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Putting Innovation to a Vote? Majoritarian Processes versus Open Playing Fields

Putting innovation to a vote is never a good idea. Consider the breakthroughs that have improved our lives the most during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Did anyone vote for or ordain the creation of computers, the Internet, smartphones, or tablet computers? No: that plethora of technological treasures was made available by individuals who perceived possibilities unknown to the majority, and who devoted their time, energy, and resources toward making those possibilities real. The electronic technologies which were unavailable to even the richest, most powerful men of the early 20th century now open up hitherto unimaginable possibilities even to children of poor families in Sub-Saharan Africa.

(The views in this article are not necessarily opinions of the IEET. This article is not meant to take any single traditional perspective, but rather to take the best from all perspectives and explore how innovation in general can arise in spite of resistance from certain segments of society. The photos were chosen by the editor to outline some aspects of this article but do not necessarily represent all of the text.)

On the other hand, attempts to innovate through majority decisions, either by lawmakers or by the people directly, have failed to yield fruit. Although virtually everyone would consider education, healthcare, and defense to be important, fundamental objectives, the goals of universal cultivation of learning, universal access to healthcare, and universal security against crime and aggression have not been fulfilled, in spite of massive, protracted, and expensive initiatives throughout the Western world to achieve them.

While it is easy even for people of little means to experience any art, music, literature, films, and games they desire, it can be extremely difficult for even a person of ample means to receive the effective medical care, high-quality formal education, and assurance of safety from both criminals and police brutality that virtually anyone would desire.

Why is it the case that, in the essentials, the pace of progress has been far slower than in the areas most people would deem to be luxuries or entertainment goods? Why is it that the greatest progress in the areas treated by most as direct priorities comes as a spillover benefit from the meteoric growth in the original luxury/entertainment areas? (Consider, as an example, the immense benefits that computers have brought to medical research and patient care, or the vast possibilities for using the Internet as an educational tool.)

In the areas from which the eye of formal decision-making systems is turned away, experimentation can commence, and courageous thinkers and tinkerers can afford to iterate without asking permission. So teenagers experimenting in their garages can create computer firms that shape the economy of a generation. So a pseudonymous digital activist, Satoshi Nakamoto, can invent a cryptocurrency algorithm that no central bank or legislature would have allowed to emerge at a proposal stage – but which all governments of the world must now accept as a fait accompli that is not going away.

Most people without political connections or strong anti-free-enterprise ideologies welcome these advances, but no such breakthroughs can occur if they need to be cleared through a formal majoritarian system of any stripe. A majoritarian system, vulnerable to domination by special interests who benefit from the economic and societal arrangements of the status quo, does not welcome their disruption.

Most individuals have neither the power nor the tenacity to shepherd through the political process an idea that would be merely a nice addition rather than an urgent necessity. On the other hand, the vested and connected interests whose revenue streams, influence, and prestige would be disrupted by the innovation have every incentive to manipulate the political process and thwart the innovations they can anticipate.

It is only when some subset of reality is a fully open playing field, away from the notice of vested interests or their ability to control it, that innovation can emerge in a sufficiently mature and pervasive form that any attempts to suffocate it politically become seen as transparently immoral and protectionist. The open playing field can be any area that is simply of no interest to the established powers – as could be said of personal computers through the 1990s. Eventually, these innovations evolve so dramatically as to upturn the major economic and social structures underpinning the establishment of a given era.

The open playing field can be a jurisdiction more welcoming to innovators than its counterparts, and beyond the reach of innovation’s staunchest opponents. Seasteading, for example, would enable more competition among jurisdictions, and is particularly promising as a way of generating more such open playing fields. The open playing field can be an entirely new area of human activity where the power structures are so fluid that staid, entrenched interests have not yet had time to emerge. The early days of the Internet and of cryptocurrencies are examples of these kinds of open playing fields.

The open playing field can even occur after a major upheaval has dislodged most existing power structures, as occurred in Japan after World War II, when decades of immense progress in technology and infrastructure followed the toppling of the former militaristic elite by the United States.

​The beneficent effect of the open playing field is made possible not merely due to the lack of formal constraints, but also due to the lack of constraints on human thinking within the open playing field. When the world is fresh and new, and anything seems possible, human ingenuity tends to rise to the occasion.

If, on the other hand, every aspect of life is hyper-regimented and weighed down by the precedents, edicts, compromises, and traditions of era upon era – even with the best intentions toward optimization, justice, or virtue – the existing strictures constrain most people’s view of what can be achieved, and even the innovators will largely struggle to achieve slight tweaks to the status quo rather than the kind of paradigm-shifting change that propels civilization forward and upward. In struggling to conform to or push against the tens of thousands of prescriptions governing mundane life, people lose sight of astonishing futures that might be.

