Democracy With Unit Tests

I don’t listen to every episode of Freakonomics – it’s so chirpy – but Regulate This, on the disruptive approaches of tech firms monetizing underused resources owned by individuals, was excellent. It pulled together a number of different threads about innovation, regulation and consumer protection, to the point where a friend of mine was prompted to ask ”Does this presage the end of the regulationist government that has grown so steadily to protect us from any old thing?” … with all the good and bad that might imply.

So I don’t have a crystal ball, but this is an interesting swirl of forces. The basic problem with state regulation of this sort at the moment is it doesn’t scale down. It can deal with a taxi company but not renting out your back seat. It can face off against a hotel chain but not a spare room.

You also have two generations of bureaucracy and information technology facing off against each other. You have a Max Weber nineteenth century Prussian bureaucratic form of technology and organization, adapted through 20th century American progressivism, then dealing with a set of technologies and practices where a lot less of the machine is made of people, but instead code. Its a fight between two bureaucratic social elites with different traditions and texts and that is where much of the nastiness comes from.

Eg, the culture clash in the US Healthcare website rewrite … but also Nate Silver, also both Obama presidential campaigns and their use of big data and social network analysis.

Plus you have dynamics of actual consumer protection and consumer empowerment. The back seats of those cars in LA really are going to waste. My guess is for a while – like a decade or two – big government really won’t be able to deal with this sort of distribution. Big Government is the nearest shorthand for 20th century high modernist bureaucracy, that depends on lots of command and control and economies of scale. It just can’t scale down or move fast enough when put head to head with Internet-era tech. I imagine mostly an environment of benign neglect, but with horrible weird cases like suddenly living next to a popup brothel, which you can’t get the police interested in because everyone is renting out rooms on airbnb nowadays.

It was very interesting to me that New York and Chicago were big sites of regulatory pushback. They are both huge rich cities, with a lot of metro transport infrastructure, subways, buses and hotels. They have the population density economies of scale to make transport cheap already, even taxis. Whereas in, say, Brisbane, the trains cost an absolute fortune, and the taxis are basically non-existent outside of a very small square in the centre of town. Lift or Uber has a much bigger opportunity in Brisbane – or Phoenix, or Atlanta – because of the lack of competing infrastructure.

I think probably government will learn to adapt and use the new techs effectively, for better and worse, and will learn to scale down, so you can pay your 5% hotel room tax by smartphone for the three times a year you rent out your spare room. At its nicest it will look like GOV.UK, at its worst it will look like the CIA’s PRISM, and the latter will probably data mine the crap out of the former.

What about democracy and due process? There is a risk that in the rush to monetize every spare bit of capacity in our existing infrastructure, and routing around an elephantine bureaucracy with regulators that get new grads for a few years before they jump into the industries they were regulating, we screw up good processes of review and consultation just because they are slow. To me the only way around that doesn’t involve ignoring the tech is to exploit the legibility of software itself. Our regulations are code now. Well the regulations are public knowledge, right – why not the code? GOV.UK is on github (publicly hosted source control). Why not most civic infrastructure? Why not submit a patch for the local traffic light not leaving enough time for pedestrians, and argue about it in an issue system with your neighbours and the civil engineers looking after traffic design in that part of the city? It’s democracy with unit tests.

There are utopian extensions of this approach imagining using open software social and technical structures to reinvent corporations and government. One vision from Jessica Margolin and Jamais Cascio is to retool global business for resilience. The Jetpack Communist version is Terranova’s Red Stack Attack!: Algorithms of Capital and the Automation of the Common. Another vision might be using a structure like the W3C to fix climate change. I am drawn to these without being able to reconcile how they might live in the same world as gunboat diplomacy and social terror franchises like ISIS. There are visions in there, and a theory, and a kind of prototype, but not really a platform, yet.

Safer To Jaywalk

This T-intersection is near my local metro station. I use it all the time.


