Our institutions are limited by the pre-digital technology

Much of our institutions are limited by the pre-digital technology: (1) It is difficult to constantly re-edit a paper book; (2) without computers, global trade requires perennial currencies ; (3) without information technology, any political system more fluid than representative democracy cannot scale up to millions of individuals. These embedded limitations still constrain us, for now.

  • We teach kids arithmetic and calculus, but systematically fail to teach them about probabilities. We are training them to distinguish truth from falsehoods, when most things are neither true nor false. Meanwhile, sites like Stack Overflow and Math Overflow expose these same kids to rigorous debates, much like those I imagine the Ancient Greeks having. We are exposing the inner workings of scholarship like never before. Instead of receiving knowledge from carefully crafted books and lectures, kids have to be trained to seek out truth on their own. The new generation will expect textbooks to editable, like Wikipedia. You might be 16, but you can still correct a professor. But  the 12 years old next door can correct you too. Are we still going to have static books, idealized in some “final version”? I think that books and journal articles will have to become dynamic, or they will grow irrelevant.
  • Why do we need central banks and currencies? Because they, alone, can ensure determinism and stability? Why can’t we have several competing currencies? In any case, how wealthy is Mark Zuckerberg? Financial determinism is an illusion. There may be a picture of the Queen on my dollar bills, but the authority of the Monarch does not protect the value of this currency. If not for their fear of upsetting local governments, VISA and Mastercard could create a new currency in an instant. If not for government regulations, Paypal would be competing with central banks. Suppose that I help a game company. Maybe they could pay me with their in-game currency. Many people worldwide would be willing to trade this currency against other goods and services. At no point do I need to print money! We could even automate the process. I get some in-game currency and I want to buy food, can a computer arrange trades so that I get bags of rice delivered at my home? Of course, it can. Obviously, governments would start regulating because, these sort of trades effectively cut the government out.  But I think it would be very difficult to outlaw or regulate these trades in a context where the financial markets are driven by algorithms.
  • We expect political leaders to represent the interest of an entire population. Have you ever stopped to consider how insane this expectation is? Would you trust a jury made of a single person? We have learned from machine learning that the best results were typically achieved with Ensemble Methods. What we need are sets of leaders, automatically selected and weighted. We don’t want the best leader, we want the best ensemble of leaders. And the best way to avoid biases is to change these leaders frequently. We almost have the technology to do it in a scalable manner. Electronic voting is only the first step toward a new, more fluid, form of politics. If it sounds crazy, consider that people spend more and more time online, where politics is very different than in our brick-and-mortal world. The models emerging online will be implemented in offline politics. That is where the political innovation will occur.
Currency Mathematics Politics Knowledge
Primitive None One, Two or Many Tribe Stories
Moderate Local trade Arithmetic and geometry Monarchy Manuscripts
Advanced Central currencies Calculus Democracy Books, Authoritative Science
Upcoming Distributed and electronic Bayesian Demarchy Open and Participative Scholarship

Daniel Lemire, "Our institutions are limited by the pre-digital technology," in Daniel Lemire's blog, January 10, 2011.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

17 thoughts on “Our institutions are limited by the pre-digital technology”

  1. @Carmel-Veuilleux

    I see the current model of centralized “democratic” bipartite government only becoming stronger because of the internet.

    I’m thinking about disruptive innovation. New political systems occurring at a scale that nobody notices… or takes seriously… but which start to take root until we end up having widespread computer-supported politics.

    The key is that these new systems would be more sophisticated because they would rely on information technology, instead of relying solely on arithmetic.


    Aren’t you a bit optimistic on the economic side?

    There are crazier things happening. For example, people share pirated video games and movies using peer-to-peer systems, where everyone contributes bandwidth and shares the legal risks. That’s pretty insane compared to “distributed and electronic currencies”.

    The interesting article you link to refers to the failure of the Internet ad economy and the “proletarianization of the writer”. But some people are doing extremely well as writers on the Internet. Konrath is making tens of thousands of dollars a month with his ebooks (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/). The guys from TechCrunch just made millions selling their blog. I buy about one ebook per week from Amazon or Webscriptions. If you refuse to innovate, you may very well become irrelevant. That would be my reply to their article… which, by the way, does not allow comments.

    And the next innovation may very well be the emergence of currencies which have nothing to do with central banks.

  2. I agree completely with the title of this post. However, while I do agree in principle with the idea you put forth for a future with different institutions, I cannot foresee it happening without major social unrest.

    It is indeed remarkable how free information flow on the internet has changed the way we interact and communicate globally. Unfortunately, that progress has only been the hallmark of the wealthiest, and has been majorly supported by “brick and mortar” institutions.

    These same institutions still have control over the internet and any chance of political paradigm shift. I can easily foresee any “online peasant revolt” being quashed by rapid “physical world” actions against the rebelious pieces of the infrastructure. Too many people still don’t have bank accounts or even telephone service even in western civilization.

    How can enlightened groups of leaders using the internet convince terrorized hordes of almost-luddites much attached to current political inertia to follow them in change ? I see the current model of centralized “democratic” bipartite government only becoming stronger because of the internet.

    Fear, uncertainty and doubt are only cast onto us faster with current mecanisms. The ideals of freedom some of us aspire to having is not going to happen without major unrest and upheaval caused by something completely external to our idealized dream. They probably will come out of the recovery from a major disaster, much like our way of life right now is a direct consequence of getting back up from WWII.

  3. Very nice post. Reading your blog is a pleasure and intellectually stimulating. This time I’d like to add my small contribution: what if “currencies” were to lose their meaning altogether?

