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Updating the Vogon Planning Process

By jeep in Internet
Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 04:12:48 PM EST
Tags: Politics (all tags)

This article explores how e-democracy and electronic voting can be used to catalyse fundamental reforms in our political processes. Also we explore how representative democracies need operate effectively between elections.

"'People of Earth, your attention please,' a voice said, and it was wonderful. Wonderful perfect quadraphonic sound with distortion levels so low as to make a brave man weep.

'This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council,' the voice continued. 'As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.'

The PA died away.
Uncomprehending terror settled on the watching people of Earth. The terror moved slowly through the gathered crowds as if they were iron filing on a sheet of board and a magnet was moving beneath them. Panic sprouted again, desperate fleeing panic, but there was nowhere to flee to.

Observing this, the Vogons turned on their PA again. It said:

'There's no point acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you've had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it's far too late to start making a fuss about it now.'

The PA fell silent again and its echo drifted off across the land. The huge ship turned slowly in the sky with easy power. On the underside of each a hatchway opened, an empty black square.

By this time somebody somewhere must have manned a radio transmitter, located a wavelength and broadcast a message back to the Vogon ships, to plead on behalf of the planet. Nobody ever heard what they said, they only heard the reply. The PA slammed back into life again. The voice was annoyed. It said:

'What do you mean you've never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven's sake mankind, it's only four light years away you know. I'm sorry, but if you can't be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that's your own lookout.

'Energize the demolition beams.'

Light poured out of the hatchways.

'I don't know' said the voice on the PA, 'apathetic bloody planet, I've no sympathy at all.' It cut off.

There was a terrible ghastly silence.
There was a terrible ghastly noise.
There was a terrible ghastly silence.

The Vogon Constructor Fleet coasted away into the inky starry void."

- Douglas Adams The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy

Mr.Vogon's new regulation

Futuristic, barbaric, funny and starkly close to the modern day planning process. Every new road and every new public policy implemented seems like a Vogon demolition order. It may be our elected representatives who write and ratify legislation but democracy doesn't stop after the election. Every time a civil servant, secretary of state or minister announces wonderful new regulations, why is it that great swathes of the electorate blink, pinch themselves and then wonder what the hell possessed Mr.Vogon to think up of such ridiculous ideas - don't they realise what the consequences will be? Representatives need open channels of communication to continue being representative after election, otherwise they might as well be on Alpha Centauri.

Democracy is a process and not solely the act of electing some people every couple of years. But after the Internet boom as well as the US presidential election debacle it is this single act which has been focussed on. There is nothing inherently wrong with working to improve the election systems - we all know there is plenty to fix.

But I feel that we risk losing the forest for the trees. Or in this case missing the Vogons' planning process for their amazing quadraphonic PA system. I see the growth of Internet Voting as more than just a business opportunity - it's the chance to introduce cultural change through the Trojan horse of technology. I'm a believer in that often un-stated assumption of some campaigners: Democracy is (as Kevin Kelly puts it) 'a self-organising strong attractor' - it's inevitable if the freedoms of speech, information and public discourse are adequately championed. I see technology as a key way to champion these freedoms in the coming years.

These aren't a new concepts: Information Theorists have long suggested that introducing new technologies into organisations is a great catalyst for cultural and procedural change. They even have rafts of case studies to support this view. But the challenge now is can technology become a driving force in changing not just one organisation but the conglomeration of parts that form governments? Furthermore, as democracy needs to be inclusive, we need to be altering the attitudes of all participants of the democratic process - not just the most visible players.

Mr.McLuhan's unnoticed new form of Democracy

Those involved in electronic voting should see their role as trail breakers. If acceptance grows for technology in voting then I believe we can introduce other systems, ideas and processes that facilitate improved collaboration, discussion and consultation. It almost sounds easy when put that way, but there are many powerful people who are (rightfully) suspicious of the changes new technologies can wreak. If done badly the repercussions could be dire as vast swathes of the population are excluded through a digital divide.