The open playing fields may not be for everyone, but they should exist for anyone who wishes to test a peaceful vision for the future. Voting works reasonably well in the Western world (most of the time) when it comes to selecting functionaries for political office, or when it is an instrument within a deliberately gridlocked Constitutional system designed to preserve the fundamental rules of the game rather than to prescribe each player’s move. But voting is a terrible mechanism for invention or creativity; it reduces the visions of the best and brightest – the farthest-seeing among us – to the myopia of the median voter.

This is why you should be glad that nobody voted on the issue of whether we should have computers, or connect them to one another, or experiment with stores of value in a bit of code. Instead, you should find (or create!) an open playing field and give your own designs free rein.

Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov regularly produces YouTube Videos discussing life extension, libertarianism, and related subjects.


As the editor of this article, it is my personal opinion and recommendation that the reader visits:

etc, etc, to get a better understanding of “classical anarchism”. I then encourage you to find ways to adapt this phenomenal and historically rich way to think about how to “structure society” to transhumanism and the future of freedom in a super-evolved, technologically abundant planet (earth). - Kris

“Putting Innovation to a Vote?..”

Since when does anyone/govt/peoples put innovation to a vote?

This opinion has no grounding in fact, and is just building a wicker man to burn it down.

Rather than being misdirected further, we should all be demanding greater democratic powers to ensure that science funding and heathcare and innovation is not stifled/privatized and manipulated by private enterprise under the sanction of crony govt politics?



@CygnusX1, I usually agree with you, but one of the fundamental themes of socialism, technoprogressivism, and anarchism is direct democracy and voting on concepts/ideas.

I think it would be a wonderful thing if we could vote on which technological innovations/inventions/progress we need the most. Instead of drones delivering crap to your doorstep, perhaps more research should go into climate change, hunger, resource distribution. We can also imagine voting on the idea that we need nanotechnology, genetics, etc to be focused on the most important parts of medicine.

@Kris re “I think it would be a wonderful thing if we could vote on which technological innovations/inventions/progress we need the most.”

It would be cool indeed, but as an extra. Scientific advances are usually the result of unplanned research, by researchers who follow their interests and hunches without too much oversight. Centrally planned science doesn’t advance. Requiring public consensus before any research is done would paralyze science.

@ Kris…

Confusion and even conflicts over political positions can be nuanced, a kind of disagreement borne of parallax error from viewing problems/solutions from slightly different political angles.. does this make sense? Let me explain..

First off, the premise of the article is wrong .. and used to set up a straw man.
For sure! No Human/Organisation/government should be permitted to stifle innovation, (even creation of WMDs? Mass Surveillance technology?), or similarly, use representative voting and leading bias to prevent innovation.

But this is not what the author is suggesting.. he is suggesting that (direct) democracy hinders innovation, (which it certainly can - the manipulation of “uniformed democracy” relies on the spread of ignorance and in reactionary, emotional leading bias), and therefore builds his case that it will, (that is up to democracy - a self-fulfilling political philosophy)?

It is not the flavour of the political position supporting (direct) democracy that is in question, but the error in assuming democracy will prevent innovation, this is at very least erroneous, and at most, misleading and pure misdirection, (whether the author believes this or not)?

Giving government free license to write their own mandate, impose austerity and cuts in welfare, healthcare and science funding at their convenience, (all of this said on the other threads - I know I am repeating myself), is more damaging to innovation than implied problems using democratic process?

And I’m sure we have also discussed direct democracy voting methodology on one of your previous articles also.. especially regarding leading bias and how to avoid it?

Suffice to say, any question offered for democratic vote and referendum can include leading bias, yet it is up to “democracy” to ensure that leading bias is not utilized, or at least balanced by opposing viewpoints so that voters can make “informed” decisions as best as democracy can offer?

This has it’s own dilemma/problems, but it is not impossible nor unfeasible, that skills and skill set is developed as a part of direct democratic process to ensure that voters are not mislead, informed as concisely and intelligently as possible, on every concern/matter that affects their own welfare/quality of life, (as I suggested in Zoltan’s article - although notice, he did not fully support his own suggestion and step up to the “democratic” podium and support vote against power parties that may hinder longevity as I suggested - was this a test?)

1. Should embryo stem cells be used to experiment on longevity research?
(make your case - concisely and frequently)

2. Should we stifle longevity research by halting legal use of embryo stem cells?
(make your case - concisely and frequently)

3. Should we prevent longevity research as priority altogether?
(make your case - concisely and frequently)

If you think like me? Then the last question ensures that further contemplation is promoted?

Sure enough, (and what the author could have suggested and carrying greater weight in convincing), is that direct democratic process introduces both lag and delay, (also can be utilized as leading bias), which can stifle innovation. And for sure, democratic process unavoidably introduces delay, (not good to democratically vote on imminent existential threats - but this is why we elect “good and just” men/women into power isn’t it - #sarcasm)?

