Post-Democracy — Truthy-ism & Disruptacy

So I have this idea. An idea that’s admittedly an off-the-top-of-my-head, not-well-thought-out idea, but none the less, one I wanted to write it out to try and give it shape and see how it feels.

And here’s the idea. Wondering what comes after democracy has been a common thought process for a while, amongst much smarter people than me. But I submit to you that in this American election cycle, we’re seeing one possible new form of governing emerge and crystallize formally for the first time.

There are twin roots to this new mode:

  1. The normalization of Truthiness, the famous “word” from Stephen Colbert. This acceptance of feeling-of-truth vs being-true started off as sort of a joke, but quickly became a more or less accepted fact. The truthiness of its own self. Vast swaths of our political class were able to capitalize on the fact that people want to feel right more than they actually need to be right. And, indeed, people seem willing to accept all sorts of moral and ethical paradoxes if it means they can still feel right. And by making this idea of truthiness normal, we’ve made it normal to hold opinions that contradict facts. Indeed, we’ve made fact almost have itself as an oxymoron, when you can have “your facts” and “my facts” rather than just “the facts”. It leads to where we are now, where opposite opinions are given equal weighting and rating in media, regardless of the merits of those opinions. You can’t talk about climate change without mentioning those in opposition’s “facts”, actual scientific data be damned. You can’t talk about Black Lives Matter without someone’s feeling of All Lives Matter being brought up as somehow being a reasonable, equal response, despite the utter lack of equal status there. It’s sort of the opposite of intersectionality.
    It’s the victory of feeling over fact.
  2. Disruption as idol, as not just a by-product of advancement, but a goal unto itself. In some ways, the victory of technocracy. When the new idea is, by the very fact of being new, held to be better than the existing option. The suspicion of incumbency. This modern view of disruption-as-good originates in Silicon Valley business, but its spread into politics is an astounding feat. For better or for worse, it’s explains both Bernie Sanders’ impressive run, Donald Trump astonishing run. Thinking about it, I think it explains a lot of the Tea Party’s goals, and even obstructionism-as-paradigm that has been the modus operandi of American Congress these past 8 years in particular. There’s a difference between working within the system to foment change, vs fundamentally not caring about the system itself, because it needs to be changed to suit you. And this — this is the doctrine of the politics of disruption. It’s fine to obstruct what until now were common political standards of comportment, because you don’t believe those serve you. Donald Trump’s entire campaign is mostly about disruption of common political standards — being against the existing system, offering radical ideas that each disrupt how Things Are Done In Politics.

And those two trends, I think, as I watch from north of border in Canada combine into something much, much more than just a weird election cycle. I posit that we’re actually seeing something entirely new emerge as a philosophy in politics. We’ve yet to see, really, what governing through truthiness & disruption would look like — although, possibly there’s been some state-level experiments here. I personally hope that we don’t see what Donald Trump’s governing style would be. But — I think that this change is now in the air, and we’ll only see more individuals, and even larger political organizations start to embrace this new thing and start to impose it more successfully on a country or state sooner rather than later.

As I quickly read this back, I wonder if I need to differentiate this idea from existing political models — democracy, socialism, authoritarianism, etc. I think it is. But I’m not a political scientist, I’m not a philosopher. To mock myself, the truthiness of this thought is appealing, but I’d love to be countered, I’d love to find people thinking much more deeply and coherently about this sort of topic.

So — is this actually the start of a new political philosophy? I’ve no idea — I hope I’ve at least made the start of the case that yes, it is. At the very least, I think we’re seeing the end of “traditional” American Democracy, and possibly the birth pains of what is going to replace it. Which is both scary and exciting.

Peeling back the media layers

When I consume fiction, I try to dive in with enthusiasm. I suspend my disbelief and let the story itself carry me. I try hard to not worry about meta-narrative, or technique, or politics get in the way. I try to let the story itself stand on its own. For “good” media, this often works. I readily enjoy the experience, be it book or film or tv or game. Often the first sign of problems is when the media can’t stand on its own, and I end up being forced into analytical mode.

