Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Electronic Democracy

In 1979, Norman Spinrad wrote about an electronic democracy[1] that allowed every citizen of a world to be directly involved in their own government. At the time, this was a fantastic futuristic vision, a conceit to make a story work. One of the founding ideas of representative government is the impracticality of actually having everybody directly involved; so, we must allow a class of professionals to take care of governance full-time on our behalf. This works so long as the representatives can be trusted to act in the interests of those they represent. That is incredibly difficult to ensure, but as long as the inconvenience of direct democracy outweighs the combined inconveniences of either keeping politicians honest or dealing with the fact that they're not, we just do the best we can. Since 1776, the US has gotten worse at it (non-monotonically, but with a net downward trend), but there was never much we could ever do about it. That is no longer the case; Spinrad's electronic democracy could really exist in our world. The internet makes it easy for the public to remain informed on what's going on in their nation and its government. And while they can't all keep track of all of it, some millions of people can spend some small amount of their time on any particular aspect of the government's working; there is, collectively a lot more effort available to be used than all of the full-time government employees put together can provide themselves. We have the tools to address the problem of accountability. If we care, we can ensure our representatives do their jobs right.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Information Overload

It has been said that, when you have enough data, you don't have to be too clever. Or, in other words, more data usually beats better algorithms. This is empirically true when it comes to programming machines. If you just know some good ways of finding information already stored somewhere, you can often save a lot of trouble on actually calculating it; if you have a sufficiently massive dataset, you don't have to worry about how to do good statistics with a representative sample, because you can just look at the entire population. But many people, myself included, implicitly apply this logic to the operation of their own brains, and, sadly, our brains just don't work like computers. Every day, I am immersed in internet news. While I'm reading it, I always feel like this is a very important thing to do, and how wonderful is it that I can be so well informed in this day and age. But in the long run, very little of it really matters. I never want to get to work on anything until I know everything that the internet knows about that particular topic; but in reality, there is a point, very near the beginning, past which more reading will not improve my performance in any meaningful way. A human needs to be clever, to know how to use the information he has more than to gain all the information there is. One of the greatest challenges for education now may be not getting access to accurate information or figuring out how to study well, but rather filtering out what we actually need to know and successfully ignoring everything else.