Election Special #4: What is Governance for and how can we shape genuine democracy – with Glen Weyl of the Plurality Institute

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If the current electoral/governance system is not fit for purpose (and who could possibly imagine it was?) how can we lay the foundations for new ways of organising democracy, new ways of voting, new ideas of what governance is for and how it could work in the twenty-first century. How, in short, do we create space for future generations to be able to decide their own futures in ways that are not constrained by material or political strictures they’ve inherited from us?

In this fourth election special, I have what felt to me a profound conversation with Glen Weyl – economist, philosopher, film producer and visionary thought-leader for our time. We explore how we can break away from traditional governance structures and how spiritually acknowledging the complexity within each individual can pave the way for more inclusive, fluid, and efficient democratic systems.

Glen is co-author with Audrey Tang of the ground-breaking book Plurality, which emerged partly Audrey’s experiences in re-shaping the democracy in Taiwan towards connection, collaboration and – above all – peaceful resolutions of the many internal contradictions of that state.

He introduces the concept of quadratic voting (of which he is the creator) as a significant innovation in this field. The conversation expands to the potential of technology in aiding governance reforms, and Glen shares insights from his work with the Plurality Institute and Radicalxchange Foundation. We also touch on the success of Taiwan’s innovative governance, influenced by Audrey Tang.

Join us as we discuss creating experimental, adaptable governance systems aimed at ensuring peace and human flourishing in an ever-complex world. 

Bio: Glen currently works at Microsoft where he is the founder and research lead of the Microsoft Research Special Project the Plural Technology Collaboratory, though he was previously GeoPolitical advisor to the CTO. He also founded and serves on the board of the RadicalxChange Foundation the leading thing tank in the web 3 space, and is founder and chair of the Plurality Institute which coordinates an academic research network developing technology for cooperation across different disciplines.

He’s also senior advisor to the Getting-Plurality Research Network at the Harvard Edmond and Lily Saffra Centre for Ethics. He previously lead Web 3 technical strategy at Microsoft’s Office of the CTO and taught economics at the Universities of Chicago, Yale, Princeton and Harvard

In Conversation

Manda: Hey people, welcome to Accidental Gods. To the podcast where we believe that another world is still possible and that if we all work together, there is still time to lay the foundations for a future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. I’m Manda Scott, your host and fellow traveller in this journey into possibility. And in this series of election specials, we’ve been talking to people deeply and intimately involved with the UK’s general elections. But this time I wanted to cast the net wider, and we’ve been incredibly lucky at Accidental Gods central to recently have been introduced to Glen Weyl and Audrey Tang. Thank you John, if you’re listening. Audrey will be well known to anyone who has read the book (my new novel!), listened to any of the podcasts within the last couple of years, listened to any of the other podcasts I’ve done recently, talking about the book and political possibility, or read the articles for Permaculture magazine. I have spoken a lot about the astonishing combination of philosophy and social technologies and digital technologies in the transformation, it seems to me, of the political nature of Taiwan. The way that people have been brought together, helped to build bridges across divides, helped to fend off really quite concerted assault by the People’s Republic of China in the recent general elections. And generally from the sound of things, helped to become the best of themselves.

Manda: All of this has been an absolute inspiration for this podcast, for Any Human Power, the novel that has grown out of this podcast and for everything else that we’re aiming to do. So when we were offered the chance to talk to Glen, we leapt at it. Glen is an economist, a philosopher, a visionary, and the person who devised quadratic voting. Which, if you have read the book or listened to any of our past podcasts, particularly number 193 with Ruth Catlow, you will know, is something that I think is mind blowingly exciting. Which isn’t as sad as it sounds, people. This is a way to change how we do democracy because the current system is not fit for purpose. I’ve spoken to a lot of people on many sides of the many divides of our current polity, and the one thing just about everybody agrees with is that medieval methods of politics are not going to cut it in the 21st century. So Glen and I are going to talk about this. What is governance for? What is democracy for? How could it work if it was going to work in a better way than it works now? If it was going to work in a way that lets the generations who come after us have the freedom and the space and the wellbeing within the boundaries of the living planet to make their own decisions about how they move forward. What else are we here for?

Manda: So let me tell you a little bit more about Glen before we start. Glen’s CV is absolutely huge and really quite inspiring. But for a taste, Glen currently works at Microsoft, where he is the founder and research lead of the Microsoft research special project, the Plural Technology Collaboratory. Though he was previously geopolitical advisor to the CTO. He also founded and serves on the board of the Radical Exchange Foundation, the leading think tank in the Web3 space. And is founder and chair of the Plurality Institute, which coordinates an academic research network developing the technologies for cooperation across different disciplines and from which the book Plurality arose. And it’s worth saying of this book that Glen and Audrey have completely bypassed the traditional book publishing book factory system. They went for something that was open source from the beginning, so that people who wanted to collaborate could go in and change the text and can still evolve the text. You can download it as an e-book and pay what you feel is right, or you can buy it from Amazon and they will update the text at regular editions.

Manda: This is groundbreaking, people. It’s walking the talk. It’s finding new ways of doing things, and it’s doing them at the same time. There is a lot more to say about Glen, some of which we will get to in this conversation, but not all. He has taught economics at the universities of Chicago, Yale, Princeton, and Harvard. We don’t mention that much. But what we touch on very lightly and I think is worth emphasising before we start, is that Glen himself has been on both sides of the currently polarised political divide in the US, and then has come to a place that he will describe that isn’t neither side, but is both sides. And it’s from this perspective of both-and, that he and Audrey have been able to gather endorsements from people as varied as the Dalai Lama and Vitalik Buterin, as well as people on both sides of the political divide in the US. It’s a remarkable book. It’s a remarkable set of ideas, and if we were to carry these forward, our world would be even more remarkable than it already is. So let’s explore what’s possible. People of the podcast, please welcome Glen Weyl, co-author of Plurality.