Almost inevitably, the first layer I pull back is technical: with a literature degree by way of a few years of film studies and a perverse need to watch all the extra features, I think a lot about how stories are told. I worry about why that particularly manipulative camera-pan, or upwards-to-the-right angle, or why mention a missile at all, because now I know it’s going to come back later in the book. In the score, was that overbearing timpani in that one scene really necessary? (pro tip: no, it never is). Again, things split here. When I re-watch a really good movie, looking at it through this technical lens only adds to why I love it (My favourite movie is probably I am Cuba, which I like perhaps more for the technical elements of the film than the film itself).

Beyond technical, I start to think about meta-narrative: when you know an author’s work, you tend to see recurring themes, images, etc -both in print and screen, and I start to wonder how the decisions made this time tie into the overarching œuvre. And in film, you not only have the writer’s meta-narrative, but also the director’s. And the cinematographer’s. And sometimes the actors’. When you get to “corporate” film, you also have the producers’ (see: Pixar, Disney, Marvel, etc). Watch a bunch of Scorsese films back-to-back, or binge-watch a tv show under the same show-runner, and see how quickly you can start to identify which episodes were directed by which person – there’s all sorts of little tells that keep popping up.

And then, finally, likely to my own discredit, I often think about the socio-politics of the media (Hi! I’m a Canadian, straight, white male who has the luxury of not having to think about this all the time!). Why this casting choice? why that gender/race for that character? who directed? How is that reflective of the audience’s experience? the creators? the funders? This, most often than not, is where films that have survived all the previous examinations start to fall apart.  Just passing the Bechdel test is hard. Add in “positive/lead/speaking” roles for non-white-men as a layer and it gets worse. I have this immense luxury of approaching virtually any media knowing that I am the target audience for it. I had a small sense of perhaps what it might be like to not be recently reading “Between the world an me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is definitely not aimed at middle-class white Gen-X… and it was fascinating to start to look at the assumed terms of reference in the book that were not at all common to me (aside: this is a reason I like to read foreign novels, particularly from non judeo-christian-heritage authors, because that means I need to work more to figure out the common terms of reference).

(all of this bubbled to mind after binge-watching the 100, and why i thought it was inevitable that Clark and Lexa would kiss. And then wondering why it made me squeamish that the only black lead in the new Ghostbusters was, also, the only non-scientists (indeed, she seems to be the “street-smart” character), and why, while it makes sense to cast a non-white actor in a new Harry Potter play, or as James Bond, it is still hugely problematic that Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone).


Quick thoughts on Current Politics

While Harper was PM, it was politically useful for opponents to ascribe all policy to him; indeed, he cultivated that (“the Harper government”). It hid the body of Conservative support somewhat, which helped focus opposition.

However, now that he’s resigned, it strikes me as much more useful to talk about those same policies as Conservative party policies instead: raise the profiles on the ministers who enacted them; don’t let them escape their actions through amnesia. Remind everyone that it wasn’t one man, it was a plurality that all believed that. Rona Ambrose shows signs (sensibly!) of wanting to distance the party from Harper: don’t let that happen. They’re all responsible for what I’m already starting to thing of as “Canada’s Lost Decade”

Additive vs Subtractive rights

I’ve been thinking a lot about individual rights and progressive policies lately. The rise of the Government-as-snooping-boogeyman with all the Snowden NSA-related leaks, individual or collective hackers penetrating every software services there is, my own privacy, our collective security, my own happiness, our collective moral strata. I’m going to think out loud here: these aren’t fully-formed thoughts, there’s likely massive holes in logic, and likely others far smarter have written far deeper about any piece. But I wanted to invite conversation.

In general, I’ve come down to this idea: when making policy, it is progressive to put the individual before the group when creating an additive right. Conversely, it is progressive to put the group before the individual when creating a subtractive right. What do I mean by these? let’s dig:

Additive Right

In my mind, this creating a new “allowance” in policy, morality or law, that was not previously there. The prime example in my mind is marriage rights. Ages ago, inter-racial marriage was not allowed. It was a progressive change to add that right for all of society: that is, it was better for the whole to allow this than to listen to the individual right to disagree with this. Gay marriage follows the same rules. Allowing gay marriage will disappoint individuals who disagree with this rule, but I’d argue it is a greater good for the group to allow this: more people will be made happy, without directly removing anything from any one person. In my mind, most moral judgements that change tend to be additive rights: Marriage rights, drug legalization, sex-work laws — they’re more likely to reflect growing trends and changes in moral thought, and thus while yes — cause consternation for those who do not yet agree with these changes to moral code — do no particular harm either.