    In the world you are describing I can see technologies providing enough resources to sustain “everybody” (that is, jumping ahead in time and leaving the subject of the developing world on a side for a minute). Once you have what you need to survive and even live, you probably don’t need a currency like we intend today. You might as well trade time, or craftmanship in return for other skills, but nothing that needs to be “translated” into a price and then “translated” into the effort you need to do in order to earn that sum. Furthermore with the help of a global network your skills are no longer limited to the local village.

    In a nutshell: the idea behind ‘money’ itself might just not apply to such scenario.
    For the record, I am taking inspiration from the Zeitgeist Movement. Certainly the hypothesis of techonlogies providing enough for everybody is a big one, but you’ve got to believe in something 🙂

  4. @Suresh

    Sure: cstheory.stackexchange.com is a great example of open scholarship. Back when I was a graduate students, you actually had to hang in the hallways of a CS department in a good University to see this sort of exchange.

    The quality of the intellectual exchange is just amazing. But equally important is that they illustrate that not everything is black and white. There are good answers, and then better answers. They also teach you that if you hang around long enough, you too can get to answer what you thought were impossible questions.

    This level of openness was just unthinkable without computers.

  5. I agree with you in mostly everything, but the problem is that I think we are still far in the math education at least.

    Even today professors still debate wether bayessian learning is actually good (yeah I know is moronic, but here in Japan for example is a rather large issue). Given that we have yet to even move to the Fuzzy Setting, I find the bayessian one far distant in the future.

    I think there is a large way before currencies can be ommited in the sake of electronic transfers. Even here in Japan, where electronic payments (mobile, credit cards, RFID cards) are something normal, basic infrastructure, like farmers and large suppliers are far from that kind of acceptance.

    Also, with the problems the Euro is currenlty having (some of the due to the inability to devaluate the currency) having a unified currency does not seem like a good idea, at least until all the economies are stable enough.

  6. Even today professors still debate wether bayessian learning is actually good (yeah I know is moronic…

    Since I mostly disagree with Cosma Shalizi political views I am happy to know that he is a moron.

    Ah! And Andrew Gelman too.

  7. Is moronic to state that something that has been proven over and over to work does not work.

    Last NIPS had cool papers on how Bayesian Inference really approximates how humans do inference themselves 😉

  8. Last time I checked most of the Machine Learning techniques have a formal proof that they do converge, and thus, they work. If you argue they are not valid, then you are arguing as well that multiplication, sum and any other math tool you might want to use is not valid.

    Any attack concerning the validity of establishing priors is far high our level our discussion, far greater scientists have discussed over it and they have yet to reach a conclussion, hence I do not expect to reach one with you in here.

    And I leave you with Gelmas as well:


    He is just a really fun guy 🙂

    Mathematically speaking is valid to use Bayesian Priors to representate data, and most of the time those priors do not really affect the final model, given that you have sufficient enough data (first maxim of Machine Learning).

  9. Sigh…
    You are just as obtuse on this kind of topic as you were in your previous comments about Wikileaks.

    I am talking about this:

    Here’s an (unfair) way of putting it: water boils because I become sufficiently ignorant of its molecular state. This is a problem, because water boiled a thousand years ago, when people didn’t know it was made of molecules, and a fortiori weren’t uncertain about the state of those molecules. Presumably it boils even when nobody’s there to look… The usual dodge is to say that it’s not really my uncertainty about the molecular state that matters, but that of some kind of idealized observer who knows all the relevant facts about molecules and their behavior, knows what I do about the gross, macroscopic observables (e.g., thermometer and pressure-gauge readings), and synthesizes all these data optimally. Generally the last bit means some combination of Bayes’s rule and selecting the distribution with the maximum possible entropy, subject to constraints from the observations. I don’t find this a persuasive story, for pretty conventional reasons I won’t go over here. (See, e.g., David Albert’s Time and Chance.) I have, however, just found what seems like a new objection: the ideal observer should think that entropy doesn’t increase, so its arrow of time should run backwards.
    Cosma Shalizi

    The very idea of fiddling with prior v/s posterior probabilities doesn’t make any sense (physically), yet this is the very foundation of bayesianism…

  10. You didn’t bother to read the links, did you?
    It seems that for you, “working” means comforting my personal biases or the folk physics of the crowd, very scientific…

  11. Please allow me to disagree with the idea of demarchy. This is equivalent to stating that education, hard work, and expertise are irrelevant — that you can get superior performance by randomly sampling a population (why bother to sample? Why not just employ direct voting by the entire population on everything?) The reality is that people will almost always vote for getting more for less — to lower their taxes (even trivial ones, like a penny or two on candy and soda) and insist on getting their gov’t services anyway. They will either insist that there is sufficient waste to eliminate to pay for the things they want, or they’ll point to services that they don’t personally need to be eliminated. Just take a look at those US states with strong referenda systems to see how messed up things can get.

    The fact is, most people lack the knowledge — even the willingness to work to get the knowledge — to make wise decisions about governance. In fact, most can’t even do relatively simple math (for example, basic algebra).

  12. This post is awesome and inspiring. I have harbored similar ideas for a while now, and hope to live to witness the implementation of at least one of these changes. I’m already part of the knowledge democratization movement as a Wikipedia editor.

    As for demarchy, I hadn’t heard of it till now, but I take it that maybe it would work; personally, I had only thought of allowing greater granularity and intensity of participation: rather than electing leaders to make all the decisions for us, we should be able to, when appropriate, decide what we want our tax money to be spent on (for instance). I’m sure there are problems with this idea, but it feels to me that properly implemented, it’d be an improvement to the current system.

    Finally, regarding currencies and Lorenzo’s Venus/Zeitgeist-inspired comment, I’d like to point out to Manna, a short novel that depicts how such a system could be implemented and work.

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