Manda: Glen, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast and thank you. And how are you and where are you this lovely Friday afternoon?

Glen: Manda I’m in Bogota, Colombia, and I’m so delighted to be joining you and to have made your acquaintance recently. So, uh, doing great.

Manda: Thank you. So yes, we recently made acquaintance and I am exploring the world of Glen Weyl, and am entirely enthralled. And there are so many things that we could talk about, but here in the UK we’re in the middle of a general election. The French just discovered they are in the middle of a general election, and all around the world there are other elections happening. And it feels as if the world is at an intersection of so many different tipping points and trajectories, and that the nature of democracy is being called into question and could definitely be improved. I’ve spoken to a number of people for election specials, and every single one has agreed that the current system is no longer fit for purpose, if it ever was. And you and Audrey together at the Plurality Institute and with your book Plurality, have been exploring exactly this. And I have to say at the start, you’re the creator of quadratic voting. And when I discovered that existed, it was one of the most exciting days of my podcasting life. Because it seemed like here, here is a way through. It’s like when I was writing historical novels and I discovered that Joan of Arc was not who we’d been told, and that here was this person that it obviously was, and everything fell into place. And quadratic voting. Oh, we could actually do something useful that isn’t just people flailing around in the Middle Ages trying to work out how to count tally sticks better. So let’s go back up to the beginning, because it seems as if you guys are really thinking deep and wide and far. In your opinion, what is governance for in the 21st century? Because if we know what it’s for, we can shape it. If we’re just shaping it based on what it is at the moment, I don’t think we’re going to get to where we need to be. Over to you.

Glen: I think that there’s lots of complexity one can give in answer to that question, but I think often giving this very simple answer is the best starting point. And I would just say one word, which is peace. Peace is something that every major religion, every major moral tradition prizes above so many other things. And if you go back to the roots of what many people would say is the reason for democracy, they would say peaceful transfer of power. When opinions change, we give it over to a majority so they don’t have to violently seize control. I think that the majoritarian conclusions from the idea of peace have a lot of limitations. But I think that basic idea that peace is what we are after has a lot going for it.

Manda: Brilliant. And I’m assuming, because I’ve been listening to a lot of what you’ve said, that peace is innately conjoined with human flourishing in your mind. Because if everybody died, it would be peaceful.

Glen: Yeah. So peace is not enough and that’s why I said it’s an overly simplistic answer. But peace making is maybe a little bit better of a term. And the real thing that I would want to get at is beyond that, it’s not just peace, because peace is the absence of conflict. What we really want is the harnessing of human diversity for progress, beauty, growth, not just the absence of the waste of that energy. To give a longer answer, what I would say is that the reason why conflict has so much energy and can do so many destructive things is because it has potential. There’s potential energy there, just the same way that we know when we see nuclear explosions or we know when we see fires, that there’s energy there. In the same way, we know from the destruction that human conflict creates that there’s potential there that can be harnessed. And so really the point of governance, I would say, taking it one step further, is the harnessing of the energy inherent in human diversity for productive aims, which includes avoiding it being dissipated as conflict and war, but has actually a higher calling, which is to harness it for growth and learning and beauty.

Manda: Beautiful. Thank you. That reminds me a lot of Zach Stein, the educational philosopher who talks about what is humanity for? And pretty much I think if we all narrow down, we get to that sense of human flourishing within the bounds of a living planet that is also flourishing. I don’t think many of us want the planet turned into a desert while humanity progresses. And then we can get into the wrinkles of what is a good human. But let’s stay this side of that, because that’s probably quite a long and deep philosophical conversation. And I’ve noticed you’re an economist, you’re also a philosopher, you’re also a visionary, you’re also a thought leader. You’re also incredibly well versed with technology. So maybe we’ll come back for the philosophical conversations. But at the moment we need a governance system that allows human flourishing within a peaceful or at least a conflict free. No, we don’t necessarily want conflict free, because I think the edges of energy are when humans have conflict, but conflict that doesn’t burst out into violence, where the edge energy of my opinion and your opinion are not the same, but if we come together in good faith, we can produce something that is different to what either of us has brought, and perhaps is emergent and different and beautiful and all of the things that you want. And this is a metaphor that you bring up quite a lot in the book, that sense of fire being something that can be destructive and that we used to want to tamp down, and now we harness fire and turn it into good use.

Manda: So a lot of our existing governance systems seem to do this very badly, and they also seem to claim authority from the fact that they exist at all. So it seems to me we have two questions. How could we create a governance system that allows peaceful flourishing and which has an authentic claim to authority? That says this is actually the best we can get. I sat in a hustings the night before last and listened to somebody churn out the old Churchill saying that democracy is the worst system except for all the other systems. And first of all, he said that almost 100 years ago. And it wasn’t true even then and it certainly isn’t true now. Or depending on how we label democracy. But the existing two party, first past the post, let’s scream at each other across the House of Commons is set slightly more than two sword lengths apart, because that’s how we evolved it. That’s not fit for purpose. So how do we find the authority to create a system that people will get behind? Is that a reasonable question, or would you rather create the system? And then we’ll assume that it has authority?

