Upgrading Democracy — Reflections on Today’s Unconference in Palo Alto

Conference imageDoes anybody still think that today’s “democracy” doesn’t need substantial improvements? Hardly… but it’s difficult to figure out just what we need to improve and how.

So I was heartened to see the announcement of an unconference (my favorite form of conference) in Palo Alto on the subject of “Upgrading Democracy”. It took place earlier today. There is a corresponding Facebook group.

Here are some pull quotes (from memory, please correct/attribute if you know in the comments):

  • “The next 10 years are going to be more dangerous than any 10 years in the history of sentience”. (Usually people draw the arch of history to World War II or I, or, if ambitious, to the peace of Westphalia or so. The beginnings of sentience is quite a period. But then, I cannot disagree.)
  • “There is a possibility that we might actually survive as a human race. As small possibility, but it exists”.

That was the doom side, shared as it seemed to me by many of then >100 attendees from all over the country, including myself, I am sorry to say.

On the positive side, some people have been thinking hard and long how we could turn the entire human project — not just the democracy and governance and economic angle — into something much better, starting with “healing” (which I take as a synonym for not just mental health but also spiritual health and health of interactions with others, particularly those we disagree with). That was bewildering, and ultimately very intriguing.

In other words, this event was truly manic-depressive: all of us are so doomed, but the future will bring these amazingly better ways of being human.

As usual in my experience with unconferences, I got to meet and discuss all sorts of subjects with many amazingly impressively smart people, and that is always extreme fun. (It might be more fun if the subject wasn’t as serious as this one.) The organizers ably run the show. My only criticism is that the venue to was too cramped and loud for all the people in the room — but then, that’s what happens if you get to capacity and there is a wait list for the event.

I hope there will be many similar unconferences on the same or similar subjects, not just in Palo Alto (although it would be nice; once every quarter would be ideal) but in other places — places that have forward-thinking “intellectuals” like Silicon Valley has, but also in the middle of “flyover country” and “Trump country” and of course every country in the world. We all have the same problems, more or less, or will soon. And we will all either figure it out together or all hang together, most assuredly, not necessarily by hanging (although it can’t be excluded given how things are going) but possibly by war, disease, global warming, or general societal collapse.

Christopher Allen asked, and I paraphrase: “20 years ago, and 40 years ago, people said: ‘This is the most perilous in history’, and as we know now, they were wrong. What makes us think that we aren’t wrong now, too?” A good question. My answer is: “Because 20 or 40 years ago, the system wasn’t as tightly coupled. Today, if one part of it goes down, everything goes down. That wasn’t the case back then. As geeks and systems designers, we know that to create resilience, you need ‘small pieces loosely joined’. The world today is the opposite: massive pieces tightly welded together.”

We all live together or die together. We must figure this out.

Personally, I’d rather live and get to the other side of that perilous period into a more human version of humanity. This unconference was one tiny step. I hope there will be millions more.

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