It has a full set of traffic lights, and a signaled pedestrian crossing with a backwards counter displaying how many seconds left before the green WALK signal switches to STOP. The timer is thirty seconds, which is sufficient for a fully mobile adult, but doesn’t leave much time for dilly-dallying for children or anyone less sprightly, for whichever reason.

The main road is three busy lanes in each direction. The side roads are single lane. Traffic turning right from the single lane has a green light and has to give way to pedestrians. The timers on the north and south lanes’ traffic lights are offset, such that the south lane red light signals a good ten seconds before the north lane. Logically enough, the pedestrian crossing only signals when red lights stop car traffic in both lanes of the main road.

The upshot of all this is that when crossing from north to south, you might want to walk briskly, but there is no particular overlap between cars and people. However, when crossing from south to north, the timing is such that cars and trucks always have to stop a second time for pedestrians. The drivers are, in the most part, polite, but you depend to an uncomfortable extent on their knowing the give way rule. There is no continuous line of sight from pedestrian to car, as the car comes from the back left. There is no continuous line of sight from driver to pedestrian, as it is coming around a corner.

There is a pedestrian bridge, but it is a hundred metres away and adds a few minutes to the journey. Without arguing the psychology of it in detail, people will prefer the fastest way. The bridge is also only accessible by stairs.

The safest way to cross this road from the south is to jaywalk to the traffic island after the southern lane traffic light has turned red, then cross the north lane under the green man signal, before the cars have reached the pedestrian crossing.

This is not a problem that enrages me, but it does scare me, just a little, and it nags at the design-aware part of my brain. Breaking a good, established, law, like the traffic code, bugs me. How do I teach that rule to little people? Surely it’s not right that strangers to the area are put at more risk. Etc. The solution I’d suggest would be to block the right turn for the side street entirely.

There is a U-turn lane near lights a few hundred metres along the main road. The trucks may have to go further up. Another solution would be to extend the timer for the side road red light without changing any other timings, meaning pedestrians have a better chance of crossing before competing directly with traffic.

Now, there are mechanisms for changing this, but they are pretty crude and imprecise. I’m sure there’s a smart civil engineer working for the roads department who could tweak this design to make it better, and maybe point out where my suggestions make well-meaning amateurish errors. I could write a letter to the department, or to an MP, but that is the prioritisation and lobbying end of the problem. There are probably more obviously urgent things to deal with, though this one does have a safety aspect, and a subtle one to explain. It also ends up in a big slush pile of email feedback. Imprecise.

One of the things that makes me sympathetic to the Tim O’Reilly – Daniel Lathrop government as a platform approach is moments like this. If this intersection were a piece of open source software, I could lodge a detailed, public bug report, have it commented on by other users, or even contribute a patch. Some local governments have started to take a genuine crack at this – eg you can raise a pothole bug in Cambridgeshire and at another level of openness and sophistication, the GOV.UK project so embraced an innovative, collaborative spirit, they put all the code on GitHub. This still falls short of what feels right here – a patch for the Civic Infranet of Things.

That is the spirit I think small scale, town hall democracy can have, but for it to scale to a metropolis, some different techs and processes are needed. (Contrary to some critics, this is not inherently an agenda for defunding government or “depoliticising” policy.) Bug reports, their priorities and solutions can be intensely political, and that is a good, human thing. Its localness and specifity keeps a human scale; it changes the texture of civic engagement. Maybe that doesn’t address grand national problems directly. It doesn’t fix collapsed party memberships or dismantle the security-panic-apathy complex. Yet wanting to collaborate in a focused, open way, with the guidance of domain experts: that is a model of responsible, informed self-government.

When I run home I take the bridge.

The city and the city only, owing to these refinements, can never be served openly and without disguise; he who does serve it openly being always suspected of serving himself in some secret way in return.
— Diodotus, in Thuycidides History of the Peloponnesian War, Crawley trans.