Glen: Well, let me give two challenges to the assumption that the current systems that you’re describing are good ways of thinking about democracy or governance, and then we can get into how we might address things in that way. So the first challenge I’d give is that if our goal is some notion of peace, some notion of peaceful transfer of power, of avoiding destructive conflict, I would argue that what’s necessary for that is not the peaceful transfer to whoever happens to be in the majority at the moment. Instead, the key goal has to be the avoiding of the consistent reinforcement of the same lines of social division. Because even if you have a 51:49, and the majority gets it and then the majority gets it the other time, that doesn’t really avoid conflict if the people who are on either side of the conflict are consistently the same group of people. Because they will come to develop grievances, they will come to develop a sense of ‘other’. They will come to dehumanise whoever is on that other side and that will cause conflict. So we need systems that consistently avoid that reinforcement of the same lines of division.

Glen: The second challenge I would give is what does democracy mean? Was South Africa prior to the end of apartheid a democracy? Well, some might say, well, look, they had voting among the polity, so it was a democracy. But I think many, I hope most, would say that when you take 95% of the population and exclude them from the right to vote, that’s not a democracy. And so to have a democracy, we need, as the philosopher John Dewey, one of my favourite philosophers, pointed out, not just to have voting. You need to have an alignment between the set of people who are voting on decisions and the set of people who are impacted by those decisions. And that’s a hard thing to do. It requires that as the ways in which we’re interdependent and the way we understand our interdependence changes, that we evolve our understanding of who is the polity and what are the jurisdictions that are relevant. And so if that’s right, then the systems that we currently have have some elements of voting, but they’re not democracy in that sense any more than pre-apartheid South Africa was a democracy in that sense.

Manda: Brilliant. And I’ve been listening to people recently who are working really hard at a legal level to give personhood to rivers and trees and mountains and then presumably we find ways of giving them voice so they can vote. And in the Welsh Assembly, quite near to here, they have a Commissioner for Future Generations whose job is to give voice to the people yet unborn. So there are beginnings of expanding that polity. Can we take a segue to the peaceful transfer of power? Another of the books that completely changed the rewiring of my brain was Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. Are you familiar with that?

Glen: Me as well. I would say that’s maybe my favourite non-fiction book of the last decade. So.

Manda: Excellent. Yes. Me too. And so he was talking about the Wendat and a man whose name I never know how to pronounce, Kondiaronk or something like that, who was a representative of the people that we got to know as the Huron, because we all read last of the Mohicans when we were children. And he said very explicitly, nobody tells me what to do. They seemed to have systems of connection and discussion and conversation that were explicitly designed. Social technologies that managed to minimise conflict and had built into them ways, as far as I could tell, of there being very little sense of power happening. Anyway, there are the people who are good at hunting or building or constructing or debating, and when you need someone who’s good at hunting, building, constructing or debating, you bring them forward. And when you don’t need them, somebody else comes forward. Our culture is built on hierarchies of power. Are we looking forward, do you think, within the 21st century, to a point where we could aspire to the kind of culture that the Wendat had, where power is a fluid thing, and we’re not having to take ‘the power’ to govern and transfer it amongst people to get to, I guess, a more distributed democracy? Is that an aim that you can see being worth exploring?

Glen: Well, what I absolutely love about the Graeber and Wengrow book is that it stokes our imagination. My colleague Jaron Lanier, somewhat indelicately, but I think quite articulately put it, that it was a tremendous laxative for imagination on social organisation. And I think that we live in a very scaled and technologically sophisticated society, where we have affordances with information technology that allow us to configure things in ways we never could before. I think a big part of the reason that, as David Graeber in his previous book on debt, argued that we developed money in the first place was that it was very hard to do the rich social accounting that occurred in small scale societies across very large social distances. And I think that the reason it was hard to do that was that we had very primitive information technology at the time. So we used a very reductive thing of, you know, the number of tallies that you have on some sheet or the weight of some metal that you have, to carry across those distances. And maybe we just don’t have to do that anymore. Maybe network technology is a way to capture a lot more of the richness that exists in small scale societies, in a way that scales. Now, there are all kinds of dangers inherent in that, but I think that as much as we can and should take inspiration from Graeber and Wengrow, I think it would also be a huge mistake to not avail ourselves of the affordances that modern technology offers us to expand the way we do that accounting. Because otherwise we may find ourselves again trapped into trying to scale, using these very primitive tools that then reduce us back to these simplistic things like money.

Manda: Yeah, or we end up purely having Dunbar numbers of people, because that’s the number that you can actually manage, because we still do have our Palaeolithic emotions, and we haven’t quite upgraded those yet. That’s another conversation, but it seems to me you’re one of the few people I’ve ever met who could talk about how do we upgrade our own consciousness to match the capacity that technology is giving us? Let’s park that one for now, but let’s think about it for another time.

Glen: Yeah.

Manda: So, we want a governance system that enables everyone to flourish in a peaceful way that doesn’t create power hierarchies over, and particularly doesn’t create power hierarchies in binaries, where I don’t know, Brexit won by 1.8% and they got to destroy the world and then the Remainers would win next time by 1.8%, and they get to upset all the Brexiteers. And in the end, everybody hates everybody else. We want to create more emotionally literate forms of governance. I am guessing, also I read the book, that we want to create forms of governance that are more locally aligned, such that if there’s a problem with the sewage system near here, which is happening in the UK because they privatised the water system, and we want to take that back, we get to define how it works because we’re here. Whereas things that need to be done on a national level get done on a national level. There aren’t many of those, once you start to think about it. How do we structure this? I think we need to look at how do we move from one to the other later, but what would an ideal governance system for, let’s stay with the Hobbesian concept of nations at the moment: a geographic entity that claims the monopoly of power and violence within set boundaries. Let’s assume that the nation state is a nation state for a while. If we were to completely redesign a governance system, what would it begin to look like in the 21st century?

