Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Swarming versus Voting

I may have discovered a good example of countervoting. I use the word "countervoting" to describe any activity that strengthens persons' willingness or ability to interact voluntarily, or to notice the coercive aspect of ordinary experience, as opposed to voting, which desensitizes us to coercion by inviting us to participate. Whether or not you accept the idea that voting reinforces beliefs in the legitimacy of arbitrary authority, any activity that does the reverse, that strengthens persons' understanding of how to achieve beneficial social change through voluntary cooperation, deserves promotion. So here I go, promoting.
Ironically, I found this idea in a book about the founding of a new political party, the Swedish pirate party. The founder of the pirate party, Rick Falkvinge, has published a book in which he explains the methods and principles that he used to organize volunteers on the Internet for this purpose. He titled it Swarmwise. (It was released under a Creative Commons license, so it is legal for you to pirate it!) Yes, the pirate party used a swarm to bootstrap itself into the Swedish and European legislatures. I find it ironic that they used a swarm, which depends on voluntary cooperation, to gain power within coercive institutions.
Falkvinge sees his swarm as a hybrid of traditional hierarchical organizations (slow, expensive, boring) and pure networks like Anonymous or Occupy Wall Street (unfocused, limited to small groups working on small, temporary projects). Falkvinge wanted to add leadership, yet keep the spontaneous, self-organizing aspect of leaderless Internet phenomena, ending up with something like an open source software project. A small hierarchical group at the core works to support the swarming volunteers, who just pick something off a list and do it as they please. The leader starts the swarm, establishing the goal, the culture, and values (probably also "the face" for old media), and keeps everyone focused on the objective. The core group makes sure that resources and infrastructure are available, and the swarm does the rest. Ideally, the goal inspires, motivates, and focuses the swarm's creativity and generosity. Everyone trusts each other, experienced swarmers help out newbies, and the core group supports the activism.
Falkvinge admits that his approach also has vulnerabilities and limitations. The swarm herder cannot control the brand or messages of the swarm, cannot hire or fire for the most part, and so must lead by inspiration. He suggests that a leader "focus [...] on what everybody can do, and never what people cannot do or must do." The leader announces "I am going to do X, because I think it will accomplish Y. Anybody who wants to join me in doing X is more than welcome." Some weaknesses become strengths: duplication of effort and mistakes provide material for learning what works, and the swarm learns as it does. Extreme transparency is almost required, but helps to reduce conflict, maintain trust, control rumors and limit creation of factions. The author hands out many interesting ideas, not all of which seem easy to implement or fully explained and illustrated.
Based on Falkvinge's ideas about encouraging swarms, here is a list of ways to sabotage a swarm:
Change or debate the goal.
Create lots of paperwork, bureaucracy, and procedures.
Collect lots of information about volunteers.
Make people ask for permission.
Allow working groups to get too large and break into factions.
Discourage fun. Make it dull.
Worry if you get criticized by outsiders.
Criticize mistakes instead of learning from them.
This may sound collectivist to you, or make you think of Harry Browne's "group trap." It just sounds like individuals cooperating to pursue a shared value to me. Entrepreneurs need customers, is that a group trap?
Back to the irony. If Falkvinge can inspire large numbers of Internet volunteers to hand out handbills, hang posters, recruit new members, attend rallies, etc., all to elect a few members to a legislature where they play tug of war with other politicians, why not inspire them to do something useful and lasting? Once people have empowered themselves with these techniques, won't ordinary politics seem awfully useless and dull?

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