Subtractive Right

These are policies and laws that remove or diminish rights of people. Most policing laws would be subtractive: you can not do X. Much regulation and oversight is likewise (Gun control laws, environmental regulation). Security/spy lays are similarly subtractive because they diminish privacy. These laws generally cause me the most internal anguish — for instance: I intensely value privacy and the (currently default) assumption that I have a right to private communications & thought. On the flip-side, I also agree that there should be regulation of “dangerous” things: Guns, Industrial development, vehicular safety, finance. I recognize that when I agree that guns should be regulated, I give up some privacy & anonymity. When industry is regulated, the collective wins safety, but the individual loses flexibility and possibly profit. Conversely though, and this is where I start to twist into moral-argument pretzels: there’s Ben Franklin’s famous axiom:

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety

In general, I believe that hacking/snooping is contemporary warfare. I believe information warfare reduces state power and empowers “rogue” actors. I believe it is the right of the government to defend not just itself, but its citizens, both human and corporate, from this. Conversely, I don’t believe that the government should be able to listen to everything all the time in an attempt to do this. But where the tipping point is? I don’t know. Pervsasive snooping on citizenry is definitely a subtractive policy: it subtracts liberty & privacy. Because we’re, as a whole, likely better off by abrogating the privacy of a few individuals by a policy like this, it could be seen as a progressive policy. But — state-monitoring has long been the tool of the autocratic Right. Socialist governments regulate, Autocratic governments dictate, right? But here’s what’s worrying me about this:

  1. I keep falling into this philosophical quagmire wherein I find myself agreeing with some laws and not others, without a consistent framework of evaluation: it comes down to “I like that” and “I don’t like that”, which is a terrible means of evaluation.
  2. Democratic fundamentals: debate, compromise, free-expression seem to be increasingly incapable of keeping up with a technocratic society, in which information is free (in terms of cost), but simultaneously hugely expensive (in terms of privacy). I’d always believed more information would be better for debate — but it appears to be the opposite, because when information costs nothing to have, the channels of distribution become increasingly valuable and thus susceptible to control.
  3. As a developer, I’m complicit in the rise of this massively overwhelming information store that threatens & offers progress. I’m very conflicted: Massively distributed communication tools (the web, social media)are amazing for progressive ideals: yet these very tools are inherently compromised by the security/monitoring apparatus that we dislike. Here I am writing words, for free, on a site owned by a foreign corporation whose corporate policies & submission to their government’s laws I have no influence over. But even writing on my own site: It’s still on a server owned by someone else — I just rent space. Even in my own home, it would be connected via servers owned by a company — but I’m not sure is that’s better or worse than being a government pipe?

Wow. I sort of digressed there. I don’t know how to continue this. More thought, more books, more time?

Elections & Technology

While it looks like eVoting will eventually arrive, we could likely streamline the current check-in/voting process. It seems ludicrous to me that in an at-large system, I must vote only at 1 particular poll. I watched at least 40-odd people turned away at Britannia in under 3 hours yesterday because they were supposed to be somewhere else. While we have large paper books of names, it sort of makes sense. But as I was scrutineering by iPhone, it occurred to me we have well-establish technology to make this easier. We’re all used to signing digitally at stores when buying things. Imagine the following scenario:

A voter is sent a voting card, like  normal. Only there’s a bar-code on it now. on e-Day, the voter goes to whichever poll is most convenient. At the sign-in desk, there’s a polling official with a hand-scanner. They scan the bar code & the person’s ino shows up on screen. They sign the screen (either with a stylus or a finger), then go vote as usual.

Behind the scenes, this san & signature is immediately updated across the system. Parties could likewise be immediately updated that voter # 12345 has just voted, further reducing the need  for scrutineers to do this work, reducing costs & ensuring that all registered electoral associations have equal access to this information & help them get out their vote.

If a voter needs to update their name, their address, or register, they can likewise do this digitally right there, updating the entire system. You wouldn’t even need particularly high-end technology to make this work. It seems reasonable to mandate that telcos/cablecos provide internet access on election day to make this possible.

