The Politics of Change

Or: My, what a can of worms I opened yesterday…

A segment of a social network
Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday I discovered how the Starcraft reddit had implemented little icons next to each user’s name (of those that wanted it) which could display which faction they belonged to. I found the idea cute and an interesting way to add some more character into the discussion. I thought that something similar would be a nice addition to the /r/anarchism so I experimented a bit and then implemented it to see what others thought about it.

Initially I opened a thread announcing it. Everyone could request any icon they wished for among the available options. I figured that if people don’t want one, they can simply ignore it and those who do can get one. If very few got a star, the change would be practically invisible. If many wanted one, then it would show that it was indeed a good option to have.

I expected some people not to like it and I just assumed that if they had a good argument against it, a democratic vote would decide if people agreed with them to take the stylesheet change down or keep it up. I did not expect to be called a dictator…

I won’t respond to the shallow baiting some are all too eager to fling around when things don’t go their way (read: when the community does not back them up) but I thought it would be useful to explain why I act the way I do, why this is beneficial and why the alternative is not a good idea.

Change Boldly, Reverse Democratically.

My theory on changes is that any of them that are opt-in and easy to reverse do not need democratic consensus to be attempted. I get my idea from Wikipedia and the brilliant way it’s worked for that until now where it urges people to be bold in their changes since any mistake can be easily fixed and/or reversed when needed and the damage should be non-existent until it is. Much like that, I believe that any change in society that affects only those who decide to follow it, does not have the capacity to cause immediate damage and can be reversed easily should it be requested, should be tried boldly.

This usually affect the most novel and the most interesting ideas. Being for opt-in ideas, it practically limits this practice to those ideas that enhance individualism rather than modify the collective as a whole. In the end, it affects those ideas which are the most likely to be opposed by conservative minds and those ideas who are very likely to be rejected by those who have not experienced them.

This is important to clarify because it’s these ideas that not only make a society or community more interesting and colourful, but are the ones that promote individualism, creativity and serve as the “beachhead” and basis for others to build upon them. It is exactly those ideas which change the chaotic environment in unexpected ways and allow a new and better emergent order. The throttling of those ideas would be disastrous for the cultural health of a community.

To give you real life example of such ideas, think of creativity and innovation. For example, a person designing a new style of clothing, or an engineer designing a revolutionary technology like the steam engine or the TCP/IP protocol, or even a person who starts living in a completely novel lifestyle. Certainly nobody would request that those people refrain from introducing such changes until a consensus has been reached in society. Those changes affect the individual first and foremost and only those who want them would embrace them.

And yet, that those changes would affect the environment and the society as a whole is certain. Some will do it far more than others but everything that affects individuals – from fashion, to lifestyle to technology – can in turn change the society once a critical mass of individuals start following it. One can simply see how for example, the Internet, which is a completely opt-in technology, has shaped and continues to shape the face of our global society in it short existence. And the more people that start to use it, the more powerful it becomes to perform this change. Mannerisms, clothes, lifestyle practices etc also have the same possibilities which can easily be seen in our history.

Is this an argument to request consensus decision before those are introduced? If this was an anarchist society and a technology like the early Internet was developed, do you think it would be a good idea to block it until a democratic vote was taken on it? Those enthusiasts old enough to remember those early days will certainly remember the rampart scaremongering surrounding it during those times. You could find practically weekly a columnist from one traditional newspaper or another warning us of all the horrible consequences it would have when it became widespread. I don’t think any of them came even closer to materializing. Instead, new ways of use were discovered which further changed the way it was used in ways that nobody could even imagine.

Think of Twitter for example. At the early ages of the internet, it couldn’t be even imagined. When it was first introduced, it was widely dismissed and/or assaulted by a vocal minority (among the majority who didn’t use it) that was nevertheless bigger than the majority which found it exciting and interesting. If one would have a democratic vote at that point, at the point of introduction, twitter would not exist today. The majority who was hostile to it was simply larger than the bleeding edge minority that wanted to try it. This is a fact of reality. The conservative vocal minority will always be larger at the start-of-life of a particular innovation, than the progressive vocal minority who wants to use it.