Glen: So the first thing I would challenge a little bit is the word ideal. I actually think that when we seek a utopia or an optimised system or a perfect state, we actually force ourselves into a tremendous amount of conservatism. And the reason is that no one ever has the courage to do something truly radical, if they think that they have to work everything out themselves and can’t be allowed to fail. Because when you have to just project what is starting from scratch, the best new thing, you’ll just take some version of what already exists and just recreate it. In fact, you said this precisely in your book; you said revolutions just take us back to where we started, right? So the way that actually are radical, I believe, is by being experimental. By understanding that whatever it is we do, at most we can hope to be good enough ancestors. A good enough ancestor is someone who tries to maximise the freedom of the next generation to define the future. And that requires that you not destroy the world, that you not undermine the capacities that are available, but it also requires that you not prescribe the world and set down the way that things are going to be, ideally, forever. It means that you seek to open the space for the future to continue iterating and defining itself. And of course, that’s how we approach technology. Like nobody says, let’s go design the ideal communication medium. I mean, that’s nonsense. Imagine if in the 1910’s people had said, let’s design the ideal communication medium; it would be like an optimised form of radio, and you would have completely precluded the possibility of television.

Manda: Or what we’re talking on now.

Glen: What we’re talking on now. Right, exactly. So instead I would say, what are some really interesting steps we might take and maybe fail in, that might give us a really different starting point that would empower the future to iterate further and improve further.

Manda: Okay. Go for it. What are they?

Glen: So let me give some thoughts on that. One is I love the idea of locality, and I would also encourage us to think in terms of pluri locality. So there is no one locality that we have. You are local perhaps to people who speak, I understand you speak some of the Celtic languages. So maybe you’re close to people who are connected in that way. Or perhaps you’re close to people who exist in a similar watershed to you. Or to people who steward a particular mountain range. And all of those are different because, of course, a mountain range is a point, you know, a river is a line or a curve. A language is spread out in all sorts of interesting different ways. And then we can go to other formations. There can be things related to carbon. There can be things related to historical power structures, like nations that have developed attachments which don’t necessarily line up with any of these other things perfectly either. There can be religious configurations which often cross all kinds of boundaries. So there are many forms of locality and they intersect with each other. And so I think we absolutely need to embrace locality, and we need to embrace locality with an understanding of the diversity that constitutes us.

Glen: Because I think that the way that we end up in these polarised, tribalized, constantly self-reinforcing things, is really comes from a spiritual thing. It comes from the challenge of dealing with our own complexity and the desire to not have to deal with our own complexity, and to instead have some notion that there is some set of people out there that shares enough with us that we can just sort of throw away the rest of the world and just be with those people and be in a safe space. And if we instead realise that we are all tremendously complex and that that’s just a spiritual struggle that we have to deal with, and also something that technology can help with us some, the defining challenge for us is dealing with that complexity. Then we get into a space of having systems that actually were citizens of many things, of many localities, and that that pluri locality becomes the foundation for us to have a governance system that is fit for purpose, because it fits the richness and diversity of ourselves and our politics.

Manda: And it upgrades us from the Palaeolithic emotions. Because if people follow what you just said, you can’t end up with one set of people whose basic principles demand another set of people not exist.

Glen: Exactly.

Manda: On on racial, gender, sexual orientation, any of those things that can’t happen, there has to be Ubuntu. I am because you are. And there has to be that sense of we’re all here doing our best, and our job is to let other people do their best, and their best does not involve telling anybody else how to behave within, presumably reasonably broad boundaries.

Glen: And it also puts us in a place where conflict doesn’t have to be the enemy, as long as conflict doesn’t constantly reinforce the same lines of division. The way I think about a society is very much like a quilt. If you think of a conflict as a stitch in the quilt, the problem is not stitches, quilts need stitches. The problem is, if all the stitches are in the same direction, the quilt will rip, right? But if the stitches constantly cross cut each other, then the quilt is strong. And that I think, is the model we need to have for design of social and governance technologies.

Manda: I think we’re moving ahead to how do we make this happen, but the people who currently own the power to control the weapons need to buy in to letting go of that power. But maybe they’ll do that if they can see that what we have is a system that could conceivably create a future that they might want to step into. Let’s have a little bit more of a look at the actual logistics of how we get there. Or not how we get there, but what what the structures might look like. We’ve got what Indra and Pat called Cosmo localism; you just defined it brilliantly. It’s lovely. Or even Primavera De Filippi and the concept of coordi-nations; that we can belong to our communities of place and of purpose and of passion and that these intersect, and that they can flow and our ideas can flow between them. Having got all of that, governance becomes something more than the transfer of power then. It becomes, I would imagine, aggregates of people who understand how water flows. Coming together, picking the best of the people who actually get how water flows, while the rest of the community defines we need our water to be clean, and we need it to flow downhill, and we need to have enough for the crops and for us, and we need not to be contaminating the sea. Make that happen.

