“Quorum Sensing” as the Key to Democratic Reform


I’d like to pitch an idea. If adequately adopted and scaled, I think this idea could fundamentally change the landscape of contemporary democracies. In a nutshell, I’m proposing a collaborative system designed for enabling citizens to vote strategically, thereby making it easier to oust incumbent politicians from office at elections. I propose that empowering the “against vote” serves a fundamental, central role in “reforming” democracy. Enabling electorates to “negotiate” and reach conditional consensus would make it harder for elected politicians to stay elected, and this would ultimately be good for democracy.

Here is the idea: I’m imagining a website app/platform where I can register my intention to vote for a particular candidate in any given election. However, my voting intention has a caveat: I only agree to vote for the candidate on the condition that a given threshold of other people also register their intention to vote on the same terms. Everything about this website is enabled for social broadcast, interaction, and connectivity, enabling me to urge my entire network to rally for a candidate.

The goal here is to enable, us, citizens, to leverage our digital connectivity order to vote strategically. If it works, this would hopefully give the “against vote” a much stronger voice in democratic systems (especially in multiparty democracies). Democratic voters are often faced with situations wherein ousting a certain incumbent or blocking a certain contender feels more important than electing their “first choice” candidate. Instead of waiting for a ranked ballot system (which only addresses a certain aspect of the problem), this highly transparent, civilian controlled framework would provide an extra “tier” or “layer” of collective “quorum sensing” that might make strategic voting significantly more effective.

How familiar is the following scenario? Even though I might really want candidate A to win an election, I might be quite willing to vote for candidate B if I know that doing so will remove candidate C from the equation. In other words: I may want candidate C to lose more than I want candidate A to win. With a quorum sensing layer such as this, I can look up the historical vote count generally needed to win a particular riding, and then commit to voting for candidate B if, for example, at least 10,000 other people also agree to vote for candidate B as well. If 10,000 other people do not mutually “consent” to this agreement, then I know that voting for candidate B (as a vote against candidate C) will be ineffective.

The platform itself is profoundly simple: it does nothing more than allow me to declare my willingness to vote for candidate X on the condition that Y number of people also declare their willingness to vote for the same candidate.

The primary limitation and problem with polling, survey analytics, sample size algorithms is that they only capture voter’s intentions, not their deeper wishes. Pollsters tell me nothing about other people’s willingness to vote strategically for a higher, shared, or mutual cause. I need a way to signal my willingness to cooperate at a network-wide scale. Polls only tell us what we’re collectively thinking about doing, not what we might do if we had more shared information.

What I like most about this idea is that it empowers citizens to directly influence the ballot box by leveraging the existence of present social network channels. We are already “connected” in a network, all we need is a tool that enables us, en masse, to signal our willingness to vote in a more unified way — in a way that is contingent and conditional on consensus within a broader group.

Another benefit might be that it would become possible to see how “one vote” matters in the big picture. While everything about it must obviously work on the honour system, this platform essentially allows me to cast an “influence vote” before I ever go to ballot box. This initial, conditional vote obviously does not count in any officially binding way — but it allows me to see how offering my consent and rallying my support for a consensus-based agreement can, in fact, influence the outcome.

I think there is also good potential for galvanizing engagement and participation here: the answer to the question, “Does my vote really make a difference?” could be perhaps be more easily demonstrated by showing that every conditional vote does indeed depend on all the others, and therefore all the others depend on it, too. “My vote doesn’t make a difference” — well, it could make a difference if you just got a little bit organized with a couple thousand other people! The first conditional vote is easy — just a click or a tap — but it shows that a whole bunch of other people are actually depending on you to make your actual trip to the polling station come election day.

Technically, this platform could be used for everything from campus elections, to municipal ward campaigns, to provincial, state, and federal ridings. It could be transnational, transcultural. All we need is a structure that can give us more aggregate data about the willingness of our fellow voters to cooperate. Even with such a minimal level of organization, we, the voters, could become exponentially more powerful… and this is supposed to be the point of democracy, right?

If, hypothetically, this platform took off, one might suppose that it would make elections more about voting politicians out rather than about voting them in. And one might interpret this as a negative side effect, as perhaps adding more fuel to the pessimistic toxicity that already haunts politics. To this I say: let us accept that governing ourselves is an inherently messy ordeal. Choosing who will lead us from the cast of characters that volunteer for the job is a perfect recipe for perpetual contention and debate. Remember: precisely the reason that we expect leaders to tell some semblance of the truth is that we can turf them when they lie. The whole thing, supposedly, hinges on accountability.

