Coding Democracy: How Hackers Are Disrupting Power, Surveillance, and Authoritarianism


Book by Maureen Webb: “Hackers have a bad reputation, as shady deployers of bots and destroyers of infrastructure. In Coding Democracy, Maureen Webb offers another view. Hackers, she argues, can be vital disruptors. Hacking is becoming a practice, an ethos, and a metaphor for a new wave of activism in which ordinary citizens are inventing new forms of distributed, decentralized democracy for a digital era. Confronted with concentrations of power, mass surveillance, and authoritarianism enabled by new technology, the hacking movement is trying to “build out” democracy into cyberspace.

Webb travels to Berlin, where she visits the Chaos Communication Camp, a flagship event in the hacker world; to Silicon Valley, where she reports on the Apple-FBI case, the significance of Russian troll farms, and the hacking of tractor software by desperate farmers; to Barcelona, to meet the hacker group XNet, which has helped bring nearly 100 prominent Spanish bankers and politicians to justice for their role in the 2008 financial crisis; and to Harvard and MIT, to investigate the institutionalization of hacking. Webb describes an amazing array of hacker experiments that could dramatically change the current political economy. These ambitious hacks aim to displace such tech monoliths as Facebook and Amazon; enable worker cooperatives to kill platforms like Ubergive people control over their data; automate trust; and provide citizens a real say in governance, along with capacity to reach consensus. Coding Democracy is not just another optimistic declaration of technological utopianism; instead, it provides the tools for an urgently needed upgrade of democracy in the digital era….(More)”.

Designing Institutional Collaboration into Global Governance


Policy Brief by C. Randall Henning: “Collaboration among international institutions is essential for high-quality governance in many areas of global policy, yet it is chronically undersupplied. Numerous opportunities for institutional collaboration are being missed and there are calls for deepening collaboration in discourse on global governance — in new areas of governance, such as digital privacy, content moderation and platforms; better-established areas, such as climate change and biodiversity; as well as long-established but nonetheless evolving areas, such as international finance, development and trade. There are several obstacles to collaboration, including key countries’ using some institutions to constrain others, a strategy of “complexity for control.” This policy brief suggests that in designing international institutions, states and other principals should draw from a tool kit of strategies and techniques for promoting collaboration, including introducing or developing formal and informal mechanisms, and harnessing the Group of Seven and the Group of Twenty to foster collaboration proactively. New institutions should be designed from the outset to collaborate with others in a dense institutional environment….(More)”.

The miracle of the commons


Chapter by Michelle Nijhuis: “In December 1968, the ecologist and biologist Garrett Hardin had an essay published in the journal Science called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. His proposition was simple and unsparing: humans, when left to their own devices, compete with one another for resources until the resources run out. ‘Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest,’ he wrote. ‘Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.’ Hardin’s argument made intuitive sense, and provided a temptingly simple explanation for catastrophes of all kinds – traffic jams, dirty public toilets, species extinction. His essay, widely read and accepted, would become one of the most-cited scientific papers of all time.

Even before Hardin’s ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ was published, however, the young political scientist Elinor Ostrom had proven him wrong. While Hardin speculated that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided only through total privatisation or total government control, Ostrom had witnessed groundwater users near her native Los Angeles hammer out a system for sharing their coveted resource. Over the next several decades, as a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, she studied collaborative management systems developed by cattle herders in Switzerland, forest dwellers in Japan, and irrigators in the Philippines. These communities had found ways of both preserving a shared resource – pasture, trees, water – and providing their members with a living. Some had been deftly avoiding the tragedy of the commons for centuries; Ostrom was simply one of the first scientists to pay close attention to their traditions, and analyse how and why they worked.

The features of successful systems, Ostrom and her colleagues found, include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions….(More)”.

Foreign Policy by Canadians: a unique national experiment


Blogpost by James Fishkin: “…Foreign Policy by Canadians was a national field experiment (with a control group that was not invited to deliberate, but which answered the same questions before and after.) The participants and the control group matched up almost perfectly before deliberation, but after deliberation, the participants had reached their considered judgments (while the control group had hardly changed at all). YouGov recruited and surveyed an excellent sample of deliberators, nationally representative in demographics and attitudes (as judged by comparison to the control groups). The project was an attempt to use social science to give an informed and representative input to policy. It was particularly challenging in that foreign policy is an area where most of the public is less engaged and informed even than it is on domestic issues (outside of times of war or severe international crises). Hence, we would argue that Deliberative Polling is particularly appropriate as a form of public input on these topics.

This project was also distinctive in some other ways. First, all the small group discussions by the 444 nationally representative deliberators were conducted via our new video based automated moderator platform. Developed here at Stanford with Professor Ashish Goel and “Crowdsourced Democracy Team” in Management Science and Engineering, it facilitates many small groups of ten or so to self-moderate their discussions. It controls access to the queue for the microphone (limiting each contribution to 45 seconds), it orchestrates the discussion to move from one policy proposal to the next on the list, it periodically asks the participants if they have covered both the arguments in favor and against the proposal, it intervenes if people are being uncivil (a rare occurrence in these dialogues) and it guides the group into formulating its questions for the plenary session experts. This was only the second national application of the online platform (the first was in Chile this past year) and it was the first as a controlled experiment.

