Hacking Society and a Proposal for Beta Towns

I’ve been spend­ing time think­ing about the cur­rent touch points with­in west­ern demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tems, these are the parts where we ordi­nary cit­i­zens (not politi­cians or those in pow­er) inter­act with them. The most obvi­ous is elec­tions, where­by we go to the polls and choose a can­di­date on a bal­lot paper (or more if we are lucky / unlucky) who will then go for­ward to rep­re­sent us. Then there are pub­lic ser­vices, our inter­ac­tions with munic­i­pal gov­ern­ment, right through to active par­tic­i­pa­tion in pub­lic duties such as jury ser­vice. How can these be twist­ed into serv­ing dif­fer­ent social pur­pos­es than those orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed? What new out­comes can be built on top of these sys­tems? How can they be made hack­able? Where will the next gen­er­a­tion of social hack­ers come from?

There have been inter­est­ed attempts at hack­ing the elec­toral sys­tem, though some reach crit­i­cal mass more than oth­ers in terms of pub­lic con­scious­ness. MPs who would vote accord­ing to polls con­duct­ed by con­stituents, inde­pen­dent rep­re­sen­ta­tives’ net­works, tac­ti­cal vote-swap­ping bud­dy sites. For some rea­son though, these nev­er seem to take off. Jury Team, the anti-par­ty par­ty for exam­ple, failed to gain ground in the EU elec­tions, and is now becom­ing more like a tra­di­tion­al par­ty with set polices that must be agreed on in order to par­tic­i­pate. It’s a shame that pub­lic appetite still seems to be for choos­ing between estab­lished par­ties, and that calls for reform are based on which sys­tem is best for choos­ing from the same bunch of rep­re­sen­ta­tives. It’s a shame as the area of design pol­i­tics, cur­rent­ly based on old tra­di­tions and insti­tu­tions is ripe for innovation.

We’ve seen new ideas, hacks of soci­ety. Online, the open data move­ment has been gath­er­ing, bring­ing with it greater trans­paren­cy. Ser­vices like MySo­ci­ety and oth­er mashups have allowed new ways of inter­act­ing with gov­ern­ment, out­side of polit­i­cal space, on a local and hyper-local lev­el, with dif­fer­ing lev­els of suc­cess in sub­vert­ing and build­ing on top of exist­ing local norms and com­mu­ni­ties. Local cur­ren­cies are encour­ag­ing trade, a social hack that works on top of Pound Ster­ling, but becomes localised in help­ing local traders. Local Exchange Trad­ing Sys­tems (LETS), have shown their suc­cess in allow­ing peo­ple to exchange their alter­na­tive work­time for alter­na­tive work, which also serves as a com­mu­ni­ty build­ing exer­cise — again a social hack that com­bines work, trad­ing and com­mu­ni­ty build­ing. Emp­ty shops projects pro­vide an inter­est­ing par­al­lel, re-using emp­ty space on a tem­po­rary basis, they poten­tial­ly change the con­struct and expec­ta­tions of the larg­er space they occupy.

I think we need places to try out these new ideas, where social and gov­ern­men­tal sys­tems could be redesigned to be open­ly hack­able. This is a pro­pos­al, an idea to have des­ig­nat­ed ‘Beta Towns’ where­by exper­i­ments, designed and organ­ised by the res­i­dents them­selves, could be run to test alter­na­tive ways of doing things. The des­ig­na­tion would take place at the will of the res­i­dents them­selves (a ref­er­en­dum) or it could be new towns, per­haps sim­i­lar to how the Free State Project is gath­er­ing lib­er­tar­i­ans to move to New Hamp­shire. Per­haps it’s not even des­ig­nat­ed towns, but patch­works of land des­ig­nat­ed as belong­ing to a ‘Beta Town’ and hav­ing that legal frame­work applied to it, sim­i­lar to how the project Land works. This would allow neigh­bours to choose whether to stick with the ‘Sta­ble’ branch of law­mak­ing, or move to the more dynam­ic, but risky ‘Beta’ mod­el. It would also allow res­i­dents to ‘fork’ a Beta Town with­out hav­ing to up sticks.

How do Beta Towns work? I think they would take cues from the Cathe­dral and the Bizarre Free Soft­ware mod­el. Changes to legal frame­work are con­sid­ered on wikis, debate in mail­ing lists per­haps, either online or with live debates mixed in. As part of being a mem­ber of a Beta Town, each res­i­dent takes respon­si­bil­i­ty for lead­ing a cer­tain area of the town, and depend­ing on the size there may be a ‘Benev­o­lent Dic­ta­tor.’ Court pro­ceed­ings and oth­er touch points in town process­es would not just act as facil­i­tat­ing ser­vices, but also as a point of con­tact for bug report­ing and adju­di­ca­tion, to ask what’s the issue: the per­son or the code? Process­es would be fast, even a small ‘Alpha vil­lage’ of no more than 30 peo­ple would try out night­ly builds of legal code.

The open data move­ment has proven suc­cess­ful in pry­ing open often closed sys­tems. Oth­er social hacks have brought for­ward ways of ‘alter­ing the way things are designed’ . Beta Town is an idea for one way, a new set of hacks to bring forth a gen­er­a­tion of ‘Hack­ers of Society.’

Original Publication date : October 2010
Location : London, United Kingdom