It could even spit out live counts of voters by area, possibly alerting voters who have signed up for information that a particular polling station is busy or not, and suggesting alternates.

There’s probably various other ways existing, well-established technology could be used to help streamline the voting process, without digitizing voting itself – if you have any, let me know below.


A Milestone, of sorts

Earlier this week, the NPA launched their new website for the fall 2011 civic election campaign. With this, I’ve reached a personal milestone: Over the past decade, I’ve built election campaign websites for each of the Vancouver civic parties – COPE in 2002, then Vision‘s in 2005 and now the NPA this year. I like to think it shows a professional non-partisan manner than is to be commended. You might say it’s pure capitalism at work (or worse yet that I’m a sell-out). Regardless of your opinion, given how entrenched political parties and their service providers seem to be, I’m quite proud that these various groups have all chose me &/or my company over the years to provide them with professional, quality web-related services.

For this latest project, we were purely the technical team – I’ll have no hand in the ongoing messaging or marketing. Design & project management was provided by our frequent collaborators at Myron Advertising + Design.

At the provincial level, this year I’ve also completed the BC trifecta: I’ve built sites for each of the BC Liberals, BC NDP, and waaaay back in the 90s, the BC Green Party.

So I’m an experienced campaign website builder. If you need a website for your campaign, let me know.

Canadian islamophobia

Listening to CBC’s The Current this morning I heard the Québec immigration minister Yolande James state that a woman cannot wear the niqab to learn french, “point à la ligne” (full stop). The woman, a recent Egyptian immigrant, had chosen to learn french, presumably to better integrate into her new community, and has now been expelled from two separate government-run French classes. That blanket statement by the Québec government is frankly disgusting – I cannot comprehend how the wearing of a Niqab interferes with learning French.

If the story were that simple, this would be the end of it, but of course, it’s not. Over the course of the interview on the CBC with (I believe – my apologies if I have got the wrong person) Samer Majzoub, president of the Canadian Muslim Forum, it comes out that the reason she was expelled from the first class was her reaction to a request to do a class presentation (again, I’m working from memory of an interview I heard while driving Liam to school – I hope I have all the facts right here):

When joining the class, the woman, Naema, had made an arrangement with the teacher to sit in the front row, as she was uncomfortable having strange men look at her (presumably in the face) – the teacher agreed – that to me seems like “reasonable accommodation” of religious beliefs. Where I start to lack support for Naema is when, asked to present to the class, she refused to stand up in front of the class and speak, unless the men in the class weren’t there, or turned around. For me, at that point, she crosses the line from holding firm in her own beliefs over to imposing her world view on the others in her class. It is reasonable, to me, to accommodate her beliefs and ensure she has a seat where she is comfortable. It is not reasonable to allow her to speak from her seat, not facing the class, when everyone else must speak from the front. If you wish to attend government-run classes, some concession to the cultural mores of your new country should probably be expected. If you’re not comfortable with making those concessions, find a different class. Perhaps immigrant services, or groups such as the Canadian Muslim Forum could keep lists of privately-run classes that are more sensitive to the (for Canada) unique needs of devout Muslim women.

However, while I agree with the stand to not let her have special treatment relative to the other students, it in no way excuses a blanket ban on niqab-wearing women from learning French. It seems to be part of a growing (and worse, growing in acceptance) trend in Western Nations to isolate, demean and alienate Muslims living here. Given how already culturally isolating it would be to wear the niqab in Québec, it would seem right to encourage women such as Naema to attend French class, to have a better chance of assimilating somewhat into francophone culture in the province.

Think City Electoral Reform Survey

I’m reprinting this from Think City’s last email message out. Please read and participate!


Vancouver and many other BC municipalities suffer from declining voter turnout, the taint of big money influence on elections, a lack of neighbourhood accountability, and a host of other democratic challenges.

But the laws governing local elections are going to change.

Last fall, Premier Gordon Campbell announced a new local government election task force to consider sweeping legislative changes to how municipal elections are conducted in this province.

Fair Voting BC and Think City are gathering citizen views on reforms to submit to the provincial government, Vancouver city council, and the Vancouver parks board. Make sure you have your say!

