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InstaGov is the working name for a tool to facilitate* cooperative action and stem the tide of authoritarianism. It was originally conceived as a possible solution to the problem of government, and more specifically as a solution to the flaws which have become apparent in the American system of government due to their carefully-targeted exploitation by the Bush-Cheney administration.

*ack, what an over-used word... is there a better one?

Note: although this introduction was written for an American audience, using the US government as an example, it is intended to be globally inclusionary; I should probably write another essay explaining how this would work. In short, there should be no arbitrary barriers to prevent anyone with an articulate opinion from participating to the fullest. "Articulocracy" might even be an appropriate word to describe the idea's essence.

This solution does not require the bestowing of any official authority, deriving its power solely from the consent and will of the participants; given this, it may tend to appeal most to those with little regard for such authority. It might even be thought of as "government for anti-authoritarians", who are notorious for being difficult bastards to govern. (Among the names I rejected was "CatHerder", and only because was already taken, as were several other variants.)

While it is intended to improve on the current system of representative democracy by increasing both transparency and accuracy of representation, it does not need to replace the existing system – it does not need to be formally adopted by any government, much less stage a coup of some kind, in order to be effective. Indeed, it can be useful even to a relatively small number of people in "governing" themselves, and its usefulness scales up as more people and more groups use it. This feature is an essential part of the design, as no new governmental system is at all likely to be successful – in the absence of some opportunity to create a government from scratch, as was the case with colonial America over 200 years ago – if it requires top-down acceptance. (Aside: investigation of brand-new-from-scratch government designs may be possible using off-shore artificial colonies.)

The Problem

Let's look at what is perhaps the most egregious example of governmental failure in the past 7 years.

On a wave of disgust at the Iraq war and other horrendous abuses by the Bush administration, America elected a Democratic congress in 2006 with a mandate to clean out the neocon corruption and impeach Bush and Cheney.

What happened? Very little. The newly-elected democrats seemed to buy in very quickly to the neocon meme of "supporting the war effort" – never mind that much of the country by this time regarded the terror threat as a shadow puppet and the Iraq war as completely the wrong solution for dealing with such a threat even if it was real. Multiple mass demonstrations calling for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney were met with the response that "impeachment is not an option", or "is off the table", or with no response at all.

Cries of "do something!" filled the blogosphere. We were told we needed to wake up from our slumber and take action! What action? We were urged to write to our congresspeople, stage more demonstrations, sign petitions!... but this had already been done, and congress had willfully ignored it.

What, then, could we do? The new Democrat-run Congress we elected was going against our explicit wishes, the very reason we put them there. We got them into the control room, and they too shut us out. We passed them the ball, and they kicked it back into our goal. We let them cross the chasm first, and they ran off with the rope and the treasure.

(You can also listen to George Carlin, who has a much broader take on the problem. I'm inclined to agree, but I haven't yet pulled together the data to back it up. See American totalitarianism for starters, and this for another more recent perspective.)

The Purpose of Government

The United States was founded on the principle that a government has a responsibility to act in the best interests of its citizens, and that the best way to ensure this is to keep ultimate authority in the hands of the citizens (caveats aside) – indeed, to recognize as a basic truth that government only works by consent of the governed; if there is no consent, what you have is an occupation – not a government. Government only has authority because we give it authority.

That authority comes in many forms, some of them rather slippery.

If a policeman arrests someone for smoking marijuana even though all of his neighbors think it should be legal, by what authority is he doing so? If the government makes a rule that passengers on a plane may not take more than 3 ounces of liquid with them, even though neither the passengers nor the owners and crew of the plane think this is sensible, where is the authority coming from?

In both of these cases, we've (implicitly, and in theory) agreed beforehand to follow rules arrived at by a certain process, whether or not we agree with the outcome of that process. Further, the process has authorized the use of force if we don't comply. In theory, we agree to the use of force because there are a small percentage of us who would otherwise violate their agreement and violate the law, including laws with which we agree (which in theory should be the majority of them).

