The Technology of Democratization


Last October I was invited to speak at the Telluride Tech Festival .  My topic was the Zen of Productivity and I spoke about the gap between what technology has promised, and what it has actually delivered.  The implied promise of technology - as articulated by George Jetson - was that things will get easier, we'll go faster, and life will get better. And technology delivered. But there were off-setting side effects:  because things got easier, we tend to do more, creating a confusion surplus and an attention deficit in everything we do. Because we go faster, everything is blurred - both literally, and figuratively. And because life truly did get better, now we want more and are less satisfied with what we have. There were about 10 other speakers during the two-day event and they represented a wide range of "technology topics." But if there was one common theme, it was the "maturation of technology."  In other words, now that we have all these gizmo's, what are we actually going to do with them? Or, to paraphrase Ellie McPherson, the character in Carl Sagan's Contact, "How to survive our technological adolescence."

The World Just Got Flatter

Probably the most interesting talk was that given by Clarence "Skip" Ellis, who has the distinction of being the first African-American to obtain a PhD in Computer Science. I should add this was not a recent achievement; it happened back in 1969 so he was also one of the first people ever to obtain a degree in this new field.  More important to this topic, Dr. Ellis was also intimately involved in the original "point and click" technology while at the Xerox Research Labs in Palo Alto.  This was later commercialized by Apple and then by Microsoft. (Or was it the other way around? And does it matter?)

The connection is that Dr. Ellis has always been at the forefront of using technology to "make things easier."  At Telluride, he talked about adapting game theory to global democratization by creating a 'democracy game' that hundreds, then thousands, then millions of 'players' participate in: the process of distilling - and prioritizing - the needs of millions of different and unique people, and focusing them into a truly representative set of issues. Candidates are then selected from among the people - representatives who can best advocate for those chosen issues. The rest is easy - choosing an electorate and a government. Democratically. Of the people, by the people, and for the people.

His unspoken goal was this: if the 'game' works in practice, then it is no longer a game - it becomes the next step in the evolution of how we as humans govern ourselves. And the "stretch goal" goes beyond that:  if it can work in one country, it might some day spread to a truly enlightened and representative management of our entire planet.

Observing the events in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, I think we just saw a real-life step in that direction.