Manda: Or we need to grow food. You guys are really good at growing food; let’s grow and distribute food, let’s organise that. That our existing governance systems, it seems to me, have emerged out of the trauma cultures of the Fertile Crescent mostly. I mean Rome; Rome imported the trauma culture to the UK, and it changed from being an incredibly fertile area to progressively less, and embodied a lot of very hierarchical structures very quickly. As we undo those and become more flexible, we head back to something more like what Graeber and Wengrow were describing as a possibility of the human birthright, as what Francis Waller would call an initiation culture. In your view, if we head towards that, and I am assuming it would take a number of iterations, that might be a goal, and it might not be an ideal goal. And it’s definitely not an end goal and it would be an emergent thing and three generations down the line if they want to emerge something different, that’s clearly up to them. But as we’re trying to midwife this into being, what kind of things could we do to the existing democratic structure? I am assuming that first of all everything needs to be peaceful. And second, it would be very unlikely that the existing democratic structure will all go, okay, guys, it’s not working, design us something new. We’re going to have to take the existing structure and tweak it from the inside until it’s somewhat more fit for purpose. Can you see steps on the way to that?

Glen: So let me start with metaphors and then turn to specific technologies, toolkits let me say. So I love what you said about water. I know you meant it for a different purpose, but I think it’s a very powerful way to think about things. When you talk about transfer of power, I think the image in your mind is I hold a stone and I hand it to someone else. It’s Earth, you know? Or maybe when it’s uncontrolled that it’s a fire, that it just rips across places. But another metaphor we can think about is water or air. Water flows. It doesn’t either transfer or, you know, burn. And air is, it’s ambient, it’s around us and when it encounters an obstacle, it actually accelerates around that obstacle rather than colliding with it. So let me try to give a toolkit of some concrete designs that maybe feel a little bit more like air or water and a little bit less like earth or fire. I’m going to give some very concrete designs now, just to move to the opposite extreme. So imagine that we had voting rules that privileged bridge building. So to be very, very concrete, imagine that you want to pass a bill in the House of Commons and if you have votes only from one side, you need a very large supermajority. But if you have equal amounts of votes from both sides, you need just a majority.

Glen: So that would create a completely different dynamic. You wouldn’t form a coalition at one point or have a government at one point; that would be self-defeating because you would quickly get yourself into a situation where you need so many votes to pass anything that you can’t get anything done. You would instead constantly be crossing the aisle. But even that is too simplistic of a way to think of it, because once you’re crossing the aisle all the time, well, then there becomes an incentive to just have two parties in name, but form these cross party coalitions and constantly reinforce those same cross party coalitions. So you can imagine an even more dynamic system where you’re kind of keeping track of what have the alliances been in the past? And anything that crosses whatever the alliances are, sort of gets upweighted relative to things that reinforce the existing patterns of allegiance. And if you had a system like that, again, very much like water flowing, there would be this constant need to look at what are the current patterns of division, what are the current alliances, and how can I bridge those alliances to do the next thing? And in that world, rather than getting yourself into the system where there’s like, you know, the blue and the red, I guess those are the colours you use, for opposite meanings from what we use in the US.

Manda: They’re just flipped the other way, but it doesn’t make much difference.

Glen: The blue with the red and the orange and whatever that are constantly retrenched. In fact, precisely the opposite dynamic is encouraged where nobody is a persistent ally, nobody is a persistent enemy. The rules of the game make it so that creating constant reinforced groupings undermines your ability to get anything done. Whereas constantly shifting them, whoever is able to see those cross-cutting things is the person who can gain power. You see what I mean?

Manda: I do. I don’t see how you get to that though. Let’s just stick with, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s your country or mine, at the moment you’ve got two tribes. People elect members of those tribes because they think they know what they’re going to do. Which, you know, then they change their minds; that’s a separate thing. How do you pick your selected representatives? But so you’ve got maybe in the end, five, six, seven different parties, of which two are quite big and the rest are all small. And let’s say somebody in one of the small parties goes, we want proportional representation, you guys all want first past the post. How does how does the weighting actually work?

Glen: Well okay. So first we can talk about how it actually works as an end state and then we can talk about how we get there. So how does it work as an end state? This is where things like quadratic voting come in. Quadratic voting is a system where people have votes they can allocate across different topics.

Manda: You need to unpack quadratic voting a little bit more than that because I have mentioned it once or twice, but people don’t really get it because I’m very bad at describing it.

Glen: Yeah. So I’m not going to get into mathematical details because I don’t think it’s really all that important, but basically it’s just everyone has a pool of votes that they can allocate, let’s say within a legislature on different bills, or for individuals who might be on referenda or candidates. But if you put all your votes on one thing, you get less additional votes than if you spread them across many topics.

Manda: It costs more to pile a lot of votes on one place than it does to spread them out, essentially, yes.

Glen: So it allows you to express how important things are to you, and at the same time it penalises being an extremist or a dogmatist or, you know, just focussed on one thing. Now, quadratic voting is individualistic; it gives individuals those credits to then spend on things. But you could imagine instead using that same logic for groupings. So you could imagine that the number of votes that are cast on an issue is the square root of the number of people within a particular party that vote on that issue. And so if you have equal votes across the two parties, then you just need a majority. But if it’s all within the same party, then you need a huge supermajority, because there’s a square root over the votes within that one party.

Manda: Hang on a second. So let me unpick this. If, for ease of the arithmetic, Labour has got 100 people, so the square root is ten. But there’s factions within Labour where one faction is let’s say nine people and the square root of nine is three. It’s not actually that different. So then the remainder of the square root of 81 would be nine. And my capacity to do arithmetic on the fly is about to fall over. What happens? How does it change when there’s factions within a party that want different things? How is it weighted? Is it still weighted on so Labour has got 100 people, so you’ve got ten votes and you have to decide how to split them up. Or does a faction get together and go, okay, we’re the AV faction or we’re the PR faction, we’re the liquid Democracy faction, and there are nine of us, so we have three votes. Is that how it would work?