What do we do, though, when the process becomes broken and corrupt, and starts authorizing laws with which we strongly disagree? Authoritarians would argue that laws must be obeyed because the alternative is anarchy and chaos.

Authoritarians say a lot of stupid stuff, though – like equating dissent with treason when the main author of the founding principles of our country believed the exact opposite. While dismissing the stupidity of the idea that we have to do stuff that most people agree is stupid, we can nonetheless take their warning to heart: let us not too casually dismantle the mechanisms of government which have kept us (mostly) prosperous and (mostly) safe for over 200 years, even as the termite holes get larger and the timbers creak ominously. It's still all we have at the moment.

Let us instead build a new one, first, and then – through those new processes – decide what to do.

Related external link:

Another Way to Look At It

Despite the best social engineering available in 1786, our system of government still favors the powerful and those who seek personal gain at the expense of others. (They couldn't have been expected to foresee the industrial age and its attendant problems, much less the information age.)

In other words, it is still essentially an authoritarian device, and works best for those who are of an authoritarian mindset (and it's getting worse).

What we need, then, is a tool to give power to non-authoritarians.

The internet has allowed most of the essential components to be created and laid out right in front of us, but we haven't yet put them together.

The blogosphere is full of opinions and analysis and thought-work and data-gathering. These are tremendous assets to any society, and based on all that analysis and data and counter-arguing we are able to arrive at some very good, well-informed opinions on how things should be done.

The problem is that we are all like individual workers trying to haul a huge stone. We each go up to it, grab a rope, and try tugging a little. Sometimes a few of us will get together and try at the same time -- but the damn thing weighs a hundred tons, and we can't even budge it.

Meanwhile, if an authority wants to move the stone, he simply orders a thousand of his minions to move it. They attach 50 long ropes and assign 200 minions to each rope, and they all pull in unison. They don't need to debate where the stone should go, or decide if they really agree on the principle of moving it, or send out pleas for volunteers to show up at a certain time to help out, or decide which stone they should be working on; they just do it, because their superior said so. And so the stone is moved where the authority directs. In this sense, it is true that division is weakness; this is where we are forced to play on the authoriarians' home turf.

What we need, then, is a tool which allows large numbers of people to reach consensus quickly, so we can all agree on which stones to work on, where to move them, and what time to show up (and who brings the ropes, and who orders the pizza for afterwards) – so our need to arrive at really good, accurate, and non-politically-driven solutions can be assuaged while minimizing the incapacitating effects of "dissent" (and maximizing its usefulness as a positive influence – one of our few advantages).

There are several tasks involved in reaching a true consensus:

  • Working out what we already believe: what are the major points of view, and how many people agree with each one?
  • Working out why we believe it: What are the facts used to justify each point of view? What are the objections to the points of view you don't agree with?
  • Sharing all that information, and seeing if we now come closer to universal agreement
  • Individual stipulation that if the community believes strongly enough in implementing a certain action, each individual will cooperate even though not all of them will agree that it's the best action (i.e. setting a threshold for commitment to cooperate; when you vote for president, it's with the understanding that the candidate who wins will be your president too, even if you voted for someone else)

All of these things can be managed by software, and the web will make a perfectly serviceable (if not perfect) interface.

The Solution

The basic idea is to make it possible for an arbitrarily-assembled group of people to work out what they agree on, or how they feel about any given issue.

As it is, we often don't know how most people feel about things. The media presents the loudest and most extreme views as if they were the majority, or at least a significant chunk of the population, and moderate (sane) views tend to go unheard. Sane people therefore end up trying to decide which of the insane extremist camps to align themselves with -- when in fact sanity and moderation probably represent a majority, and should be the ones whose message predominates.

So we need our own polling service. The internet makes it possible to do this at essentially no cost, with voluntary participation of the polled. This means the results may not be representative of the population at large, but it seems fair to disproportionately represent those who choose to take the extra time to participate. Internet-connected computers are now freely available in most public libraries, so this doesn't even have to be economically exclusive (although when we have the resources to do so, we should definitely look at providing internet-connected home computers to poor folks so they can participate from home as well; the OLPC and other low-cost internet-enabled devices should make this possible).