A second distinctive aspect of Foreign Policy by Canadians is that the agenda was formulated in both a top-down and a bottom-up manner. While a distinguished advisory group offered input on what topics were worth exploring and on the balance and accuracy of the materials, those materials were also vetted by chapters of the Canadian International Council in different parts of the country. Those meetings deliberated about how the draft materials could be improved. What was left out? Were the most important arguments on either side presented? The meetings of CIC chapters agreed on recommendations for revision and those recommendations were reflected in the final documents and proposals for discussion. I think this is “deliberative crowdsourcing” because the groups had to agree on their most important recommendations based on shared discussion. These meetings were also conducted with our automated deliberation platform….(More)”.

Democracy in a Pandemic: Participation in response to Covid


Open Access Book by Involve: “Covid-19 has highlighted limitations in our democratic politics – but also lessons for how to deepen our democracy and more effectively respond to future crises.

In the face of an emergency, the working assumption all too often is that only a centralised, top-down response is possible. This book exposes the weakness of this assumption, making the case for deeper participation and deliberation in times of crises. During the pandemic, mutual aid and self-help groups have realised unmet needs. And forward-thinking organisations have shown that listening to and working with diverse social groups leads to more inclusive outcomes.

Participation and deliberation are not just possible in an emergency. They are valuable, perhaps even indispensable. 

This book draws together a diverse range of voices of activists, practitioners, policy makers, researchers and writers. Together they make visible the critical role played by participation and deliberation during the pandemic and make the case for enhanced engagement during and beyond emergency contexts.

Another, more democratic world can be realised in the face of a crisis. The contributors to this book offer us meaningful insights into what this could look like….(More)”.

New Study Uses Crowdsourcing to Strengthen American Democracy


Press Release: “Americans have always disagreed about politics, but now levels of anti-democratic attitudes, support for partisan violence, and partisan animosity have reached concerning levels. While there are many ideas for tackling these problems, they have never been gathered, tested, and evaluated in a unified effort. To address this gap, the Stanford Polarization and Social Change Lab is launching a major new initiative. The Strengthening Democracy Challenge will collect and rigorously test up to 25 interventions to reduce anti-democratic attitudes, support for partisan violence, and partisan animosity in one massive online experiment with up to 30,000 participants. Interventions can be contributed by academics, practitioners, or others with interest in strengthening democratic principles in the US. The researchers who organize the challenge — a multidisciplinary team with members at Stanford, MIT, Northwestern, and Columbia Universities — believe that crowdsourcing ideas, combined with the rigor of large-scale experimentation, can help address issues as substantial and complex as these….

Researchers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives are invited to submit interventions. The proposed interventions must be short, doable in an online form, and follow the ethical guidelines of the challenge. Academic and practitioner experts will rate the submissions and an editorial board will narrow down the 25 best submissions to be tested, taking novelty and expected success of the ideas into account. Co-organizers of the challenge include James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University; David Rand, the Erwin H. Schell Professor and Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT; James Chu, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University; and Nick Stagnaro, Post-Doctoral Fellow at MIT. The organizing team is supported by Polarization and Social Change Lab’s Chrystal RedekoppJoe Mernyk, and Sophia Pink.

The study participants will be a large sample of up to 30,000 self-identified Republicans and Democrats, nationally representative on several major demographic benchmarks….(More)”.

Identity Tethering in an Age of Symbolic Politics


Mark Dunbar at the Hedgehog Review: “Identities are dangerous and paradoxical things. They are the beginning and the end of the self. They are how we define ourselves and how we are defined by others. One is a “nerd” or a “jock” or a “know-it-all.” One is “liberal” or “conservative,” “religious” or “secular,” “white” or “black.” Identities are the means of escape and the ties that bind. They direct our thoughts. They are modes of being. They are an ingredient of the self—along with relationships, memories, and role models—and they can also destroy the self. Consume it. The Jungians are right when they say people don’t have identities, identities have people. And the Lacanians are righter still when they say that our very selves—our wishes, desires, thoughts—are constituted by other people’s wishes, desires, and thoughts. Yes, identities are dangerous and paradoxical things. They are expressions of inner selves, and a way the outside gets in.

Our contemporary politics is diseased—that much is widely acknowledged—and the problem of identity is often implicated in its pathology, mostly for the wrong reasons. When it comes to its role in our politics, identity is the chief means by which we substitute behavior for action, disposition for conviction. Everything is rendered political—from the cars we drive to the beer we drink—and this rendering lays bare a political order lacking in democratic vitality. There is an inverse relationship between the rise of identity signaling and the decline of democracy. The less power people have to influence political outcomes, the more emphasis they will put on signifying their political desires. The less politics effects change, the more politics will affect mood.