Glen: I mean, look, I think all the sorts of questions you’re asking are great ones. And the answer is you could design it in a variety of ways. These these ideas that you take a faction and if they’re in a coherent faction, down weight it, and therefore you encourage cooperation across factions. That’s the basic conceptual framework and the mathematics you can use to do it. But then what you do with it precisely in any particular context is going to depend on who’s designing it and what the goals are. And I think that’s what’s powerful about this, which is that you don’t have to just say, oh, the United Kingdom from now on is going to use X system. Instead what you can say is the Labour Party is worried about factionalism within it, so it is going to define it in this particular way in order to get a more dynamic and solidaristic Labour Party. And the Conservative Party could do the same internal to them, and the Liberal Democrats could do it internal to them. And then once everyone sees, well, that’s working better and that’s making those parties more cohesive and doing better, well, then everyone becomes familiar with it and sees that it’s good for the parties, so why not hold a referendum on whether we shouldn’t have some system like that for the country as a whole? And it can grow out of the dynamics of the ways the parties have experimented with it.

Glen: So it doesn’t have to be a totalising ‘here’s the design for the future’; it can be this is a tool. You know, the same way that if some people start using word processing rather than just typewriters, and it works well and it’s more efficient and other people can use it and adapt it in their own ways. They don’t have to just implement the system of word processing. That’s nonsense. It’s a tool to be adapted by humans in their social contexts, with each other as a way of empowering them to accomplish their common goals. Not a system to be imposed by some designer on someone else.

Manda: Now that makes a lot of sense. So what we’re aiming for is exactly what you said with the quilt; we’re aiming for the cross stitching. We’re aiming to find the ways that we can give people the capacity to be more emotionally literate, I would say. Because if you talk to  certainly the politicians in this country, they don’t start off being the kind of people who inhabit the cesspit of Twitter at its worst, they start off being human beings who want to make things better, and the system constrains them to become more and more robotic and increasingly locked into a particular stance. So what we’re doing is giving them the capacity to engage their emotional literacy, by talking to other people and by forming alliances. Yes?

Glen: If we create a system where your incentive is, every time you meet someone to say, what is it that I share with you first? What can we accomplish together? And give them a sense that the more that that person is in a camp that I wouldn’t usually communicate with, the more that they’re a marginalised person from me, the more incentive I have to seek out those commonalities, right? Because that will give us power to do things together.

Manda: Okay. Yes. That makes a lot of sense. And this is what you define in the book as liquid democracy, am I right? Have I understood what you just said and what liquid democracy is?

Glen: Well, I mean, liquid democracy usually is meant as a particular system where you can transfer your votes to someone else and whatever. But this is more generally the principles of plural voting. Plural and liquid democracy could play a role in there, just as quadratic stuff plays a role in there, but what I’m trying to describe is illustrations of a bunch of tools, including liquid democracy, that can help us get to that world of peace making political systems.

Manda: Okay. Thank you. And it’s all in the book. I am reading the particular chapters on democracy many times at the moment, trying to mine them and get them into my head. Slowly, very slow head. Can we take a step back and look at how you and Audrey came to write the book? Because it seems that Taiwan is a place where this is happening. When I talk to people about this, often I get, yeah, but that’s not practical, we can’t do that here. And the narrative is that the current system is the best there is and there is no alternative. And democracy is the living example of the fact that there is an alternative and it works. So tell us just a little bit, just riff on how you met Audrey, what you’re doing, what’s happened in Taiwan and where you see that going?

Glen: So I met Audrey back in 2018 at the introduction of Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, someone who maybe you’ve talked about in some of your previous podcasts. And Audrey and I initially started just working together remotely, we started working on quadratic voting in Taiwan and so forth. But I had the opportunity to meet her in Germany, and ultimately meeting her and being with her and working with her changed my life more than any thing we did together, because she is someone who embodies this idea of being the water, in just how she is. And we can talk about designs and tools and so forth and those are all wonderful, that’s what I made my life around. You know, I was a professor of economics, and I’m a technologist, and I work at Microsoft some of the time and so that’s all great. But ultimately that way that she is changed who I am and really redefined the mission for my life. And that has ultimately been more important than any of the particular things we’ve worked on together.

Glen: Taiwan is a fascinating place. I think the simplest way to understand why it’s so fascinating is that it’s, at least according to the UN, the largest set of stateless people in the world. Because they’re 24 million people who live in a jurisdiction that the United Nations does not recognise, that is not able to participate internationally as a nation and where the people inside of the jurisdiction itself do not agree on what the jurisdiction is. They have a government right now that does not recognise the name of the country and does not recognise the flag that’s associated with that country. So that’s a set of people who, if they are going to succeed, if they are going to be prosperous, and they have in fact, of any jurisdiction of more than 10 million people, they have the highest median income. They’ve succeeded in the face of this tremendous existential plurality, ambiguity, disagreement, about what they are. They’re also the most second most religiously plural jurisdiction in the world.

Manda: What’s the first?

Glen: Singapore.

Manda: Okay.

Glen: And they are the only major developed jurisdiction where there’s actually been an increase in religious observance and spirituality in recent years rather than a decline. So it’s a tinderbox, and yet it’s a tremendously successful tinderbox. And so if you want to look for opportunity to make those things work better in the world, you got to go to the place where it really matters, where like the stakes are high and where people are really living with the challenges every day and struggling their way through them. And if they’ve managed to find a way through them, like that is where to look for innovation along these dimensions, you know.