But imagine the upside if it's done right... Nobody's saying it will be easy but we need faith in our ability to work things out. So envision a democracy where as opposed to assuming people know consultative documents are available in some obscure downtown office, we put them online with structured debate systems. Picture visualisation tools that help the electorate to understand trends in their society and what impact policies are having on those trends. Writers as diverse as Brock Meeks, Manuel Castells and Stewart Brand have all openly explored the possibilities and I?m not going to spend your time thinking up all the exotic technologies to apply.

"Today, the [voting] audience can be used as a creative participating force... A new form of 'politics' is emerging in ways we haven't yet noticed."

- Marshall McLuhan The Medium is the Massage

There is a nascent 'e-democracy' movement which has had some early successes such as Tracy Westen's Democracy Network and the Minnesota e-democracy group. Inevitably there have been failures too, most recently with the closure of Voter.com which had only recently incorporated the Democracy Network into its operations. So there are challenges on many levels ranging from merely gaining acceptance to ensuring we don't end up with a de-facto direct democracy which results in mob rule. Activists such as Marc Strassman with his Smart Initiatives work soldier on rain or shine, facing up to these challenges as opposed to hoping they go away. Their success is intimately intertwined with our own.

Ms.Dyson, it's not a tyranny of the majority

Democracy, as Esther Dyson says, is "the tyranny of the majority" but that is in some respects an oversimplification. Yes the election of representatives (especially in non-proportional systems as used in the USA and UK parliamentary elections) is about majorities but when the democratic process is healthy and vibrant the interests of minorities are well, even over, represented by community groups, charities and so on.

I see one of the key challenges for the coming decade to be how we can integrate the diverse and often conflicting desires (and thus pressures exerted) by the increasingly vocal community of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Through the use of the Internet and their leaps in media management NGOs can become extremely powerful. Sometimes their name and shame tactics aren't fair, right or representative. So can technology provide forums, processes and techniques for NGOs to become involved in a more accountable, democratic way while retaining the important, independent roles that they play?

Similarly resentment and anger at the increasing power of transnational corporations needs to be addressed. In a world where 51 of the 100 largest economies are corporate we need to see how new legal structures, enabled by modern technologies, can provide true accountability and perhaps more achievably - transparency. It is in a company's interest to reduce the current anti-capitalism backlashes but can we find a way to do this that all parties see as satisfactory?

These present stark challenges for the future but if those leading the way in electronic voting can agree to this radical e-democracy agenda and see it as an integral part of their existing works then there's hope that maybe, just maybe, Earth won't be demolished for a hyperspatial express route.

About the Author

Jason Kitcat is founder and co-ordinator or the FREE e-democracy project who, with the support of the Free Software Foundation, develop the GNU.FREE Internet Voting system which is released under the GNU GPL. He is co-founder and Head of Production at Swing Digital a digital consultancy.


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Updating the Vogon Planning Process | 28 comments (21 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
The trouble with electronic voting is it's too (3.15 / 13) (#1)
by hjones on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 07:54:08 AM EST

easy for hackers to stuff the ballot box. Do we really want our next president chosen by script kiddies?
"Nietzsche is dead, but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. And we -- we small-minded weaklings, we still have to vanquish his shadow too." - The Antinietzsche
That depends... (3.20 / 5) (#6)
by Xeriar on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 08:26:07 AM EST

How many will work to make sure that nothing out-of-hand happens, compared to the misfits?

When I'm feeling blue, I start breathing again.
[ Parent ]
If experience is any guide... (none / 0) (#27)
by hotcurry on Thu Jul 19, 2001 at 10:49:38 PM EST

the misfits will own the government. Bill Gates will be president for life, and Natalie Portman will be vice president.

[ Parent ]
well... (3.25 / 4) (#16)
by taruntius on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 01:09:10 PM EST

At least they'd probably make a better decision than the Supreme Court did...