  • Should there be a ban on corporate and union donations?
  • Should the city move to a neighbourhood-based or wards electoral system?
  • Should landed immigrants get the vote?
  • Should citizens directly elect representatives to regional boards (e.g., TransLink)?

The province’s task force will submit its recommendations on modernizing local government election rules to the legislature on May 30 for implementation prior to the fall 2011 civic elections.

Please go here right now to complete the 2010 Civic Electoral Reform survey by March 1, 2010.

  • TAKE ACTION: Click here to complete the survey

Don’t turf my grass! Please sign these petitions against Park Board staff recommendations

As some of you know, I sit on the board of the VUL. We are currently looking at an issue that certainly affects the ultimate players in the city, but also, virtually all players of field sports. The issue at hand is a proposal to put turf fields in at both Memorial & Jericho Parks at the upcoming meeting this Monday, February 1st. This development proposal goes against the recommendations of the Vancouver Field Sports Federation (VFSF), an association of various sports leagues that utilize fields in the city. The VFSF has been working for the past 6 months with the city to develop alternate locations, but, as a result of Federal Stimulus money, the Park Board staff has seen fit to throw out all that community involvement and press ahead with these poor options.

NB: I’m writing this as a matter of personal opinion, not the official stance of the board of the VUL.

I ask you all to please view & sign the following petitions AGAINST putting turf on these fields:

The reasons for not wanting turf on these fields a numerous. Here are my major reasons for not wanting this to go ahead:

  1. This proposal flies in the face of 6 months of community consultation and goes directly against the recommendation of the primary users of these fields, the VFSF. It makes a mockery of the very idea of community consultation by the Park Board.
  2. These 2 fields constitute some of the nicest, smoothest sports-grass in the entire city. There are literally dozens of other parks we play in which would be more suitable to replace poorly-draining grass with turf, not to mention potentially upgrading school grounds with turf.
  3. The decision process on this development is being artificially rushed by the presence of federal stimulus money that requires that these “shovel-ready” projects be completed this calendar year. It is not a good idea to rush a decision that will have this large an impact just because of funding. In many ways, I’d rather see no new turf fields than see these 2 fields developed.

City-owned fibre: new revenue stream?

I was reading this article on Ars Technica about the town of Monticello, MN, who had tried to build its own 50Mbs fibre network after TDS (the local cable monopoly I assume?) had done nothing. This story ends with (of course) TDS taking the city to court (incidentally, the city won at every level, all the way to the supreme court), and using that delay to place fibre itself. The citizens still won, however, as it was a free upgrade in speed for them.

Cities all over North America are struggling for new revenue streams. Vancouver itself has a huge shortfall, and is looking for new revenue sources. Additionally, Vancouver wants to be the “Green Capital” of the world. So why not run city-owned fibre throughout the city? Currently, people have a choice of Telus ADSL, or Shaw cable, and if you’re downtown, Novus. But the service is slow, it costs a fortune – and there’s no real incentive for either  Telus or Shaw to either lower prices or raise speeds, or generally, innovate – because they don’t really have any fear of competition (aside: Where Shaw does have competition from Novus, their price & service is great). So why doesn’t Vancouver roll out a super-high-speed fibre network itself across Vancouver? Revenue could then be handled one of 2 ways (there’s likely other models too – these are just the 2 that immediately come to mind): either lease the lines to private companies to resell (probably far easier to manage logistically), or sell directly to residents (or simply have residents pay a new annual levy on their taxes). Not only would this definitely make Vancouver an attractive city for business to come to (cheap high-speed internet, yes please!), it would also promote telecommuting, remote work, etc. I would argue this falls in line with the goal of being an “Open City” too – broadband for all makes information more easily accessible to end-users.

Would the initial investment be large? Yes. But I suspect it would pay for itself quite quickly – I certainly don’t, and I suspect that most of my fellow Vancouverites have zero loyalty to their internet-access provider (aside: everyone I know who uses Novus loves it – those who use either Shaw or Telus seem to tolerate it, viewing it as the least-bad option between the two). I also think that this sort of urban infrastructure development is exactly what federal stimulus money is good for (although clearly, this does not count as “shovel ready”).