Dozens of books (and hundreds of articles and essays) have been written about the rising threat of tribalism and group thinking, identity politics, and the politics of resentment….(More)”.

Political Science Has Its Own Lab Leaks


Paul Musgrave at Foreign Policy: “The idea of a lab leak has gone, well, viral. As a political scientist, I cannot assess whether the evidence shows that COVID-19 emerged naturally or from laboratory procedures (although many experts strenuously disagree). Yet as a political scientist, I do think that my discipline can learn something from thinking seriously about our own “lab leaks” and the damage they could cause.

A political science lab leak might seem as much of a punchline as the concept of a mad social scientist. Nevertheless, the notion that scholarly ideas and findings can escape the nuanced, cautious world of the academic seminar and transform into new forms, even becoming threats, becomes more of a compelling metaphor if you think of academics as professional crafters of ideas intended to survive in a hostile environment. Given the importance of what we study, from nuclear war to international economics to democratization and genocide, the escape of a faulty idea could have—and has had—dangerous consequences for the world.

Academic settings provide an evolutionarily challenging environment in which ideas adapt to survive. The process of developing and testing academic theories provides metaphorical gain-of-function accelerations of these dynamics. To survive peer review, an idea has to be extremely lucky or, more likely, crafted to evade the antibodies of academia (reviewers’ objections). By that point, an idea is either so clunky it cannot survive on its own—or it is optimized to thrive in a less hostile environment.

Think tanks and magazines like the Atlantic (or Foreign Policy) serve as metaphorical wet markets where wild ideas are introduced into new and vulnerable populations. Although some authors lament a putative decline of social science’s influence, the spread of formerly academic ideas like intersectionality and the use of quantitative social science to reshape electioneering suggest that ideas not only move from the academy but can flourish once transplanted. This is hardly new: Terms from disciplines including psychoanalysis (“ego”), evolution (“survival of the fittest”), and economics (the “free market” and Marxism both) have escaped from the confines of academic work before…(More)”.

How data governance technologies can democratize data sharing for community well-being


Paper by Dan Wu, Stefaan Verhulst, Alex Pentland, Thiago Avila, Kelsey Finch, and Abhishek Gupta in Data & Policy (Cambridge University Press) focusing on “Data sharing efforts to allow underserved groups and organizations to overcome the concentration of power in our data landscape…

A few special organizations, due to their data monopolies and resources, are able to decide which problems to solve and how to solve them. But even though data sharing creates a counterbalancing democratizing force, it must nevertheless be approached cautiously. Underserved organizations and groups must navigate difficult barriers related to technological complexity and legal risk.

To examine what those common barriers are, one type of data sharing effort—data trusts—are examined, specifically the reports commenting on that effort. To address these practical issues, data governance technologies have a large role to play in democratizing data trusts safely and in a trustworthy manner. Yet technology is far from a silver bullet. It is dangerous to rely upon it. But technology that is no-code, flexible, and secure can help more responsibly operate data trusts. This type of technology helps innovators put relationships at the center of their efforts….(More)”.

Concern trolls and power grabs: Inside Big Tech’s angry, geeky, often petty war for your privacy


Article by Issie Lapowsky: “Inside the World Wide Web Consortium, where the world’s top engineers battle over the future of your data….

The W3C’s members do it all by consensus in public GitHub forums and open Zoom meetings with meticulously documented meeting minutes, creating a rare archive on the internet of conversations between some of the world’s most secretive companies as they collaborate on new rules for the web in plain sight.

But lately, that spirit of collaboration has been under intense strain as the W3C has become a key battleground in the war over web privacy. Over the last year, far from the notice of the average consumer or lawmaker, the people who actually make the web run have converged on this niche community of engineers to wrangle over what privacy really means, how the web can be more private in practice and how much power tech giants should have to unilaterally enact this change.

On one side are engineers who build browsers at Apple, Google, Mozilla, Brave and Microsoft. These companies are frequent competitors that have come to embrace web privacy on drastically different timelines. But they’ve all heard the call of both global regulators and their own users, and are turning to the W3C to develop new privacy-protective standards to replace the tracking techniques businesses have long relied on.

On the other side are companies that use cross-site tracking for things like website optimization and advertising, and are fighting for their industry’s very survival. That includes small firms like Rosewell’s, but also giants of the industry, like Facebook.

Rosewell has become one of this side’s most committed foot soldiers since he joined the W3C last April. Where Facebook’s developers can only offer cautious edits to Apple and Google’s privacy proposals, knowing full well that every exchange within the W3C is part of the public record, Rosewell is decidedly less constrained. On any given day, you can find him in groups dedicated to privacy or web advertising, diving into conversations about new standards browsers are considering.

Rather than asking technical questions about how to make browsers’ privacy specifications work better, he often asks philosophical ones, like whether anyone really wants their browser making certain privacy decisions for them at all. He’s filled the W3C’s forums with concerns about its underlying procedures, sometimes a dozen at a time, and has called upon the W3C’s leadership to more clearly articulate the values for which the organization stands….(More)”.