Of Data Democracy and beyond - Part 1.

Democracy derives its legitimacy from “will of the people”. If the people are deprived of real information, their ability to make suitable decisions is impaired. This renders Democracy meaningless.

History testifies the power of diversity. Genetic diversity protects society from extinction when faced with a mutant pathogen. Cultural diversity helps us cope up with the ravages of nature and fellow humans alike. Through innovations like clothing and medicine, we have managed to extend our lifespans considerably. The ‘outcast genius’ stereotype in pop culture is no coincidence - even amidst entrenched racial and other biases, humanity subconsciously embrace a need for diversity. The ‘exotic’ factor in food to mating preferences is not a coincidence.

History also teaches us about the power of information. Knowledge is built up of bits of unstructured information. The ability to put knowledge to productive use is wisdom. While wisdom can be graded, it cannot be measured. Earlier, we used to think wisdom as something embodied inside one person. But once things got sufficiently complex, humanity quickly realised the need for a collective wisdom which was much more potent and could transcend individual boundaries. Culture is the aggregate of learning accumulated over time. We wanted to extend this to short term decision making as well. From tribal assemblies to the Islamic Shura to modern institutions like Parliament or Senate, we extend this argument of collective wisdom. Statistically, if the talent pool is extended to contain whole of the population, we could reap the benefits of a diverse society. Thus, we have a synthesis here which leads to more refined decision making.

As Churchill famously quipped, Democracy indeed substitutes arguments for fisticuffs. If the arguments comes from diverse backgrounds and hence different vantage points, we are able to pack a more precise punch that is as lethal as it can get.

This happy synthesis of augmented wisdom of a diverse collective finds expression everywhere in the history of philosophy. From Socrates and Plato to the average philosophy graduate of the present, philosophy cannot be stopped at the point of self-evaluation. It inevitably transcends the realm of an individual to devise plans for the family, society and greater humanity. You could talk about salvation for all the time you want, but the ideology cannot be stopped there. It will grow out to create a rubric to govern the society. This is nothing but a short history of all religions. From the Buddhist dynasties to the enduring influence of Confucianism to Islamic hegemony to the modern constitutionalism - every philosophy on personal conduct inevitably leads to a social ideal and vice versa. This is no coincidence.

Philosophy of individual naturally grows into philosophy of the collective.

But real power is in the way you can determine outcomes in society. You can fantasize about the world for all that you want, but if you cannot influence the outcome, it amounts to nothing. If politics is the competition for resources, the end of politics is in determining outcomes the way we want. As Hegel said and Marx repeated, (wo)men create history subject to the conditions they find themselves in. But to do this, they ought to negotiate many a mazes that constitute the chosen political process of their societies.

If these mazes aren’t designed properly with enough checks and balances, it will reflect in the quality of leaders that a society can produce. So as much as information and wisdom determines the action of a leadership, the amount of information available to the general populace determines the quality of leadership that it produces. But this quality should not be confused with efficiency. For even the most contrived political processes can create efficient leadership. But if we need to have a humane, progressive and compassionate leadership, our political processes should be geared in that direction.

Undoubtedly, men who are found wanting in these values would want the populace to still elect them. Their modus operandi will be to control the channels of information that runs through the society. If a monopoly or even oligopoly could be established over the generation and dissemination of information, it is a sure shot way to enhance and preserve their influence. Thus, it is made clear that the issue at hand goes beyond just data driven policy making. As the system gets more complex, it becomes more difficult to derive insights out of it without reliable systems of data generation and processing. It may suffice to just sabotage it, if not to able to control it.

In this article, we have built a case on how data driven decision making stands at the centre of a democratic society. Apart from the efficiency that it brings to administration, we have also built a philosophical foundation of how the legitimacy of Democracy is tethered to the honest and transparent generation of data. As the Democratic world is undergoing a crisis of unprecedented proportions, it becomes all the more important to re-evaluate the scientific and ethical tenability of the processes that drive this crucial conveyor belt in our democratic system.

[To be continued….]

Written on February 12, 2019