Twitter, much like the internet persisted. Slowly,the progressive minority found more and more novel ways to use it, the membership of Twitter increased and a critical mass was reached. A critical mass which, while still a minority among Internet users, has a profound and significant effect on society. Twitter is starting to have a real societal effect in the way people communicate. From the political campaigns, to advertising, to reactionary communications among anarchists during riots!

Think: Nobody would have even thought this was possible until it happened naturally. Until order emerged out of chaos.

Nobody could argue that Twitter did not have a profound effect on the community it was introduced into (The Internet community first, the greater society second). And yet, nobody but the very misguided would suggest that it was a mistake that Twitter was not introduced consensually. Twitter was introduced boldly but as an opt-in method. People who wanted it can use it and the success of it as a service would depend on those opting-in. That means, that if it was discovered that it had a harmful effect, it would eventually change or die a natural death as people stopped using it and were not replaced. This is the first security valve that exist for all the bold opt-in changes.

The second one does not exist in all societies but the truly democratic ones. The option for a community to convene and decide if they wish to ban a particular change that is having a harmful effect on them. This is however the nuclear option and one which can have as much a harmful effect on creative changes as the ones I mentioned above, as voting before each change. If a democratic vote it convened at the early life of a change, the vocal conservative minority will once again out-weight the vocal progressive minority which will not have had a chance to grow by showing the beneficial effects of the change.

This democratic choice needs to be taken not just when a change has been introduced but when the practice of it has empirically and materially had a harmful effect. It needs to be base on evidence, on balancing the good against the bad and not scaremongering. It requires thus enough of a trial time on any change to allow it to be judged in practice. However, unlike a market economy or a dictatorship, this “nuclear option” can be a life-saviour on a technology which is indeed harmful due to its externalities. And while some will certainly complain about the loss of freedom of banning something which a minority might still want, the luxuries of the few should never out-weight the damage done to the many.

This is primarily why bold changes need to be easily reversible. While I’m all for such modifications, I would never dream of instituting a change that cannot be reversed or that has such likelihood of further implications that make it irreversible. My change on /r/anarchism’s stylesheet for example can be removed in 3 clicks. However when I say “implications” this obviously does not include democratic support for a good idea, as some have implied. Such a support does not mean that a change is technically irreversible but rather that people wish for it to stay. A technical implication would rather be something like digging an oil rig in the sea when knowing that that there’s a change for it to explode and pollute the surrounding environment catastrophically. In short, a change which cannot be reversed given democratic opposition.

When such reversibility is existent, being bold is not an issue. Any of us can make mistakes or miss some consequence that emerges later on and being able to quickly revert things to the way they were is the fallback solution to a bold change that did not work as intended. However, like before, the harmful effect needs to be existent and not theoretical. Scaremongering will not do. Such harmful effects will then convince the community to oppose it democratically and reverse it or modify it so as to avoid those effects. No real argument will be required.

Furthermore, bold changes can be done on top of bold changes to as to improve on them and give more options. This does not include the bold change of reversing them without them having a chance to be trialed. Say for example that the stylesheet change I did ended up looking fugly (and indeed my initial change was also opposed exactly for this point by some). While one change is for it to be reversed, another one which is also quicker (as it would not require a democratic vote) and better would be to make it nicer. And indeed this is what another mod did, by replacing the big flags I used with small stylish stars. Not only was he bold in turn, but in a future vote we can have three options rather than just two. Flags, Stars or Removal.

Isn’t this dictatorship?

One thing that some anarchists were very eager to throw against me was the accusation of acting like a dictator to the subreddit. They claim that because I acted without consent, I forced everyone to accept my change. But this should be fairly easy to see why it’s false.

