Clay Shirky: How the Internet will (one day) transform government

Clay Shirky: How the Internet will (one day) transform government


Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast I want to talk to you today about something the open-source programming world can teach democracy, but before that, a little preamble. Let’s start here. This is Martha Payne. Martha’s a 9-year-old Scot who lives in the Council of Argyll and Bute. A couple months ago, Payne started a food blog called NeverSeconds, and she would take her camera with her every day to school to document her school lunches. Can you spot the vegetable? (Laughter) And, as sometimes happens, this blog acquired first dozens of readers, and then hundreds of readers, and then thousands of readers, as people tuned in to watch her rate her school lunches, including on my favorite category, “Pieces of hair found in food.” (Laughter) This was a zero day. That’s good. And then two weeks ago yesterday, she posted this. A post that read: “Goodbye.” And she said, “I’m very sorry to tell you this, but my head teacher pulled me out of class today and told me I’m not allowed to take pictures in the lunch room anymore. I really enjoyed doing this. Thank you for reading. Goodbye.” You can guess what happened next, right? (Laughter) The outrage was so swift, so voluminous, so unanimous, that the Council of Argyll and Bute reversed themselves the same day and said, “We would, we would never censor a nine-year-old.” (Laughter) Except, of course, this morning. (Laughter) And this brings up the question, what made them think they could get away with something like that? (Laughter) And the answer is, all of human history prior to now. (Laughter) So, what happens when a medium suddenly puts a lot of new ideas into circulation? Now, this isn’t just a contemporaneous question. This is something we’ve faced several times over the last few centuries. When the telegraph came along, it was clear that it was going to globalize the news industry. What would this lead to? Well, obviously, it would lead to world peace. The television, a medium that allowed us not just to hear but see, literally see, what was going on elsewhere in the world, what would this lead to? World peace. (Laughter) The telephone? You guessed it: world peace. Sorry for the spoiler alert, but no world peace. Not yet. Even the printing press, even the printing press was assumed to be a tool that was going to enforce Catholic intellectual hegemony across Europe. Instead, what we got was Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the Protestant Reformation, and, you know, the Thirty Years’ War. All right, so what all of these predictions of world peace got right is that when a lot of new ideas suddenly come into circulation, it changes society. What they got exactly wrong was what happens next. The more ideas there are in circulation, the more ideas there are for any individual to disagree with. More media always means more arguing. That’s what happens when the media’s space expands. And yet, when we look back on the printing press in the early years, we like what happened. We are a pro-printing press society. So how do we square those two things, that it leads to more arguing, but we think it was good? And the answer, I think, can be found in things like this. This is the cover of “Philosophical Transactions,” the first scientific journal ever published in English in the middle of the 1600s, and it was created by a group of people who had been calling themselves “The Invisible College,” a group of natural philosophers who only later would call themselves scientists, and they wanted to improve the way natural philosophers argued with each other, and they needed to do two things for this. They needed openness. They needed to create a norm which said, when you do an experiment, you have to publish not just your claims, but how you did the experiment. If you don’t tell us how you did it, we won’t trust you. But the other thing they needed was speed. They had to quickly synchronize what other natural philosophers knew. Otherwise, you couldn’t get the right kind of argument going. The printing press was clearly the right medium for this, but the book was the wrong tool. It was too slow. And so they invented the scientific journal as a way of synchronizing the argument across the community of natural scientists. The scientific revolution wasn’t created by the printing press. It was created by scientists, but it couldn’t have been created if they didn’t have a printing press as a tool. So what about us? What about our generation, and our media revolution, the Internet? Well, predictions of world peace? Check. (Laughter) More arguing? Gold star on that one. (Laughter) (Laughter) I mean, YouTube is just a gold mine. (Laughter) Better arguing? That’s the question. So I study social media, which means, to a first approximation, I watch people argue. And if I had to pick a group that I think is our Invisible College, is our generation’s collection of people trying to take these tools and to press it into service, not for more arguments, but for better arguments, I’d pick the open-source programmers. Programming is a three-way relationship between a programmer, some source code, and the computer it’s meant to run on, but computers are such famously inflexible interpreters of instructions that it’s extraordinarily difficult to write out a set of instructions that the computer knows how to execute, and that’s if one person is writing it. Once you get more than one