--Believing I had supernatural powers I slammed into a brick wall.
[ Parent ]
I was thinking about something like this (3.00 / 9) (#5)
by flimflam on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 08:05:10 AM EST

when I heard that they were doing that test for the Missile Defense System the other day. It seems to me that if we are going to violate a treaty that has been at the center of our arms-control framework for decades, shouldn't we at least have some sort of national consensus first? I would be willing to bet that most people here don't even know about it, though.

-- I am always optimistic, but frankly there is no hope. --Hosni Mubarek
exactly how is this any different? (4.00 / 10) (#9)
by Anonymous 242 on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 10:09:57 AM EST

"What do you mean you've never connected to the Internet? For heaven's sake mankind, it's only a dial up away you know. I'm sorry, but if you can't be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that's your own lookout.

"Energize the demolition beams."



Ummm. We don't have cool demolition beams. (2.66 / 3) (#10)
by vinay on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 10:30:17 AM EST

It's really just picking the best from among a number of evils. There's always going to be someone who's uninformed, and no amount of expenditure will make them informed. At the same time, the internet has the ability to make access to voting and general information much more widespread.

Now, there is this whole "digital divide" thing. I hate that term. ARgh. Anyway, no one's saying (well, at least, I'm not saying) that we should do away with newspapers and polling places and word of mouth and all that jazz, just that this would make a useful addition. Granted, I'm sure the hope exists that some kind of electronic voting would replace our current system, but I'd hope that would happen only after proper facilities were made generally available

Was that actually an answer to anything you said? I'm really nolonger sure of that.

What are the odds this post does anything other than prove yet again that I'm an ass?

3 to 2. Against. :-)



[ Parent ]
I am in agreement with you (3.00 / 3) (#11)
by Anonymous 242 on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 11:25:48 AM EST

Jeep implies that electronic voting is a panacea. He or She presents a horrible doomsday scenario that comes about because of lack of the proper dissemination of information. Using such a scenario to introduce electronic democracy implies that electronic democracy can fix things that were wrong with the Vogon system.

The way I see it, nothing really changes in kind. The only change that electronic voting can bring is one in magnitude and (as of yet) I've seen no compelling arguments that electronic voting initiatives actually server to increase the number of people that are well informed about this issue or that or the number of people that are able to express their opinions to lawmakers or the number of people that seek to vote.

That's what I want to see, an analysis of what benefit electronic democracy really has to offer compared with its costs in time, money and societal impact.



[ Parent ]

No panacea implied... (4.00 / 2) (#12)
by jeep on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 12:16:43 PM EST

Electronic voting is not a panacea... the point of the article is to highlight that:

a) Electronic voting could act as a catalyst for bigger, more important changes.
b) Those in the voting industry should realise the limits of modernising voting alone and that it's the beginning of a process that could help to avoid situations like the Vogon one.

Of course nothing is a quick-fix solution and certainly 'digital-divide' issues are crucial. Newspapers, meetings and speeches will all play important roles for as far as I can forsee. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be ambitious about what we hope to achieve with e-democracy.

The FREE e-democracy Project
Promoting Free Software in Government

[ Parent ]
The problem with E-voting (3.88 / 9) (#15)
by Jive Billy on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 01:05:43 PM EST

There are so many problems with e-voting that don't deal with someone "hacking in and stealing votes."

The biggest problem is that people are just too ignorant nowadays. When people can't even point to Bosnia on a map, I hardly think they're qualified to make a decision regarding US troops being sent there. Can you imagine an e-vote that asks, "Should the US allow genetically-modified food to be sold in supermarkets?" I'd guess that the majority of "common" people would vote to ban such foods, though they know nothing of genetics, farming, economic impacts regarding the decision, or world impacts with other countries over such a decision.

E-voting would turn a semi-democratic nation into a nation of mob rule instead.