This brings me to my central apologetic for empowering the dissenting “against” voice in today’s democracies: our elected officials would necessarily step up their game if they had to anticipate the power of voters to organize themselves against them at the end of their term. A good democracy is one where all leaders must dance on perpetually shaky, uncertain ground. They must be deferent and beholden to us alone — not to their sponsors, corporate backers, or special interests. The likelihood of being dissuaded from a lobbyist’s influence vis-a-vis the general will of your constituents exponentially increases when your constituents are adequately organized to terminate your rule. None of us are served well by politicians who think another term in office is a foregone conclusion. A disapproval vote — especially an organized one — is as equally important in a democracy as any other vote. And “vote splitting” is, therefore, an inherent drawback in democracies that this idea seeks to mitigate.

If we all got behind a framework like this, very little about most existing electoral systems needs to be changed, reformed, or overhauled. We don’t necessarily need to “reform” democracy: we just need to make it easier for us to take politicians out. We do not need to cleverly figure out a way to “make” our politicians listen to us — we just need to categorically fire the ones that don’t.

This is, as far as I can reckon so far, the most cost efficient way of getting ourselves organized towards this end. What corporate backed election campaigns have in revenue reserves, we have in network connectivity. Only against an organized network does the power of their coffers begin to fade.

I am throwing this idea out into the cosmos because I really believe that someone needs to build this thing, or something like it. And, whatever it is, obviously requires a lot of people to champion it, at every point in its development. Ultimately, this is not just about a website or an app — it is an about taking collective responsibility for holding our leaders to account and developing a technical solution to the challenge of cooperating with one another towards this end. This is the fundamental problem on the table.

My hope is that this idea sparks something in someone who has the capacity and influence to move it forward. I have done some thinking about the practical infrastructure involved, but obviously this is all laughably beyond my own skill level, design abilities, digital competency, and budget. All I can practically do is share it here and see what happens. If we, the people, believe it needs to happen, we will make it happen. After all, it is all about consensus, right? It is all about governing ourselves. It is all about a critical mass coalescing around a vision.



If you go a funeral in the Buddhist Theravada tradition, you will likely hear these words:

Transient are all compounded things,
Subject to arise and vanish;
Having come into existence they pass away;
Good is the peace when they forever cease.
(Mahaa-Parinibbaana Sutta 6.14)

Accepting the impermanence of the world is a cornerstone in Buddhist teaching. It means acknowledging that everything about you and the world around you is simply an “arising and passing away” (Kalupahana, 1976, p. 37).

However, impermanence is not only a philosophical idea, it is also an empirical reality. “Impermanence rules the world, and that is something permanent,” writes Ajahn Chah (Chah, 2005, p. 10). Everything we create is temporary, as is everything we accomplish and acquire. The empires we build for ourselves are nothing but anthills of busyness, which will eventually be washed away or moved by another generation.

Nothing that we own truly belongs to us—at best we are renting our possessions for only as long as we are alive to enjoy them—and yet even then they crumble between our fingers. As Jesus taught, everything here is victim to decay— “moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). The molecules of the tallest, strongest skyscraper will eventually succumb to gravity. Even our greatest feats and edifices are makeshift and momentary.

The ideas in our minds and our mansions of bricks and mortar—all is impermanence; perishable creations; little blips in this great cycle of arising and passing away.

Could anything be more liberating?

The greatest sources of stress, angst, and pain—what are they? They are equally but particles of impermanence, echoes fading into the distance. Why do we cling to them? Why do we throw a childish tantrum when our feeble, ephemeral desires fail to curtail the unstoppable march of change around us? Why do we foolishly assume that we will build something that will eternally mirror our own vanishing images?

Today: let go.


Public Shaming… and Your Own Worst Decisions

What is the single worst decision you have ever made?

What if, by chance, your worst decision was caught on video? Or perhaps someone snapped a few photos? What if it was uploaded, shared, and spread across the planet?

(Heck, let’s not even talk about your worst decision. Let’s consider your ninth or tenth poorest decision, down the list of moral or ethical severity. In fact, it might be something you even think about doing or saying everyday, tucked away back in the darker recesses of your mind.)

What if millions of people based everything they thought about you on that single video or image?

Does that make sense? Do you define yourself by your poorest choices? If not, upon what grounds would other people’s poorest choices be appropriate grounds for defining them?

Why do we pounce on the viral mistake of the hour, like a bloodthirsty mob in need of a sacrificial scapegoat?

Perhaps, when we shame others (from the safe distance of our anonymous keyboards) we ourselves can feel just a little bit better about our own slip ups. Perhaps our mob mentality is collective self-appeasement made manifest. As long as another poor victim is suffering on the alter of humiliation, and being pilloried in the stocks of shame, we ourselves, individually, are safe from one another’s prying ridicule.