person writing it, it’s very easy for any two programmers to overwrite each other’s work if they’re working on the same file, or to send incompatible instructions that simply causes the computer to choke, and this problem grows larger the more programmers are involved. To a first approximation, the problem of managing a large software project is the problem of keeping this social chaos at bay. Now, for decades there has been a canonical solution to this problem, which is to use something called a “version control system,” and a version control system does what is says on the tin. It provides a canonical copy of the software on a server somewhere. The only programmers who can change it are people who’ve specifically been given permission to access it, and they’re only allowed to access the sub-section of it that they have permission to change. And when people draw diagrams of version control systems, the diagrams always look something like this. All right. They look like org charts. And you don’t have to squint very hard to see the political ramifications of a system like this. This is feudalism: one owner, many workers. Now, that’s fine for the commercial software industry. It really is Microsoft’s Office. It’s Adobe’s Photoshop. The corporation owns the software. The programmers come and go. But there was one programmer who decided that this wasn’t the way to work. This is Linus Torvalds. Torvalds is the most famous open-source programmer, created Linux, obviously, and Torvalds looked at the way the open-source movement had been dealing with this problem. Open-source software, the core promise of the open-source license, is that everybody should have access to all the source code all the time, but of course, this creates the very threat of chaos you have to forestall in order to get anything working. So most open-source projects just held their noses and adopted the feudal management systems. But Torvalds said, “No, I’m not going to do that.” His point of view on this was very clear. When you adopt a tool, you also adopt the management philosophy embedded in that tool, and he wasn’t going to adopt anything that didn’t work the way the Linux community worked. And to give you a sense of how enormous a decision like this was, this is a map of the internal dependencies within Linux, within the Linux operating system, which sub-parts of the program rely on which other sub-parts to get going. This is a tremendously complicated process. This is a tremendously complicated program, and yet, for years, Torvalds ran this not with automated tools but out of his email box. People would literally mail him changes that they’d agreed on, and he would merge them by hand. And then, 15 years after looking at Linux and figuring out how the community worked, he said, “I think I know how to write a version control system for free people.” And he called it “Git.” Git is distributed version control. It has two big differences with traditional version control systems. The first is that it lives up to the philosophical promise of open-source. Everybody who works on a project has access to all of the source code all of the time. And when people draw diagrams of Git workflow, they use drawings that look like this. And you don’t have to understand what the circles and boxes and arrows mean to see that this is a far more complicated way of working than is supported by ordinary version control systems. But this is also the thing that brings the chaos back, and this is Git’s second big innovation. This is a screenshot from GitHub, the premier Git hosting service, and every time a programmer uses Git to make any important change at all, creating a new file, modifying an existing one, merging two files, Git creates this kind of signature. This long string of numbers and letters here is a unique identifier tied to every single change, but without any central coordination. Every Git system generates this number the same way, which means this is a signature tied directly and unforgeably to a particular change. This has the following effect: A programmer in Edinburgh and a programmer in Entebbe can both get the same — a copy of the same piece of software. Each of them can make changes and they can merge them after the fact even if they didn’t know of each other’s existence beforehand. This is cooperation without coordination. This is the big change. Now, I tell you all of this not to convince you that it’s great that open-source programmers now have a tool that supports their philosophical way of working, although I think that is great. I tell you all of this because of what I think it means for the way communities come together. Once Git allowed for cooperation without coordination, you start to see communities form that are enormously large and complex. This is a graph of the Ruby community. It’s an open-source programming language, and all of the interconnections between the people — this is now not a software graph, but a people graph, all of the interconnections among the people working on that project — and this doesn’t look like an org chart. This looks like a dis-org chart, and yet, out of this community, but using these tools, they can now create something together. So there are two good reasons to think that this kind of technique can be applied to democracies in general and in particular to the law. When you make the claim, in fact, that something on the Internet is going to be good for democracy, you often get this reaction. (Music) (Laughter) Which is, are you talking about the thing