First of all, dictators don’t make their choices opt-in. They force them on the society at large because they want them to happen. Had dictators made unpopular decisions as opt-in, they would have never had any effect as people would simply ignore them. This is why dictators and oligarchies end up dragging the unwilling populace behind their “visions”.

On one hand, the ease by which such visions can be attempted is a particular benefit for a dictatorship, allowing a progressive dictator to make rapid changes. This is naturally outweighted by all the bad things that follow a dictatorship, especially the inability to reverse a bad decision or even opt-out of it. The trick to is to keep the good (easy progressive changes) and discard the bad (not being able to reverse bad ones, among everything else). This is what bold changes attempt to achieve.

A dictators decision would not be reversible given democratic opposition. The people accusing me of acting like one, take the considerable support my idea has had and claim that because they can now not reverse the change as people like it, it might as well have been a dictatorial edict. But the little option that the idea is only irreversible because people want it makes all the difference in the world. It means that when and if harmful effects are discovered from it, it can still be removed or fixed. You do not have such an option with a dictatorial edict. In fact, especially because that was the idea of the supreme ruler, it’s very unlikely that he would change it even when harmful effects are obvious, simply because of personal pride.

I consider such accusation to be nothing more than baiting. Trying to shame me with a label which does not fit, just because they know anarchist abhor this accusation and are especially sensitive to it. IMO The accusation itself is shameful to those making it.

I was planning on writing about the issues that will occur if we require consensus before every change but I notice that this post is already getting quite long so instead I’m going to close this post now and write about the harmful effects of democratic fetishism in a future post.

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Deliberate Obtusity

Often people get the concept of communism wrong, and then people like me try to set things straight. Occasionally we’ll bump into a person so thick where comprehension is just not an option.

Secodontosaurus obtusidens head
Image Unrelated via Wikipedia

I’ve recently started monitoring the twitter stream for keywords relating to Anarchism, Communism and Libertarian Socialism, just so that I might see what others are saying about it and perhaps intervene and clarify a thing or two. I expected of course rampart hatred on Communism by ignorant US Americans but I didn’t expect it on this scale. Not a minute passes that someone won’t make a snide remark on it while talking about anything. From complaining about China (I honestly can’t believe that people still consider the PRC communist at this point), to whining about the US Gov and Barack, to urging Iran not to become communist, to simple ranting.

It’s insane really. It’s reached the point for some people that anything not Neoconservative can simply be labelled Communist. I mean, of course I can imagine that people like this exist, but I expected, dunno, less of a magnitude.

In any case, I replied here and there and I was pleasantly surprised that some people at least were willing to listen when I basically explained that they have it wrong. Those at least are open to the possibility that they may have things wrong. However there are others…

Looking back at it, I should have known that someone who puts Communism and Fascism in the same context can’t be very intelligent, or honest for that matter, but I didn’t expect GlenBradley to not only stand by his statement when corrected but to insist that he made no mistake. And thus, this clusterfuck of a conversation began.

Needless to say, it didn’t end well. For all my attempts to explain what Communism really is about, it felt like talking to a brick wall. Not only that, but the discussion¬† kept going in a random ad-hominem direction where eventually I ended up having to prove “I’m not an Elephant”.Whatever argument I made, was either ignored and was called “rhetoric” just so that Glen wouldn’t have to acknowledge it.

In retrospect, I should have known what to expect when I noticed that this guy is running for office. However the idiocy here is the interesting part. I mean, at some point, when you say to someone “You’re misunderstanding the theory” you expect them at least to pause and see why you are saying this. Can it be possible that yes, you are misunderstanding it? Apparently not.

I mean, I’m not asking people to suddenly be convinced, throw away their previous allegiances and become comrades, but I at least expect them to be capable of comprehension. This is not just to humor me, it’s in order to be able to have a rational conversation about the subject. When I discuss about Communism as a stateless, classless society and the other person means a totalitarian bureaucracy, then we’re obviously going to be talking past each other.

