I first had the inkling that central governments are a leftover from an earlier century when I bought a house. Suddenly the machinations of local government seemed to take on a sinister and disturbed overtone, leading me to believe that while every three years we fret over who we elect to go down to Wellington, we should pay more attention to those people very few voters care about — the ones who decide things like the quality of our drinking water, whether a motorway will be built through our front gardens and when our rubbish will be collected. Now, however, I realise that both forms of governance, and in fact governance itself, is under threat and could quite well vanish in my lifetime.
I regularly visit a website called Slashdot — it’s set as my homepage in fact. I find it has just the right blend of news about technology, privacy, science and Star Wars that I need to kick-start my day.
The site has an unusual way of deciding which stories make it to the top of the heap. All the news is submitted by readers (I’ve done so myself a few times), who provide links and commentary as to why it’s important to the Slashdotters (or should that be Slashdotty?). If you’re lucky it gets posted to the site. People can read it, add comments, ignore it or write childish rubbish about it. To help sift through this gamut of human experience Slashdot has a moderator process that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
It works like this: Slashdot gets thousands of comments posted each day. It all got too much for the site staff to work through and decide whether they were good comments, adding something to the debate, or flamebait. So they organised a bunch of like-minded folk to moderate comments. Everyone who posts and gets moderated up gets karma — points that represents what people think of your postings.
Once you’ve got a positive karma score you may be given the chance to moderate yourself. You’ll get five points to spend and access to the site’s stories in a slightly different format. Once you’ve read a posting you can select how you would moderate it, if at all — from Troll to Informative. You get five points to spend and three days to spend them in. Then it’s someone else’s turn.
This works so well it got me thinking that this could be the basis for a new form of participation in our societies. I feel more inclined towards the Slashdot lot as a community than I do to any other online community and most of the offline (sorry, real world) communities I’m supposed to belong to. I disagree with a lot of things that are written on Slashdot to one degree or another, but the system itself works like a charm. It has this whole meta-moderation process as well, where everyone gets one go a day at moderating the moderators. You’re shown a list of postings and their moderations and get to say whether you think they’re fair or not, which you also get karma for. Slashdot gets a great snapshot of what the populace thinks of any given moderation. Brilliant idea.
Democracy online is an interesting idea, but for me it’s never really worked. The idea that we vote online simply changes the voting medium and not the voting system. Having everyone decide everything all the time is also not going to work — it’s called Athenian democracy, and there’s a reason why the Athenians don’t rule the world.
This way you get to have your say, get to encourage people of a similar bent but not too much, and you get a higher signal-to-noise ratio than before. I can vote on things I care about and leave the things I don’t to others — there are more than enough issues to go round.
As for Wellington, the politicians will go. We can keep the museum there and maybe some of the civil servants. The civil service will, I suspect, outlive us all.