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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