But when after all attempts to get on the same level, the other person refuses to budge, then I can only call this either Egregious Stupidity, or Deliberate Obtusity. In the case of our wannabe politician, I can only surmise that it’s the second, especially once he started calling me a “sophist without integrity” because he refused to understand a sentence, no matter how much I explained it.

But this obtusity is not only dishonest, but it really hold people back. Even if I am wrong about Communism, how do you expect to convince me if you simply refuse to understand what I’m saying? How can people decide on anything more than their current bias if both opponents act like this? It just becomes¬† a shouting match.

And unfortunately this is the sad state of politics everywhere. It seems much more beneficial for Politicians to misrepresent their opponent’s position and attack a strawman instead of actually discussing the subject. I guess this helps to retain their voting block as people who are content to vote once per 4 years (and call this farce “democracy”) don’t really want politicians who *gasp* actually change their minds.

And so, a kind of natural selection happens, where politicians act like this because people expect them to, and people start copying the debating style of politicians, because it seems “successful” (As in: you can say the last word in a debate). And this deliberate obtusity leads only to intellectual stagnation.

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Nexus of activity

I’ve recently started taking a more active role in the Atheist Nexus (A|N for short from now on) which has recently reached 2200 members.

It all started when I decided to promote Get Satisfaction as a better place for support than the fora. Brother Richard picked it up and after some discussion and simple coding, we implemented it on the sidebar and started urging people to use it. I took the admin role in it and that was my trigger to take a more active role in the whole thing.

So currently there’s a few things going on. First of all, there is a new group for people who want to volunteer for the improvement of the Nexus. Currently they are just asking who wants to participate (in the various categories( but they’re not doing anything specific. My fear is that if they don’t step up and start asking for specific things to do, people are just going to lose interest. I’ve voiced my concerns and ideas on it but all I can do at the moment is wait for further news.

To tell the truth, I think it’s wrong to wait for instructions from “higher up”. We all know how disorganised and argumentative Atheists are so expecting them to take orders is a recipe for failure. We need to employ a way to use that to our advantage. My idea is that we should have a very decentralized concept of organization. People should be free to do what they wish to promote, help and expand the nexus. We should be promoting creativity unbound and ways to allow people to do absolutely what they want, how they want in order to build their networks or their projects. All that the nexus should be doing is serving as the hub and now and then giving the necessary sparks of activity to jump-start more of these.

At the moment unfortunately there’s only discussions in the fora going on, which is not very different than a regular message board like the Internet Infidels. While this is all well and good, it does not provide anything new or exciting and unless something more social or unique is created soon, people will stop bothering, especially since the forum engine is not the best I’ve seen.We need to start doing exciting stuff while iron is still hot!

I have an idea on what might make the Nexus stand out from all the other social networks and I’ve taken a first step by starting a group on it and I have had a moderate interest in it but I need more solid tools in order to make it work. The basic group options are just not sufficient.

Last thing I’ve been trying to have is to open the A|N to search crawlers and have it indexed in order to increase the SEO and discoverability. The others seem not to agree so much with my idea mostly because there is a general feeling of persecution going on (understandably in some cases). However having the A|N private does not provide any more security and it still stops people from linking to it. Anyone following a link to forum discussion or whatnot, will end up on a wall asking him to register and few would take the hassle, especially if they are not atheists. Thus, any interesting discussion outcomes or whatnot, are effectively closed off.

Another thing that I did manage to arrange from there is to discover more Atheists who use Twitter. I’ve started following most of the ones that I knew of and I’ve found that it is a good way to have some quick answers or conversations. I suggest that if you use twitter, add the rest of us and if you know other Atheists on it, tag them so that we can find them.

Anyway, currently there is still a lot of activity at the A|N but I have already noticed that most people who registered at the start don’t even bother logging in anymore. Hell, we’ve got 2k members and I can only ever see about a dozen or two online at any one time. I only hope that this will not die out before it even gets off the ground.