We also need a way of deciding specific actions to take. This goes beyond just "what do you think?" and extends it to "what would you agree to do?". This could be any of a wide range of things: putting a specific bumper-sticker on your vehicle, wearing a t-shirt with a particular message on a particular day, buying stock in a particular company, attending a protest rally, boycotting a particular company (or participating in a buying surge on a certain day), pulling together cash to buy a billboard ad -- the possibilities for coordinated, voluntary, self-determining group action have barely begun to be explored.

There are a lot of organizations online ( perhaps being the earliest and best-known) which do this sort of thing, but the goals and actions always seem to be pre-packaged -- if we're lucky, we'll get an explanation of why we should support a particular initiative, but often it's just assumed that if we support MoveOn, we must automatically be in agreement with the causes MoveOn espouses. This is taking what is ostensibly a grassroots movements and steering it disturbingly towards authoritarian control. Sadly, this seems to be the way all "grassroots" organizations work. (To be charitable, this is probably due to their pre-internet origins; even MoveOn, which got its start via email in the 1990s, predates the "Web 2.0" era of interactive, database-driven community web sites.)

So we need our own advocacy/activism organization, one that isn't controlled off-stage but in the open -- by us (those who choose to participate), via the web.

Having a way for a large number of people to decide something is, of course, vital to this, otherwise it would be hopeless -- but we've already arrived at the idea that such a tool is both essential and possible, so it seems quite reasonable to adopt "self-organizing activism" as a model for using that tool, though there may be others.


Ideally, the group-decisionmaking process should be quick and efficient. The less time we take in making a decision, the more good actions we can take (and this is definitely a race against the bad guys, who have resources which overwhelm ours as the ocean outsizes a backyard pond; fortunately, some of the good guys have resources too, and which we may be able to tap into if we can establish some credibility -- but this should not be a primary goal). The less time we waste in reaching decisions, the more brainpower is devoted to actually making sure those decisions are good ones, which is vital just for its own sake and also for building our credibility as a source of good ideas and decisions.

For smaller issues, it should take just a few days of calendar-time – not weeks – between the issue's initial posting and the final decision. Voting should be like answering your email. Research and discussion should be conducted from the comfort of one's own home, not in a meeting far away (wasted fuel & travel time!) which lasts hours and hours, possibly in an uncomfortable environment, at best only allowing one person to speak at a time, and with each additional participant adding to the inefficiency of communication.

We already have the software technology for the research and discussion parts of this: blogs, collaborative research sites such as Wikipedia, and the easy availability of well-indexed news sites and other informational resources on the web mean that quite well-informed decisions can be reached with only a few minutes of research.

What we don't have is the collective decision-making component.

Existing Polls are Toys

There are a number of sites -- e.g. LiveJournal -- which allow users to post "poll" questions for others to vote on. These polls are essentially toys -- and, for that matter, the system we use to collect "real-world" votes where laws and leaders which everyone has to follow are chosen, is deeply flawed as well.

Here's a rundown of the problems with online polls and the real-world voting system:

  • poll software deficiencies (versus real-world voting):
    • there is no way to determine if the same person cast multiple votes
    • there is no way to do a recount
  • improving the voting paradigm (overall improvements in how we think of voting):
    • existing software does not easily support extended discussion of the issues behind the available choices (<sarcasm>and we know how wonderfully rational the discussion forums are for real-world voting, too</sarcasm>)
    • there is no way for a voter to change their choice(s) (after having cast one's vote but before the polls "close")
    • online polls and real-world votes are almost always winner-take-all, when range voting would seem to be the best system, resulting in the least disappointment and by far the fewest bizarre results
    • there's no way for voters to add on-the-record comments to their votes
    • nothing else can be done with the polling data; it should be possible for users to automatically post their voting record on a web page (this gets into the issue of secret ballots, which are one solution to the problem of vote-buying; I think we can do better), for voting data to automatically be displayed in various formats, and for complete voting records (possibly anonymized, possibly not; to be decided) to be available in spreadsheet/database format for further analysis.
  • improvements over real-world governance
    • in voting for new laws, no record is kept of what people thought they were doing -- why they believed the law was a good idea, what the law was actually supposed to mean ("the spirit", rather than just "the letter", of the law).
    • Gerrymandering is a phenomenon made possible by the combination of authority-imposed "voting districts" and winner-take-all voting; doing away with both of these things should eliminate it. (It's not clear to me that "voting districts" are anything more than a tool for manipulating the vote count; they may have been necessary in the past as a way of distributing the vote-counting labor, but no longer.)

