November 14, 2010

Emergence and Democracy

Emergence is the idea that given sufficient numbers of simple interactions, a relatively complex outcome may result, that cannot be trivially traced back to the simple interactions. Wikipedia, which is itself a great example of emergent behavior, defines emergence as:

In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems.

It struck me, in listening to coverage of the recent election season, that it should be possible to see voting as the building blocks of simple interactions, which should result in complex emergent behavior when it comes to the results of such elections. Having listened to pundits rave and rant on election results across the two largest democracies, there seems to be very little of this spontaneous complexity. Yes, parties win and lose, but over the generations of going through this process has not, in my opinion, produced a directed long-term behavior transcending local variations. To me that means that we are either asking the wrong questions of elections (and consequently democracy), or lack the tools to recognize emergence, or have democracy set up in a way to never achieve emergence.

The final thought is scary. Especially if you consider that most of humanity (caveats include China of course, but with the understanding that their adoption of democracy is only a matter a time) have hitched their future to this bandwagon. It appears, at least according to the superficial analysis above, that the current form of democracy is not set up to deliver on the promise of a future for humanity. The questions, therefore, are: why is today's democratic setup unable to produce emergent behavior, and what can we do about it.

When I initially thought about this, I had imagined this to be a problem with the lack of bounds for democratic emergence. Because there are so many parameters that modern democracies have to deal with, I figured the setup was not scaling in breadth. But the more I think, emergence has nothing to do with bounds. Emergent behavior changes with the change in bounds, but the behavior should nonetheless exist. Instead, I imagine the following three ideas may describe the reason for non-emergence in today's democracies.

Delayed feedback - emergent systems typically have a feedback loop as part of the simple interactions driving it. Democracy is time-delayed. Instead votes determining government actions occur every X years, while the actions themselves are continuous. This biases voting actions to the most recent governmental actions making the simple actions for emergence flawed.

Representative vs. Direct democracy - most democratic systems involve choosing of representatives who in turn make legislation. This one-removed nature of legislation eats into the continuity of feedback. There are no simple actions that vote on simple outcomes. Instead simple actions now are voting on complex outcomes themselves.

Non-uniform participants - emergent behavior requires all non-directed actions to be completed by similar participants. In other words, all voters ought to be equal. Unfortunately, this is not always so. With the Junta in Myanmar at one extreme of this example and the special interest groups in the US at another, participants in a democracy are never practically the same. This also means, the goal of pure emergence is that much tougher to attain.

This post is by no means the first look at such an idea. Joichi Ito, a Japanese journalist, talked about the idea of Emergent Democracy in 2001, and how blogs were/are going to be the engine towards making it happen. Wikipedia lists a book by Clay Shirky, called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. In both cases, the organization itself is proposed to be emergent as a result of the Internet.

While it is intriguing (and rather far-fetched) to give up the current democratic setup for the promise of anarchistic self organization of societies - there may be a case for a moderately direct form of democracy leveraging the Internet. And just may be establish a true form of emergent democracy that is actually able to propel human society forward.

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