Democracy 2.0

September 11 was a global disaster by any measure. While it cost Al Qaeda half a million dollars to plan and execute this mission, the combined response of the US military and Homeland security exceeded 3 trillion dollars. That 6 million to 1 cost-benefit ratio captures the asymmetric nature of the Western ‘war on terror’ very well.

However, the profound psychological impact of terrorism is much more clearly reflected by the growing populist movements in Western Europe and the USA which have chosen muslim immigrants as the perfect scapegoat. As much as I would like to understand the real problems faced by those backing Le Pen and Trump it’s clear that the populist ‘solution’ will only increase the probability of homegrown terrorism. Hereon, my intention is to analyse these problems and present a solution.

The underlying problems:

First, I must say that war is probably the dumbest possible solution to a very complex problem. Second, the current efforts to monitor homegrown terrorism won’t solve the underlying problem which is that the social fabric in Western countries is broken both socially and economically. While a democracy needs a strong middle class and citizens that have shared values, in Western countries both of these pillars are in peril today.

A foolish resistance:

In the USA, the symptoms of a broken social fabric can’t be made clearer by a ‘Resist’ movement, led by well-off intellectuals and businessmen, which defines itself by vilifying Trump supporters. No doubt globalisation and technological unemployment are playing an important role in this socioeconomic divide and it’s only by addressing these underlying problems that we shall find a solution. Amplifying deep socioeconomic divisions via virulent rhetoric, as practised by the ‘Resistance’, will only lead to greater social unrest.

DIY weapons of mass destruction:

Meanwhile, the risks posed by important social unrest are growing as the development of DIY bioweapons becomes easier with each passing year. In 2016 alone, France had more than 10 terrorist attacks. Most of these involved knives but what if biological weapons were used instead? Furthermore, if we consider the number of mass shootings in the USA every year, it’s clear that the threat isn’t strictly Islamist in nature.

As technology becomes more powerful it also leaves a smaller margin for human error. While a knife might allow a person to harm a few others, a bioweapon can potentially allow a few people to eliminate an entire ethnic group, effectively committing genocide. Moreover, due to the dual-use nature of these technologies we can’t ban their development and for this reason we must work seriously towards greater social cohesion. We don’t have another option.

Democracy 2.0:

After thinking carefully about these problems, I propose the following:

  1. Negative income tax: this would address the problem of economic inequality posed by technological unemployment.
  2. Compulsory public service: this would address the problem of a decaying social fabric.

The first solution might seem self-explanatory but the second solution occurred to me empirically, while visiting small towns around Britain. In each town I would talk to shopkeepers who would invariably complain about how the internet had a negative effect on their business. However, a more pernicious consequence of the internet culture is that it has allowed society to become transactional to the detriment of important social bonds. Where in the pre-internet era there might have been lively conversations between shopkeepers and customers, today people might get whatever they need on Amazon or have their supermarket goods home-delivered.

While we expect miracles from our governments the most we expect from ourselves as citizens is to vote every four years and pay our taxes. Clearly, this can’t continue. If everybody volunteered an hour or two every week for community service, we could rebuild an important sense of community, and therein lies the solution. Personally, I’ve been helping kids learn programming at Prewired on a weekly basis but that’s just one way of building a sense of community that isn’t socially stratified in its outlook.

Conclusion:

Finally, I’d like to emphasise that it’s definitely within our ability as humans to solve these problems and I believe that these challenges will ultimately drive us to build stronger communities and become better people.

Note 1: If you consider my message important, please share it with your friends and colleagues, either by sharing my post or your version of it.

Note 2: I think that in order to address these issues we’ll have to work collectively, as humans, to address these considerable challenges in an intelligent manner.

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The flatmate conjecture

In the summer of 2015, I had the wonderful opportunity to do research on algorithms that could automatically analyse C. Elegans locomotion. I found a short-term lease for a flat in the Marchmont area of Edinburgh and the whole experience promised to be amazing except for the fact that I didn’t know who I was going to be living with in Marchmont.

Previous flats I’d lived in started fine but flat duties weren’t clearly defined so common goods like the Hallway or Kitchen were eventually neglected. From my conversations with other students, zero flat management is the default option and this inevitably leads to frictions among flat members. For this reason, I wanted to make sure that this time would be different.

Within a couple days I got to meet the three other tenants. Unlike me, they were all PhD students doing research in the areas of Geophysics, Sociology and Philosophy respectively. At first, their relative seniority made the proposals I had in mind seem less likely to succeed. Nevertheless, I offered to make dinner on Thursday night so we could get to know each other better. At this they all agreed.

Everything went well on Thursday evening. I learned that two of the PhD students were trained at ENS and had a French background like myself. The other was a Briton doing research in Philosophy and that evening we had a great time talking about a variety of topics ranging from Mergers and Acquisitions to melting glaciers in the Himalayas.

Now, when dinner was over I explained that we should probably work together to make sure that the flat stayed in good condition. I brought up the subject of a cleaning rota, a flat treasury and the importance of maintaining regular communication in order to avoid frictions which could be achieved by a dinner rota. It wasn’t rocket science but the important part was to make it clear that this system was designed with our common interests in mind. This was followed by a brief discussion of dietary requirements but on the whole everybody agreed that my proposal was a good idea.

Over the weekend I shared my plan with other friends who were in Edinburgh that summer and received interesting responses. Some said it was a bit radical to impose something so rigid on other people and that I shouldn’t expect society to conform to my mathematical frame of mind. Others said that it was a good idea but they doubted it would last more than one week. However, when I pressed them to tell me whether they have actually tried to implement such a simple system none gave me a positive response. I believe this is a very important point. Many people who tell you that X will fail actually have zero experience implementing X.

On the whole, this flat system actually worked out very well. Barring two occasions, every Thursday a different flat member would cook dinner. There was never a problem with deciding who had to buy a basic necessity because our simple treasury system meant that there was always 20 pounds at the beginning of each month to buy light bulbs, sponges…etc. and we never had any problems coordinating what had to be cleaned. This flat experience was without precedent and it meant that each flat member could focus on doing research without dealing with unnecessary frictions.

Now, it’s my final year of university and I can say that I haven’t had a negative flat experience since then. More importantly this experience taught me that social problems can have precise solutions if we are willing to think about them precisely.