with the singing cats? Like, is that the thing you think is going to be good for society? To which I have to say, here’s the thing with the singing cats. That always happens. And I don’t just mean that always happens with the Internet, I mean that always happens with media, full stop. It did not take long after the rise of the commercial printing press before someone figured out that erotic novels were a good idea. (Laughter) You don’t have to have an economic incentive to sell books very long before someone says, “Hey, you know what I bet people would pay for?” (Laughter) It took people another 150 years to even think of the scientific journal, right? So — (Laughter) (Applause) So the harnessing by the Invisible College of the printing press to create the scientific journal was phenomenally important, but it didn’t happen big, and it didn’t happen quick, and it didn’t happen fast, so if you’re going to look for where the change is happening, you have to look on the margins. So, the law is also dependency-related. This is a graph of the U.S. Tax Code, and the dependencies of one law on other laws for the overall effect. So there’s that as a site for source code management. But there’s also the fact that law is another place where there are many opinions in circulation, but they need to be resolved to one canonical copy, and when you go onto GitHub, and you look around, there are millions and millions of projects, almost all of which are source code, but if you look around the edges, you can see people experimenting with the political ramifications of a system like that. Someone put up all the Wikileaked cables from the State Department, along with software used to interpret them, including my favorite use ever of the Cablegate cables, which is a tool for detecting naturally occurring haiku in State Department prose. (Laughter) Right. (Laughter) The New York Senate has put up something called Open Legislation, also hosting it on GitHub, again for all of the reasons of updating and fluidity. You can go and pick your Senator and then you can see a list of bills they have sponsored. Someone going by Divegeek has put up the Utah code, the laws of the state of Utah, and they’ve put it up there not just to distribute the code, but with the very interesting possibility that this could be used to further the development of legislation. Somebody put up a tool during the copyright debate last year in the Senate, saying, “It’s strange that Hollywood has more access to Canadian legislators than Canadian citizens do. Why don’t we use GitHub to show them what a citizen-developed bill might look like?” And it includes this very evocative screenshot. This is a called a “diff,” this thing on the right here. This shows you, for text that many people are editing, when a change was made, who made it, and what the change is. The stuff in red is the stuff that got deleted. The stuff in green is the stuff that got added. Programmers take this capability for granted. No democracy anywhere in the world offers this feature to its citizens for either legislation or for budgets, even though those are the things done with our consent and with our money. Now, I would love to tell you that the fact that the open-source programmers have worked out a collaborative method that is large scale, distributed, cheap, and in sync with the ideals of democracy, I would love to tell you that because those tools are in place, the innovation is inevitable. But it’s not. Part of the problem, of course, is just a lack of information. Somebody put a question up on Quora saying, “Why is it that lawmakers don’t use distributed version control?” This, graphically, was the answer. (Laughter) (Laughter) (Applause) And that is indeed part of the problem, but only part. The bigger problem, of course, is power. The people experimenting with participation don’t have legislative power, and the people who have legislative power are not experimenting with participation. They are experimenting with openness. There’s no democracy worth the name that doesn’t have a transparency move, but transparency is openness in only one direction, and being given a dashboard without a steering wheel has never been the core promise a democracy makes to its citizens. So consider this. The thing that got Martha Payne’s opinions out into the public was a piece of technology, but the thing that kept them there was political will. It was the expectation of the citizens that she would not be censored. That’s now the state we’re in with these collaboration tools. We have them. We’ve seen them. They work. Can we use them? Can we apply the techniques that worked here to this? T.S. Eliot once said, “One of the most momentous things that can happen to a culture is that they acquire a new form of prose.” I think that’s wrong, but — (Laughter) I think it’s right for argumentation. Right? A momentous thing that can happen to a culture is they can acquire a new style of arguing: trial by jury, voting, peer review, now this. Right? A new form of arguing has been invented in our lifetimes, in the last decade, in fact. It’s large, it’s distributed, it’s low-cost, and it’s compatible with the ideals of democracy. The question for us now is, are we going to let the programmers keep it to themselves? Or are we going to try and take it and press it into service for society at large? Thank you for listening. (Applause) (Applause) Thank you. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Clay Shirky: How the Internet will (one day) transform government