Manda: This is probably an unanswerable question, but it seems to me that Audrey did not arise in a vacuum, and yet was absolutely central to a lot of the ways that they’ve managed to harness software in innovative social technologies. Would it be the place that it is without her, do you think? Were there enough people around her who might have got there alone? Or is she one of those people who genuinely changes the way the world is because they’re in the right place at the right time, with the right ideas?

Glen: I mean, my general concept of leadership comes back to this thing that I said before about the way that each of us has to embody complexity. And I don’t think one should think about leadership either as individual or collective. You have to think about the individual as being a microcosm for those conflicts between the collective. If you embody contradictions yourself, if you are torn apart by those contradictions and yet you survive, you become a laboratory, a shibboleth, you know, of the possible resolutions of those conflicts. I have some dear friends who are at their core, torn to pieces by what’s going on in Israel and Palestine. You know, people who have family who have been generals on one side of the war and yet also have family who are killed on the other side of the war. You can imagine just the trauma that that creates. And yet, if you’re able to survive that trauma and to somehow repair after it, you have a unique gift to give the world. And I think that’s very much what Audrey was. Audrey had a heart condition, which meant that if she ever experienced intense emotion, especially anger, before the age of 12, she had a 50% chance of dying and she was frequently hospitalised. And of course, it’s not like she’s the only person who’s ever had that heart condition, but many of those people die. Somehow she survived. And as a result of surviving, she has something to offer the world. A way of coping with those things. You know, a way of living on the edge of death and yet thriving there somehow. And similarly, her gender non-binary came out of that, because as a expected to be male, she was expected when she was bullied to defend herself, as I was expected as a child, to defend myself.

Manda: To fight back.

Glen: But I could do that. She, if she did, that would die. And so she had to find a way to not have that expectation. And that’s an important part of how she discovered her femininity. So I think that people who undergo struggles like this, if they’re able to make it through, have have a gift to offer other people. So I don’t think it’s that Audrey is this completely singular individual, it’s rather that she was the site for this set of social forces that came to play in Taiwan. And because she survived it, she brought something special to help Taiwan see through these terrible challenges that they face.

Manda: And now she’s stepped back a little bit from being the Minister for technology and can you tell us a little bit about where she’s moving into?

Glen: Well, she stepped down three and a half weeks ago now, maybe a little bit longer when this releases. And she did that because she felt that so much of what she had to give Taiwan had come to fruition and there was so much need in the world for the things that she had to offer. And that was the purpose of our book, of this film that we made about her life, and now of the role that was just announced yesterday as of this taping, she will be playing in helping to define an alternative future for social media through Project Liberty’s bid to turn TikTok into a consumer cooperative; ‘We Tok’ as we sometimes refer to it. And so my hope is that over the coming months, working together, she can help be a representative to the world in the jurisdictions that are feeling the most pain from conflict. Of what that possibility of a different social media, different democracy, harnessing the tools that they used in Taiwan could be like. And that’s why we’re so delighted to be talking to you all in the UK, a place that has seen many challenges and traumas with polarisation and conflict in recent years.

Manda: Yeah, yeah, we would struggle to find many nations in the world that haven’t seen polarisation and traumas. But yes, thank you. Alrighty, we’re nearly done and I need to let you go. But just very briefly, some of the things that you’ve done in your background before you came to Plurality are utterly remarkable. Can you tell us a little bit about radical exchange to begin with, and then the rest of what you’re doing within Microsoft? Because I find it really heartening that somebody like you is there, with the ideas that you have making things happen. It feels less as if we’re facing megaliths out there, whose sole job is to harness our attention or harvest our attention and weaponize it against us. You’re in there making change and making difference.

Glen: Yeah. So I, like Audrey, have been on many different sides of conflicts. I was a socialist campaigner, I was a founder of the Teenage Republican Organisation in the United States. I was a technocratic economist and involved in grassroots movements.

Manda: Can I just interrupt; something I heard you say, and I just want to verify this. You were starting as some young Republican, something in the hierarchy at the point when Ivanka Trump was leading the Democrats. Did I hear that right?

Glen: Yeah. So I was at an elite private school, you would call them an elite public school.

Manda: That’s okay. We know what you mean.

Glen: Yes. And I was the head of the Young Republicans at that school and then eventually in a nationwide capacity. And she was a few years ahead of me and the head of the Young Democrats at the time. So I’ve lived in these different communities, I feel what they feel, strongly. I’ve worked in the tech world and the business world. I was geopolitical advisor to the CTO of Microsoft for a period of time. So I know all these perspectives. I feel them, I know where they’re coming from. I know what those worlds are like and what they struggle with and I don’t see any of them as my enemy. I see them all as parts of myself to struggle with and to reconcile. Audrey calls herself a conservative anarchist and the way I make sense of that is I think that one form of an anarchist is someone who wants to abolish the state. And another form of an anarchist is one who thinks that the state is a fiction, and that what really exists out there is diverse networks of people trying to find a way to do things together with different wrappers put around that. And the state being one of those and Microsoft Corporation being another of those and so forth. And so that’s very much how I think about corporations. They’re systems with structures of incentives and meaning making and so forth.

Manda: And complex systems.

