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The Internet, collective decision-making, and peer democracy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
30th November 2013


In a small group , we can easily share all relevant information , and thus move towards greater equity decision . But in a large organization , it was impossible and unimaginable until now.

From the author of the French book, Horizontal Hope:

“When Gutenberg invented the printing press the deployment of knowledge outside of the clergy and nobility quickly caused problems in the institutions of the feudal system; the decline of feudalism significantly expanded science and the university, and radically changed the world and its operations to lead us to the industrial era.

In general, our communication tools are levers that can radically change the way we work, encouraging us to deploy more “collective intelligence”.

Similarly, the internet today has produced a “crisis of conscience” about the reality of political decisions and help in the deployment of a new world of open – source , collaborative company management, participatory media, the 15M movement, Occupy Wall Street, leading to new kinds of revolts as in Tunisia and Egypt.

Although the internet is not going to solve all our problems by itself, such a tool will necessarily involve a major change in our society. One can even argue that it will allow us to establish a way of life more “human” and more equitable among all.

Unfortunately, the overall vision of what can make a tool such as the internet is often limited to a simple appeal to the “democratic” , where in reality it is our democratic vision that will revolutionize the internet. For the internet offers us the ability to share real- time information with everyone else. Among specialists in collective intelligence, we speak of ” holopticism.” Schematically holopticism is the ability for all members of an organization to collect in real-time everything that is going on. This is key when you understand how information is vital in order to participate equally in a decision.

Understanding collective decisions and synergy

Some have claimed that there is a natural selfishness in humankind and a need for leaders. Nonetheless, monarchies and republics, even with their leaders, have not yet, with few exceptions, avoided crises , revolutions and chaos.

Paradoxically, the greatest remedy to this selfishness was found in the collective decision-making . The idea of ??popular power is not a Greek invention, it is found to the origins of the human species : for example, even prehistoric tribes of hunter gatherers followed collective decision-making, and did not have a hierarchical structure.

Similarly, in nature, among dolphins , for example, one finds ways of living without hierarchy, where leadership changes from one individual to another at any time , and where individual freedom is extraordinary despite a strong spirit.

In humans, the method of decision-making that seems most prevalent historically is not dictatorship, nor a majority vote, nor “anarchy.”

This is a decision that involves a form of unanimity in the group, as evidenced by the exciting work of our ethnologists.

From “the apparent consensus decision” by Philippe Urfalino .

The Navajo do not have the concept of representative government. They are used to deciding any issue in meetings of all concerned … Traditionally, they make a decision after having discussed until consensus is met, or until the opposition concedes that it is impractical to continue.

This way of taking collective decisions, described in 1946 by Clyde and Dorothea Kluckhon Leughton for Navajo Indians, seems to have been the most widespread form of social organization.

The presence on all continents of this mode of decision-making sometimes described as “consensus”, sometimes as “unanimous” is evidenced by the work of anthropologists and historians. This is the only mode decision found among hunter-gatherer societies ( Baechler [1994 ] Silberbauer [1982] ) and was also the only legitimate form of collective decision in village communities in Kabylia (Mahé [2000] ) and in Black Africa ( Abeles [2003 ] Terray [1988] ) and Asia ( Popkin [1979] , Smith [1959] ).

European village communities of the Middle Ages also used deliberative assemblies, concluding their decisions without a vote, particularly in central and northern Europe: Otto Gierke ( Cited by Dumont [1983], p 99) noted the prevalence of unanimity for Germanic Europe. The Assembly of heads of clans Iceland, Althing, probably worked the same way (Byock [2001]). Consensus still prevailed in the decisions in some Scandinavian villages [as recently as thirty or fifty years ago?] (Yngvesson [1978] for Sweden, Barnes [1954] for Norway).

When we point out these examples, our interlocutor often stops us immediately: “You speak of prehistoric tribes? You mean to say that we should engage in direct democracy? These modes of operations also saw tribal wars, plus they were in small groups and on a large scale this organization is impossible. It is already hard to hear in a small group , and then how to decide unanimously on the scale of a country? Anyway, they had the same problems as us, etc. “

It is then necessary to establish simple elements:

- No, we’re not talking about direct democracy as commonly understood, but a more complex form of organization that includes other ways of deciding sets.

- These are recent discoveries, and few are those who know exactly what decision-making process were used to achieve unanimity, let alone their exact mechanisms.

- Similar processes are used today in many commission of experts, assembly of eminent persons, or the Italian Constitutional Court , because we consider that it is the most effective methods to get the best decision.

- In addition, we know exactly why these modes of natural organizations are not found in large numbers?

Their mechanisms are generally misunderstood. They reside in both the means for sharing information in the time allocated to adaptation decisions, but also in the differentiation between the general consensus view, and that of consent.

We can represent the difference thus: one is a case of “everyone says yes,” and the other “no one says no.”

Let us dwell for a moment on this important concept. The consensus decision involves equality: it is the principle 1 vote = 1 vote. This is the method we use today in our Western democracies seeking what is called a majority consensus (51% of votes). This is a binary pattern of “for” or “against.” It is an aggregation of individual preferences, a bit silly without allowing for differences in strength of preference or conviction.

Sometimes we have simple preferences, while at other times, we are strongly opposed to a proposal as presented, or one of its implications.

Consent will generally involve consideration for the requirements to the decision: decisions will be made through firm opinion and reasoned objections will face priority over simple preferences. In trying to resolve these conditions, the final decisions will satisfy a much larger number of participants, and will also be better. It is also the only known way to successfully achieve unanimity

For example, if we are three friends and we must choose between two containers of ice cream, if two of us prefer vanilla but the third is allergic, we will choose other so that everyone can eat. The firm argued objection will carry more weight than the aggregate preferences.

Understanding these natural phenomena is now a key to better decide as a group. However, they have two main limitations: the need to communicate effectively and the time required to make decisions.

Do we know exactly why these modes of organizations that seem so natural are not found in large numbers? With our current democracies, it is assumed that everyone has or can participate in decisions as if they were equal to everyone else!

This is a big mistake. Imagine a chess game where your opponent could see the whole board, and on your side, you can see only a part. Even if you have an incredible intelligence, and are more talented than him, you will definitely lose this game: you cannot effectively analyze the best move to play because you do not see all the parts of the board.

The need to have enough useful information related to a decision is the first thing that pushed humanity to function in pyramidal structures, i.e , with a hierarchy, a leader who decides what is best for us. With the growth of major cities it became impossible for every member of our community to have sufficient knowledge of what was happening. In order to make a decision within a large organization, one needs enough general information. And the only way to allow someone to have this information is through the “centralization of information”: information passes to a higher level, and this in turn does the same, until the information arrives at the “head” of the organization, which has privileged access .

It’s called the panopticon: schematically, if you’re at the bottom of a mountain, you can see a small shrub near you but not what there is on the other side of the mountain. If you are at the top of the mountain, you will see the entirety of the mountain, but not the details.

You know more than the boss about what is happening in your business, but you know less than he or she does concerning what happens in other sectors.

Thus, we understand the concept of “information field” is an essential element for making good decisions, and that, without any skill. By virtue of having more information, you can make a better decision whatever your intelligence, your experience or your talent on the subject.

In a small group , we can easily share all relevant information , and thus move towards greater equity decision . But in a large organization , it was impossible and unimaginable until now.

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