  1. Yes, very nicely put, much clearer than what I wrote! 🙂
    I've also been thinking some more about merge issues, maybe in the long run political parties will separately develop more or less incompatible branches, which the voters then would vote on to decide what branch to use… but that is just speculations…

  2. Thanks 🙂

    Something else to think about are the legal ramifications of legislation change – something that isn't considered during code development or writing wiki pages.
    What happens if a law changes – would there be retrospective 'fixing' where people would be freed if in prison as a result of falling foul of that law? What happens if the change goes the other way, or is reverted?
    Also, would there be a form of automated testing following changes? That's another handy code dev process.

  3. (1) Git societies are still feudal. One editor taking updates from trusted subeditors.
    (2a) Get wiggle room, for own edits, whilst still connected to the main pool.
    (2b) Choice of conform, or publish yourself.
    (2c) earlier, experimental, draft
    (3) Individuals do 'get the hump' and fork off
    (4a) With a political arena, what is the product?
    (4b) If too bulky, it gets unreadable, lots of stray asides.
    (4c) need = (opinionated) review and collation. Competing sources of remarks are available.

  4. Don't know why, but I'm still angry at that school for not encouraging that little girl in her project. What were they afraid of?

  5. Programs and morality are different things, one is highly subjective and one if highly objective. I have a hard time believing that they can be approached and resolved, to some degree, in the same fashion. Democracy has arguably up until recently been driven by elites. Whether this model is best is unknown but it certainly is the model in the scientific world. Imagine putting peer review up to the people en mass. Joe six pack might not be the best blind reviewer for Science or Nature. Great talk

  6. I think the real question we need to ask ourselves is; Do we even need a bunch of laws?

    I think an open source society would flourish if we only had 1 law: Nobody can initiate force/violence on someone else or someone's property. Period.

    Once that basic law is understood, there's no real need for any other laws.

    If you guys want to know more, Google "Voluntary society" or "Libertarian society"

  7. Read the Federalist Papers n.10 and you will see that the Founding Fathers thought about that and they hated it. It is called pure democracy, basically in a system like that 51% would take all the property and rights of the other 49%. The USA is a republic, you can't decide unalienable right on a ballot.

  8. again retarded audio… dead quiet during the clip and the open and close is so loud i'l sueing for hearing loss. TED FAIL… come one audio guys… get with it.

  9. There's a fair number of libertarians who consider themselves anarcho-capitalists. However, talking about these things usually results in people talking past each other, because they accept different semantic definitions.

  10. Do a little bit of reading. Anarcho-capitalism is a libertarian political persuasion. Personally, I think the name belies its actual meaning, because, again, most people have their own highly charged notion of the semantic definition of "anarchism", as evidenced by your response.

  11. How optimistic! I was expecting just 'Fixed' and 'Fixes' 🙂

    I can imagine asking the MP's name that's alongside the change later what it meant and them responding, "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time."

  12. It was in the news lately ( /. ) that the French Prime Minister has requested that open source be used whenever possible. Can we get this video translated or subtitled into French and inform the French government?

  13. oh great, socialism is all fine and dandy when it serves the white collar 'creative class', but when you suggest the same solutions for the real productive working class, or the dispossessed and colonized people of the third world — ideologically reduced to the bare and 'primitive' life of 'inter-tribal' conflict and 'religious warfare' — that really supply us with the material resources and labour that make information technology possible (i,e. the congo and cobalt), the yuppies cringe.

  14. The only problem is? No one would know the law. It would always change… how could any one have a clue what the law was if ten minutes later the law had changes again. No one would have a clue what was the law. How would you know. Some one could change the law to piss in public you get ten pounds… and it would be a law they could cite it and get paid. I just don't see how this would work?

    The only way it would work is on decisions to change laws. Put a law up for change everyone had a say.

  15. A better question I guess I am asking is where could this system be used in democracy because you can't have laws changing all the time it would be to chaotic.

    Where in democracy could this be used?

  16. I think he was talking about the formation of the law, not changing it after. Instead of bills being written by lobbyists, they could be formed by actual citizens instead.
    I wouldn't be surprised if Iceland is already doing this, they seem to be the most democratic country.

  17. I don't see what 'openness' has to do with being a democracy. While not totally mutually exclusive (as the people should know the gist of what the government is undertaking), don't forget that an open government has very little benefit for us and naturally gives our enemies access to our information. THAT'S why governments should be scared of WikiLeaks (and similar communities) — because of the danger it can cause to a nation's security.

  18. But surely as a planet, our aim should be towards total transparency! If all governments were to be more open and transparent then the US for example would not have to spend $600 billion on it's annual military budget. Imagine if instead that money was put towards say NASA research (currently has a 17.8billion budget)…As a race, we could stop fighting and could explore space together in peace! Github FTW!

  19. crowdsourcing government = tyranny of the majority

    I like crowdsourcing and crowdfunding and have contributed to Kickstarter projects myself. But the State? Are you kidding me? The fucking State? Here's the big difference: voluntarism vs coercion

    Let's ask backers of such an idea: how about if we crowdsourced legislation only apply to the backers who participate?

  20. Except you don't have to merge. You're thinking of the state. But it's possible to do away with forced centralization, a dynamic system of philes, like forks or independent branches that may cooperate w/each other w/out forced merges of all. So we can have a system that works that way too (free market in law/courts/security) We *already* have that today among private ppl, with different rules with each org/work/home and contracts among ppl. Such system has existed in past (Iceland/Ireland/etc)

  21. So, are we in agreement that 'someone' has to merge? I'm not saying who that someone is, just that it is necessary to produce a definitive version for future reference.

    If not I can't see how it would work. What's the point in taking a copy of the original if you don't plan to merge your changes back at some stage? You're proposing a local version with local rule? How local are we talking, per household? Per individual? Who decides what is allowed in a local version? Every home a nation?