Geography and democracy (none / 0) (#28)
by scorchio on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 09:48:58 AM EST

When people can't even point to Bosnia on a map, I hardly think they're qualified to make a decision regarding US troops being sent there.

Couldn't disagree more. Not being able to locate Bosnia on a map might be a powerful argument for not sending troops there. Unless, of course, you change the country's name to the 'Empire of America' and accept the consequences.

[ Parent ]

A small problem (4.00 / 7) (#17)
by trhurler on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 01:38:07 PM EST

Your so-called e-democracy is nothing new. It was previously known as "direct democracy," and only fell into disfavor because it was infeasible to scale given the available technology. Now, computers give us the technology, at least in theory.

So far, so good. Now for the so what. Well, here it is: most people will voice an opinion(read: cast a vote) on any topic whatsoever, but it is also true that most of them(not some, but the vast majority) will be totally unqualified to vote on any given question of significance. What you are doing is ensuring that charismatic "leaders" will have an even tighter deathgrip on public policy than they already do. They call it mob rule, but they ignore a fact: mobs are always instigated by one or a few people.

Ah, you cry, but computers can educate people! No, they can't. That's idealistic crap; most people do not want to understand. They want easy, quick, simple answers that don't require critical analysis and which coddle their preconceived notions of how things are.

To the degree that you succeed, you will succeed in turning a workable if flawed endeavor(representative democracy) into a hopeless, useless pigfuck orchestrated by rich good old boys with charisma and political connections. Time and Newsweek will no longer be fluff adorning end tables; they will be the political discourse of humanity.

I'd say no thank you, but I'm not inclined even to thank you.

'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

What makes you think so? (3.00 / 1) (#19)
by kimbly on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 10:05:54 PM EST

What historical experiments do you know of that have tried and failed to implement direct democracy on a large scale? I can see your arguments being applied word-for-word as an objection to any kind of democracy, representative or not. After all, surely the nobles are the only ones truely qualified to have an opinion? Given that representative democracy evidently does work, what evidence do you have that direct democracy would be worse rather than better?

[ Parent ]
I'm not proposing direct democracy... (3.00 / 1) (#21)
by jeep on Wed Jul 18, 2001 at 05:37:56 AM EST

I'm proposing reform of the current democratic processes - not necessarily direct democracy.

In fact I'm quite strongly opposed to direct democracy and will post an article to that effect soon. However in spite of that I would like to offer an example of the Swedish referendum on nuclear power, as documented in one of the Toffler books.

Swedes could only vote on the matter if they took a short course on nuclear issues. A much higher than anticipated number of citizens took part, learnt the details and voted. The result was that Sweden has decided to have nothing to do with nuclear technologies.

However I believe that such referenda could not be held that often...

Anyway, to reiterate, the point of the article is that technology could be used to reform existing processes - such as the planning process; not rip them out.

The FREE e-democracy Project
Promoting Free Software in Government

[ Parent ]
Delegated Democracy (4.50 / 2) (#18)
by valency on Tue Jul 17, 2001 at 09:22:36 PM EST

  • Direct democracies don't work because most governance decisions require detailed knowledge that not everybody posesses, or has the time to acquire.
  • Representative systems don't work because:
    • If you voted for somebody other than the victorious candidate, you're actually not being represented at all.
    • Economies of scale in campaigning artificially cause the system to converge towards a two-party system, further exacerbating the previous point.
    • The primary communication channel between the representative and his/her constituents is the media, an exceptionally lossy medium, which is easily tampered with.
  • Institute a direct democracy for all issues, enabled via electronic voting.
  • Permit each person to delegate their vote to any other person. Most people will do this, just because voting on 10-12 issues a day is a pain in the ass. This delegation choice may be changed or revoked at any time.
  • Send each delegator a report of how their delegee voted on a quarterly basis.
  • Most important part: cap the number of delegated votes any one person can hold. My suggestion is around 1,000. This way, each delegee will most likely be voting for people he/she personally knows. It also makes the mass media unsuitable as a communications channel between the representative and his/her constituents, due to the sheer number of representatives. Conversely, it makes personal communication a very suitable communications channel (due to the low representative/constituent ratio).
Final Thoughts:
  • Jeep, are you JonKatz's troll account? (just kidding...)

