the case for a digital first community where probably old ideas or any ideas for that matter can be brought up amongst a group of like minded people and tested out.
How can software nibble politics?
(Because nothing can eat all of our polity that quickly)
What do we do now? There is an annoying nation state—political parties catch-22 to deal with:
Some suggestions offered are forming new political parties codified as DAOs to test some hypotheses where people get voting rights corresponding to how much they donate to the cause; or a virtual city/country where large belief systems can be tested out or even something granular like a certain implementation of the police system or roadways, and this caught my attention.
As a baby step, there are talks about holding national elections using blockchain tech in India in the near future, so digital governance experiments are being recognised and looked into.
AR and VR together, can provide an amazing beta test for any public policy. Think of it like the computer simulations of today on steroids. People can be parts of virtual cities with some systems in place already and they can figure out what they want to implement. Imagine a proposal for a public library. We could digitally generate a photorealistic model library, place it at the proposed location of our virtual city and have people experience it. They can vote on it, offer feedback on the architecture or anything, or maybe even have a vote on the style and the aesthetic of the building. Once a consensus is reached the library can actually be built in the physical world too. Or even if that doesn’t come to fruition you have a library in this digital native realm that you have access too and can actually have electronic books there, which you can read. All of this sounds now wild but the metaverse is catching up. Just to remind, exhibiting one’s NFT collection is a thing now. Decentraland exists!
Right now we are only limited in our infrastructure and technological capacity and that will work out one day; however we don’t have to limit our creativity in the meantime. Also in these examples, DAOs or VR cities the main thing to be kept in mind is people are working with digital currencies and have to stake some of their own, so they have skin in the game and are hence motivated to act in good faith.
The ending is this section: Software Eating Currency, which looks at humanity’s “soft” creations - writing, money and software. John says writing ate history keeping and this, I do not understand. In fact it would make more sense if he listed out the main “soft“ inventions as education, money and software. Education also includes writing. It is more comprehensive as at its core it is just disseminating information and knowledge but can also lead to tangible outcomes such as the formation or dismantling of power structures; and I agree software has eaten education. The internet has put the autodidacts of the world on a rocket ship now.
As for money he proposes two possible directions in which application of digital currencies could be headed - it either becomes very international or extremely granular, and now what we are seeing is a bit of both. There’s bitcoin and ethereum which are transferring so much value back and forth, completely blurring borders and there are also new exciting, faster protocols coming up like Solana. On the other hand people are also turning themselves into a crypto currency, tokenising their time and selling that to people, i.e social tokens (digital currencies fundamentally change our notion of money). He gives an example of small neighbourhoods using their own currency to enable efficient micro markets and social tokens fit in well with this theme.
To sum up, code is going to be the peacekeeper of the future. Depending on how you read it, you are either excited by what could possibly lie ahead or running for your apocalypse bunker.