  22. Problem: Programmers know how to write code, but the average citizen doesn't know shit about law, economics, history, or public policy. This sounds like the perfect storm for creating a well-intentioned but completely ineffective legal system.

  23. Experimentation in pursuit of a more perfect union is Democracy. Some pure aspects of these concept may be ineffective, but minimize that ineffectiveness with checks and balances or review and you may be able to create something better. aka Mob rule is crap democracy, divided powers & representative democracy is much better. Other aspects may result in great benefit without significant modification. Is there a downside to version control of bills/laws to track who made what changes? experiment!

  24. Is there some kind of discussion integrated with github? I mean, who is deciding what's gonna make it into the master and what's not? I know git, but I never participated any bigger project, so I don't quite know how it's done.

  25. There is good sentiment here but the specifics are bullshit. I've never heard of github but I do know code and there is no system that can integrate the work of 2 uncoordinated programmers let alone many. if you have code chunks with well defined interfaces that can't be changed then sure the nix sheep can do trivial changes to their software but for anything substantial then of course it doesn't work. and that's coders with similar philosophy.
    so nascar fans can edit environmental law? right

  26. the fundamental problem with humanity is not the lack of some democratic computer system. it's the lack of good will. once you have good will in the people, an appreciation of reason, then the systems will form trivially. there is no computer system that can solve the human lack of good will.
    we are the problem and I say we only as a matter of form. you are the problem

  27. but that said, yes the internet will most certainly change the world including government. some kind of mass participation organization could be possible, even in our current unwise state.
    maybe some kind of truth propositions could be put forward and others could sort of vote on the veracity of the premise. some process that has a good chance of fact checking it. so when satanic oil companies put forward that a hummer is more environmentally friendly than a prius it would be slaughtered

  28. Fair argument. I really do think Shirky presents a well formulated argument that strongly supports his thesis. However, as you mention, the lack of specificity concerning how GIT actually works definitely sheds some light on some major flaws.

    What's even more amazing is the fact that in a matter of minutes he actually had me convinced that GIT was going to save the world in the next couple of years! He is definitely a great and charismatics speaker.

  29. I hear what you are saying. I think the problem here is that the context is TED and there is expectation of the profound. Plus you have, like I, an idealism about the world that you would like to see realized, so you want it to be good. But it isn't quite. Good sentiment but doesn't seem to match reality. That said however, just like wikipedia sort of works way above the quality of mankind, it's possible some democratization some day can work a bit like he suggests.
    The key element is good will.

  30. i think you're wrong. nothing grows without oppurtunity, not even the good will. "democratic computer system" is the opportunity

  31. With the blatant corruption in North American politics, I'd say this talk is coming at its most necessary time. The revolving door of no-bid contractors and wall street pups with the State department has been going on for years. He's right, the MPAA has more access to my legal rights than I do (I live in Canada and they already have companies spying on us and recording our IP addresses in case of "infringement.") The key will be synergy between social media and open-source.

  32. I can understand collective programming because of the sheer manpower involved on creating software for free could be accomplished this way but writing laws does not require thousands of man hours on a tight budget, it requires extremely intelligent, ethical and logical minds of a few to create, that can be voted on by the masses

  33. Just read they can but not far developed yet…
    Seems like programmers dont want to put themselves out of work

  34. When will computers be able to program? seems like that is what they were built for. Give them an idea of what you want and they write up the best solution…

  35. I respect his efforts in SOPA etc. There is good reason why government does not keep pace with technology. The instant, sometimes disinhibited, views of a random person (or programmer) need to be evaluated. Please don't make it seem the printing press (of course he's only referring to the first "European" press) started by printing hedonistic material (12:56). Ever heard of the Gutenberg bible? It helps his point so run with it. Imagine the applications of this. Scary.

  36. No technology can achieve world peace. That can only be achieved through a global culture of empathy and respect.

  37. Merging the Open Source Community's methods (GitHub) with making and managing laws… very interesting combination suggested by Clary Shirky!

  38. Aka how government will influence people. Isn't that what this is about? Complete destruction and control of the masses! Wake up sheep!

  39. Clay Shirky is a brilliant presenter, but making democracy more efficient will not help us much, if we still have "representatives" who do not represent us, who steal our money, get us into debt, then start wars. Real freedom is consensual government at the local level. To achieve that, the agenda must be simplified by eliminating most central legislation and decentralizing power. We will also need minimal global laws to end warfare, too. That really will be a job for Open Source techniques.

  40. "When you adopt a tool you also adopt the embedded management philosophy within that tool" – Priceless and on point. Ever used an ERP? 🙂

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