The Key Component

So, picture this:

You go to a web site, and log in. You see a handful of items in your Issues In-Box.

One or two of them seem really stupid or irrelevant; you kudos* these as "-10 irrelevant", lowering the kudos total for each one a bit so it will be shown to fewer people and hence waste less time.

* "Kudos" is what it sounds like -- a formalized expression of whether you think this issue deserves attention; a positive kudos rating bolsters the issue's visibility. Each Issue's propagation rate -- i.e. the rate at which new voters are chosen at random to vote on it -- is determined by its kudos score; the kudos score for new issues is based on the kudos of the user posting it, which is based on the average kudos scores of that user's previous posts. Users who persistently post stupid issues have their new postings start out with a low kudos score, which means very few people will see them. It is to everyone's advantage, then, to try out new issues on groups of their friends and supporters before escalating to larger groups (of which World is the largest).

This is of course different from voting on the issue, i.e. expressing agreement or disagreement; you can still vote on an item ("-10 really bad idea" to "+10 really good idea"), or abstain, regardless of how relevant or irrelevant you kudos-rated it.

One of the Issues in your in-box is from Dana at En Tequila; another is from PZ Myers. They are both marked for the group "World", and you know that neither of these people would push an issue on World if it was irrelevant, so you mark them as "+10 really important". (And anyway, you saw them earlier when they were test-floated in the "Pharyngulites" and "Tequilaheads" groups, so you're familiar with them.)

Looking through the rest of the issues, you see several you'll want to research -- and with no decision due until next week. You also notice that one you postponed earlier expires overnight, so you need to finish that research and vote on it.

Fortunately, your procrastination has paid off -- a few rabid authoritarians have posted straw-man and ad-hominem attacks trying to discredit the issue, and been soundly trampled; no better counter-arguments have been posted. Given that this would seem to be the strongest negative argument the opposition was able to marshal, that you don't seem to see any objections on your own, and that the original argument itself seems sound (as do several supporting arguments added later), you give it a warm "+8 go for it" approval and a "+5" kudos rating (only lukewarm on the kudos because you didn't really have any emotional investment in it).

At the last minute, you remember being disturbed by something you read on the newsfeeds that night, and post a brief feeler to your "friends" group, with a low priority level. If you have time, you'll research it more and add that to the issue -- but perhaps one of your group already knows something about it, and can either vote it down as irrelevant (this won't cost you if you gave it a low priority to begin with) or vote it up and possibly escalate it. If nobody takes any action soon, you'll do that research and possibly escalate it yourself, or remove it if you decide it was a false alarm.

What Next?

Well, first of all, please tear this idea to shreds. There are two major areas in which this needs doing:

  • "What could go wrong?" How can this system be perverted and corrupted?
  • In what ways does it make you go "ho hum, another damn web programmer who thinks they can save the world"? How does this idea fall short of being frighteningly revolutionary?

The next step is to build the basic software -- I've got a workable design partly documented on HTYP, and refinements can wait until we have some trial usage to look at. Once it's working, problems can be entered into the system for solutions to be suggested and the best answer chosen.

The software will be free, so others could go off and start their own InstaGov sites if they didn't like the way mine was run (or designed). This will be one of the essential safeguards built into the InstaGov Way of Doing Things: you're always free to go off and start your own. The design is intended to be scalable and networkable, though I haven't yet worked out the details of that (one thing at a time).

I've stuck some bits I don't know how to wedge in (and don't know if they're worth the trouble) on the discussion page.

And I guess that's all for now, until I realize the next bit that I totally forgot to explain.