Pluralistic: The Collective Intelligence Institute (07 Feb 2023)

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An old Ace Double paperback. The cover illustration has been replaced with an 18th century illustration depicting a giant Ned Ludd leading an army of Luddites who have just torched a factory. The cover text reads: 'The Luddites. Smashing looms was their tactic, not their goal.'

The Collective Intelligence Institute (permalink)

History is written by the winners, which is why Luddite is a slur meaning "technophobe" and not a badge of honor meaning, "Person who goes beyond asking what technology does, to asking who it does it for and who it does it to."

If you'd like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here's a link to it on, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

Luddites weren't anti-machine activists, they were pro-worker advocates, who believed that the spoils of automation shouldn't automatically be allocated to the bosses who skimmed the profits from their labor and spent them on machines that put them out of a job. There is no empirical right answer about who should benefit from automation, only social contestation, which includes all the things that desperate people whose access to food, shelter and comfort are threatened might do, such as smashing looms and torching factories.

The question of who should benefit from automation is always urgent, and it's also always up for grabs. Automation can deepen and reinforce unfair arrangements, or it can upend them. No one came off a mountain with two stone tablets reading "Thy machines shall condemn labor to the scrapheap of the history while capital amasses more wealth and power." We get to choose.

Capital's greatest weapon in this battle is inevitabilism, sometimes called "capitalist realism," summed up with Frederic Jameson's famous quote "It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" (often misattributed to Žižek). A simpler formulation can be found in the doctrine of Margaret Thatcher: "There Is No Alternative," or even Dante's "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."

Hope – alternatives – lies in reviving our structural imagination, thinking through other ways of managing our collective future. Last May, Wired published a brilliant article that did just that, by Divya Siddarth, Danielle Allen and E. Glen Weyl:

That article, "The Web3 Decentralization Debate Is Focused on the Wrong Question," set forth a taxonomy of decentralization, exploring ways that power could be distributed, checked, and shared. It went beyond blockchains and hyperspeculative, Ponzi-prone "mechanism design," prompting me to subtitle my analysis "Not all who decentralize are bros":

That article was just one installment in a long, ongoing project by the authors. Now, Siddarth has teamed up with Saffron Huang to launch the Collective Intelligence project, "an incubator for new governance models for transformative technology."

The Collective Intelligence Project's research focus is "collective intelligence capabilities: decision-making technologies, processes, and institutions that expand a group’s capacity to construct and cooperate towards shared goals." That is, asking more than how automation works, but who it should work for.

Collective Intelligence institutions include "markets…nation-state democracy…global governance institutions and transnational corporations, standards-setting organizations and judicial courts, the decision structures of universities, startups, and nonprofits." All of these institutions let two or more people collaborate, which is to say, it lets us do superhuman things – things that transcend the limitations of the lone individual.

Our institutions are failing us. Confidence in democracy is in decline, and democratic states have failed to coordinate to solve urgent crises, like the climate emergency. Markets are also failing us, "flatten[ing] complex values in favor of over-optimizing for cost, profit, or share price."

Neither traditional voting systems nor speculative markets are up to the task of steering our emerging, transformative technologies – neither machine learning, nor bioengineering, nor labor automation. Hence the mission of CIP: "Humans created our current CI systems to help achieve collective goals. We can remake them."

The plan to do this is in two phases:

I. Value elicitation: "ways to develop scalable processes for surfacing and combining group beliefs, goals, values, and preferences." Think of tools like, which Taiwan uses to identify ideas that have the broadest consensus, not just the most active engagement.

II. Remake technology institutions: "technology development beyond the existing options of non-profit, VC-funded startup, or academic project." Practically, that's developing tools and models for "decentralized governance and metagovernance, internet standards-setting," and consortia.

The founders pose this as a solution to "The Transformative Technology Trilemma" – that is, the supposed need to trade off between participation, progress and safety.

This trilemma usually yields one of three unsatisfactory outcomes:

I. Capitalist Acceleration: "Sacrificing safety for progress while maintaining basic participation." Think of private-sector geoengineering, CRISPR experimentation, or deployment of machine learning tools. AKA "bro shit."

II. Authoritarian Technocracy: "Sacrificing participation for progress while maintaining basic safety." Think of the vulnerable world hypothesis weirdos who advocate for universal, total surveillance to prevent "runaway AI," or, of course, the Chinese technocratic system.

III. Shared Stagnation: "Sacrificing progress for participation while maintaining basic safety." A drive for local control above transnational coordination, unwarranted skepticism of useful technologies (AKA "What the Luddites are unfairly accused of").

The Institute's goal is to chart a fourth path, which seeks out the best parts of all three outcomes, while leaving behind their flaws. This includes deliberative democracy tools like sortition and assemblies, backed by transparent machine learning tools that help surface broadly held views from within a community, not just the views held by the loudest participants.

This dovetails into creating new tech development institutions to replace the default, venture-backed startup for "societally-consequential, infrastructural projects," including public benefit companies, focused research organizations, perpetual purpose trusts, co-ops, etc.

It's a view I find compelling, personally, enough so that I have joined the organization as a volunteer advisor.

This vision resembles the watershed groups in Ruthanna Emrys's spectacular "Half-Built Garden," which was one of the most inspiring novels I read last year (a far better source of stfnal inspo than the technocratic fantasies of the "Golden Age"):

And it revives the long-dormant, utterly necessary spirit of the Luddites, which you can learn a lot more about in Brian Merchant's forthcoming, magesterial "Blood In the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech":

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Rucker reviews Gibson

#5yrsago Elite Baltimore police unit robbed with impunity, sold guns and drugs, loaned guns and armor to civilians sent to commit robberies

#5yrsago Trump wants to cap lifetime Medicaid benefits, even for disabled people, the chronically ill, and people with Alzheimer’s

#5yrsago Oklahoma schools go on 4-day weeks so teachers can work at Walmart on Mondays to make rent

#5yrsago 25 years ago, a mutant American crayfish turned to asexual reproduction, and all of Europe’s lakes are filling up with its clones

#5yrsago California State Senator wants to remake cities with midrises near public transit, but he is facing a wave of nimbyism

#5yrsago Facebook hired a pollster to track Zuck’s public image, but he quit because working for Facebook filled him with shame

#5yrsago RIP John Perry Barlow, 1947-2018

#5yrsago The myth of the “genius creator” requires that we ignore the people they build on, or insist they don’t matter

Colophon (permalink)

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