The mob has not changed. We have simply traded stoning and lynching for mentions and hashtags. It is notably less violent now, but only negligibly less devastating.

Shame on the shamers? No, I am too guilty. This is self indictment. This is a confession.

Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone.


Organization is a Devil’s Plaything

Humans — we love our systems. We love collecting all the pieces, all the data, and all the references — and then compiling the whole edifice in a beautiful binder with a shiny cover. We love authoritative volumes, collectors editions, and codifications of our knowledge. We love a comprehensive syllabus and a thoroughly exhaustive handbook. From Alexandria, to Britannica, to Wikipedia — we archive, collect, and codify. We are unparalleled organizers.

J. Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, told this story:

…the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket.
The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?”
“He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil.
“That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend.
“Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.”
(Krishnamurti, 1929)

This story reminds me of a quote by Walter Bagehot: “The whole history of civilization is strewn with creeds and institutions which were valuable at first, and deadly afterwards” (Bagehot, 1873, p. 74).

Our tendency to codify is double-edged: it enables one generation to build on the knowledge of past generations, but it also makes it difficult for us to escape the entrenchment of our own ideas. In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, Jerome Bruner uses the concept of crime as an example of culturally codified knowledge:

…the impact of ideas does not stem from their truth, but seemingly from the power they exert as possibilities embodied in the practice of a culture. Can you shed the concept of crime when there are courts, police, and prisons? (Bruner, 1986, p. 138)

The point is not whether our concept of crime is necessarily right or wrong — the point is that most of us are blind to even thinking about the question. Our knowledge is codified. Not open for reexamination. It is entrenched in our institutions and society. Perhaps you are so accepting of your society’s definition of crime that you reacted emotionally to the hint that it might not be absolutely true. The institutions of our knowledge are very powerful indeed.

Today, as you go through the tasks and routines before you, perhaps you will come across a piece of Truth laying by the side of the road. Perhaps you will pick it up and put it in your pocket. As you walk along, you might ponder to yourself: how do I organize this truth? How do I systematize it? Rarely do we stop and consider the implications.


Victims, Villians, Heroes

“The victim-rescuer-persecutor syndrome occurs frequently in human relationships of all kinds and is common in many helping relationships,” writes Lee Ann Hoff (Hoff, 2001, p. 121). This is a common phenomenon: when a well-intentioned person tries to help somebody else, the person receiving assistance often becomes considered a victim, both by themselves and by their helper.

The implication of seeing yourself as a helper or a rescuer is that your self-description becomes dependent on the existence of a disempowered, helpless, or victimized other person. (This is especially a problem for social agencies who must promote the fact they are helping ‘disadvantaged’ people in order to justify their funding.)

Without victims, the rescuing role would be obsolete, and therefore nullified. Complementary victims are required for every person who fancies themselves a hero. A hero with no one to save is no hero at all.

Juxtapose the notion of ‘helping people’ (and thus potentially, inadvertently victimizing them) with the essence of the word community. A group of people in common unity exists precisely because none of them are victims, villains or heroes. Only within this commonality can the corrosive power triad be avoided. In fact, the common unity disintegrates into a power structure as soon as any single point of this triangle is established within the group.
Your closest circle of human relationships is comprised of individuals who are neither victims, villains or heroes towards you, nor towards one another. Where the power triad exists, common unity is altogether impossible.

Perhaps heroism is bad for community?

Or perhaps true heroism comes not in our rushing to the aid of a victim in their plight, but rather joining in common unity with them. The most effective way to keep a needy person needy is to treat them like a needy person. The most effective way to “de-victimize” someone is to include them in a tribe of unvictimized individuals who refuse to abide by the power dynamics of the victim, villain and hero triangle.

Perhaps the story of victims, villains and heroes is just simply the rhetoric of heroes? Saving victims and naming villains sure goes a long way to justifying one’s own particular valour and ethos. In fact, anyone who would choose to be a hero must begin by identifying a victim. Gary Harper writes, “A villain is a misunderstood hero; a hero is a self-righteous villain.“ (Harper, 2004, p. 1) Or, in the damning words of Eric Hoffer,

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless. (Hoffer, 1951, p. 14-15)

Today: reconsider what it means to help others. Are your altruistic actions founded on the doctrine of heroism: “I will save you!” Alternatively, instead of being a hero, what does it mean in your context to be a builder of common unity? What would it look like if you were to ‘commune with’ others instead of trying to ‘rescue’ them?