If you disagree, and somebody has already posted the exact rebuttal that you would use: moderate, don't post.
Non-representative democracies... (4.00 / 1) (#22)
by jeep on Wed Jul 18, 2001 at 05:44:15 AM EST

I'm flattered by your final thought... if only!

Firstly - I don't agree on your analysis of representative systems. If the voting system is a proportional one (such as Single Transferrable Vote) then voting for a 'non-winner' does not result in no representation.

But yes there are media and funding issues that urgently need to be addressed.

As for your proposed solution... The most obvious problem I have is that nobody is going to want to vote on every issue, nor are they going to want to even think about delegating it. The cost of communicating every issue to vote on would alone be prohibitive. We have executive leadership of government for good reason.

The FREE e-democracy Project
Promoting Free Software in Government

[ Parent ]
Re: Non-representative democracies (3.00 / 1) (#26)
by valency on Wed Jul 18, 2001 at 02:24:56 PM EST

The most obvious problem I have is that nobody is going to want to vote on every issue, nor are they going to want to even think about delegating it.

Granted that you can't keep up with every issue every day (or even a substantial portion of them), would you rather delegate your vote or just throw it away? I think most people would rather delegate to a trusted friend than lose their say in the democratic process.

The cost of communicating every issue to vote on would alone be prohibitive. We have executive leadership of government for good reason.

I was referring only to legislative decisions, with a possible case-by-case override of executive decisions (ie the people can introduce a measure to reverse an executive decision)

If you disagree, and somebody has already posted the exact rebuttal that you would use: moderate, don't post.
[ Parent ]
I continue to be terrified (none / 0) (#20)
by aphrael on Wed Jul 18, 2001 at 02:07:06 AM EST

that so many techies are in favor of electronic voting. I'm sorry; I don't trust the software to be free of bugs or trojan horses. I don't trust the manufacturer of the compiler used to build the software to be free of bugs or trojans. I don't trust the net to be stable enough to prevent denial of service attacks from influencing the vote. I don't trust the average non-techie voter --- the people who couldn't figure out how to work the butterfly ballot --- to be savvy enough to figure out how to ensure that their vote is secret, or to understand the directions needed to follow to offer a reasonable chance that it isn't forged. In short, I think electronic voting is a shiny object that offers lots of chances for election fraud, and I'm amazed at how many techies --- the people who should know *more than anyone else* how bugs are inevitable --- are ready to embrace it, arms wide open, smiling, rushing towards it, blind to the danger.

But is saying it won't happen any better? (none / 0) (#23)
by jeep on Wed Jul 18, 2001 at 05:50:32 AM EST

I agree, totally. There are a VAST number of potential problems with electronic or Internet voting. The just released Caltech-MIT Voting Project report identifies many of these issues.

However as so many companies and governments are irreversibly moving towards these technologies, isn't it better that we debate the issues and support a Free Software solution we can all understand and improve instead of simply trusting closed, proprietary offerings?

Finally none of the problems you raise are unsolveable, but they are serious.

The FREE e-democracy Project
Promoting Free Software in Government

[ Parent ]
Problems with e-voting (none / 0) (#24)
by wiredog on Wed Jul 18, 2001 at 08:54:53 AM EST

Some of the reasons that e-voting are a Bad Idea are discussed here.

"Anything that's invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things", Douglas Adams
Washington Post Article (none / 0) (#25)
by vinay on Wed Jul 18, 2001 at 10:36:34 AM EST

link to a story over at the Washington Post.


Updating the Vogon Planning Process | 28 comments (21 topical, 7 editorial, 0 hidden)
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