Glen: Yeah. And there’s no one thing that speaks for them, and they are not one thing. And so there are ways to create islands intersecting across these different organisations that can be quite powerful and agents of change. And that’s what we’ve tried to build, always intersectionally in all these different places. Radical Exchange is an organisation funded by primarily, though not exclusively, by a crypto billionaire, Vitalik Buterin, but also by a number of foundations, that works at the intersection of culture and crypto technology and politics. And Microsoft at this plural technology collaboratory, we’re a research group within a corporation interacting closely with a number of academic collaborators as well as with governments and so forth. So if you want to build anything new, I believe you cannot do it de novo, because if you do it completely de novo, if you do it in a position from nowhere, you actually end up replicating many of the worst elements of the system. What you actually have to do is stitch together existing things, each with their dysfunctions, and try to weave from those dysfunctions something more beautiful than what you started with. So that’s how I met peace spending time at Microsoft and spending time with governments and spending time in all these areas. As long as you know that you cannot start from nowhere and that you need to use existing systems, but that also if you just replicate those existing systems, you’ve accomplished nothing.

Manda: That’s so heartening, Glen. Honestly. Realising that you exist and that there is this level of deep thought that does stretch into organisations and businesses and politics and governance and that people are listening to you. And it must be such a breath of fresh air for someone who has found themselves locked into the binaries that our system creates, to have someone like you come along and go, you don’t need to; the binaries don’t need to be there. What happens if we let them go? I can imagine waking up in the morning feeling so much more liberated as a human being, as an emotional, energetic being, when that offer is being made by somebody…there can’t be so many people like you who have been on all the different sides of the aisle and then stepping back and going, guys, we don’t even need an aisle. Let’s let’s dream up something else. Do you find that response?

Glen: Or maybe we do need an aisle and we need to be on both sides of it at the same time. And that’s something that water can do, right. So one option is for there to be no aisle. Another is to be on one side. And a third is that there’s a river that runs between the two sides of the aisle, and it’s hard to say where the river begins and ends. Because any individual molecule of water is on one side of the aisle or another, and yet all the molecules of water are connected to each other. Audrey says that the easiest position is actually to be on all sides of a conflict, not on no side or on one side. And she says that she is non-binary, but not mostly on gender. She’s non-binary on politics, she’s non-binary on gender, she’s non-binary on these things, and she’s non-binary about being non-binary. So for her pronouns, she uses */*, which is a technical thing. So when you are saying you have a API, an application programming interface, and you have to ask what does it receive as inputs, you can put different formats of files, or you can put */*, which means can receive any format of file. And so that’s Audrey’s pronoun is */*.

Manda: Oh, I love it. I have to build that into the title somehow. Wow. Oh, gosh. Okay, so now I’m already riffing on the next book. That’s such a good idea. Glen, I need to let you go. That was fantastic. Is there anything else in this field? Because that feels like a really lovely way to end. But if there was anything else that you wanted to say, now is your time to say it.

Glen: Why don’t we just leave it there? I think that’s wonderful.

Manda: So thank you, Glen, for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. It’s been such a delight and an honour, and I look forward to seeing where */* takes us and Plurality. I will put links in the show notes because everybody needs to read it.

Glen: Thank you so much Manda.

Manda: So there we go. That’s it for this election special. Enormous thanks to Glen for all that he is and does. And for taking time out of an absolutely punishing schedule to talk to us. I would tell you all the places that Glen and Audrey are going to be in the next two weeks, but it would make your head spin and you’d probably get jet lag just thinking about it. I have put links in the show notes to the book. You absolutely want to read this book. It is life changing at the absolute deepest sense. I put links to the Plurality Institute, Radical Exchange Foundation, Plural Technology Collaboratory to where you can find Glen and Audrey on Twitter. I put a link to the trailer for a film biopic on Audrey, which is absolutely beautiful. It’s called the Good Enough Ancestor. You definitely want to watch that. And I’ve put a link back to episode number 193, where we talked about quadratic voting for the first time, where I really discovered what it was with Ruth Catlow, who created an app for quadratic voting on the blockchain. How cool is that? So this has been one of those episodes that opened up the boundaries of my thinking. It comes hard on the heels of my reading the book, and I genuinely think you’ll want to read the book after you’ve listened to this. It’s going to take me a while to process this, to internalise everything that we talked about, to think of ways that I can bring it into being. My ways are probably writing fiction. Your ways will be different. But if you look out at the world, look at the existing systems, think that they are absolutely not fit for purpose, then our job, you and me and anyone else we can bring along, is to think of how we can create the ways that are fit for purpose.

Manda: And I think that this podcast, the Plurality book, the film that will be coming out soon, the various other projects that Glen and Audrey are involved in; these are the foundations on which we can build. So there we go. Bring as many other people into this as you possibly can. There are tipping points, we just don’t know where they are. But we can work towards them with everything that we’ve got. So let’s go to it.

Manda: And that apart, our standard episode will be out shortly. In the meantime, huge thanks to Caro C for the music at the head and foot. To Alan Lowles of Airtight Studios for the production. To Anne Thomas for the transcripts. To Faith Tilleray for wrestling with all the tech behind the scenes and for all the conversations that keep us moving forward, it’s been quite a bumpy ride these last few weeks. Our conversations have seen us spin to opposite poles, but because we know we’re doing that, we can always come back to the centre. Thank you Faith. And thanks also to Lou Mayor for wrestling with the video. We might have actual live YouTube of this. And here last but very much not least, an enormous thanks to you for listening. If you weren’t there, we wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have the excuse to have truly mind opening conversations with people for whom I have such profound respect. So thank you for being there. If you know of anybody else who wants to shape a world that is fit for purpose, please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you in a couple of days. Thank you and goodbye.

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If the current electoral/governance system is not fit for purpose (and who could possibly imagine it was?) how can we lay the foundations for new ways of organising democracy, new ways of voting, new ideas of what governance is for and how it could work in the twenty-first century. How, in short, do we create space for future generations to be able to decide their own futures in ways that are not constrained by material or political strictures they’ve inherited from us?


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