Yet even these delays in democracy can be easily ironed out.. and utilizing online technology, any question posed need not have any finite answer.. as eventually contemporary views will change to either “slow” sensitive and perhaps harming innovation, (mass surveillance), or help “speed” up acceptance of technology/blue skies/discovery driven innovation, (such as longevity research).

Ps. Read recently on someplace that stem cells can now be grown from any adult cell, so the future use of embryonic stem cells may well be reduced greatly/eliminated making any theocracy arguments against moot, (although presently these stem cells are not as robust)?

@CygnusX1 re “(direct) democracy hinders innovation”

I don’t think (direct) democracy hinders innovation, but I don’t think it favors innovation either. Democracy is great for social zoning agreements, but innovation has always required mavericks who try out new things for fun. If the need for their experiments were to be put to majority vote before they are allowed to start experimenting, we would be still living in caves.

“If the need for their experiments were to be put to majority vote before they are allowed to start experimenting, we would be still living in caves.”

Yet what concerns is the “ethics” of experimentation which may/should require democratic vote? The Nazi’s experimentation with Jews certainly needed no democratic process according to their ideology - and exaggeration perhaps? Yet what of experimenting on Apes and other intelligent species - where do you “personally” draw the line in the sand?

This is why we call it IEET and not IET?



@CygnusX1 re “where do you “personally” draw the line in the sand”

Experiments that actually harm actual sentient beings are no good, experiments that don’t harm anyone are good. There is no such thing as a victimless crime.

Science always stumbles upon magnificent discoveries e.g. Penicillin. However science also had political goals such as the Manhattan Project and landing on the moon.

As I do not agree with most aspects of this article, I do think that consensus based voting and direct democracy of a well educated community could direct science better than trigger happy competitive governments/nation-states and/or corporations.

@CygnusX1 and Giulio - “Experiments that actually harm actual sentient beings are no good, experiments that don’t harm anyone are good.” While I agree, even if we voted that the scientific community should focus on food distribution/innovation and (lets say) geoengineering, somewhere along the line there might be a discovery of how to, and this speculative, harmful control of crop production (oh wait Monsanto already did that) or, in the case of geoengineering, how to save the north instead of the south.

The goals of course are to feed everyone on the planet and save the world from climate change / global warming in this example, but unintended discoveries is a fact of doing science.

That is why if the main goal which was voted on produced a negative discovery to sentient beings, that discovery should remain in the journals and never be utilized unless a positive outcome from these negative discoveries can be used in the future for good, in my opinion

Manhattan and the moon landing indeed seem to be good counter examples (though the former is hardly a happy one…), but I think there is a kernel of truth in this article that I don’t really see recognised in the comments. Indeed, one of the author’s key points is one to which I would expect Giulio to be especially sympathetic: namely that as soon as the government gets involved, vested interests take over and the actual public interest tends to get drowned out. I have witnessed this many times in my professional activities: even among those who like to think they are acting for the public good, all too often it is a mixture of office politics and lobbying - or rather clumsy reactions to lobbying - that wins the day.

@Peter re “one of the author’s key points is one to which I would expect Giulio to be especially sympathetic: namely that as soon as the government gets involved, vested interests take over and the actual public interest tends to get drowned out.”

Peter, I am not anti government, just anti bad government. The office politicking and lobbying that you cite are examples of bad government.

My main point here is a more general one: very often innovation comes from evolution-like creative chaos (watch for my review of a new book where the author makes this point very well), it cannot be centrally managed, let alone put to a vote. What good government does, is to create the conditions favorable to innovation and let evolution work. What bad government does, is to destroy the conditions favorable to innovation (sounds familiar?)

I agree about good and bad government, and some governments are better than others; more accurately, some aspects of government are better than others. The office politics and lobbying are pretty much ubiquitous factors: office politics is just what happens when human beings work together, and lobbying actually serves a useful purpose, when suitably constrained. But sometimes the system works, in spite of the politics and vested interests, to produce a relatively good result. In that respect, I still think I am more positive about government than you are - especially the EU - at least judging from comments you have made in the past.

In any case, I agree that you have come closest on this thread to understanding the author’s main point: that the best research is often unplanned, and governmental planning often (not always, but often) does more harm than good.

ma·jor·i·tar·i·an (mə-jôr′ĭ-târ′ē-ən, -jŏr′-)
Based on majority rule: “a naively uncomplicated premise of simple majoritarian democracy” (Saturday Review).
An advocate of majoritarianism.

Hope David Brin won’t mind me posting a snippet from “Existence”, for educational purposes?

“Back in the TwenCen, governments built all the great universities, libraries and research centers, the museums and arenas, the observatories, monuments and Internets. Now, groaning with debt, they left such things to the mega-wealthy, as in times of old. A tradition as venerable as the Medicis. As Hadrian and Domitian. As the Pyramids.”

I don’t want to annoy you, CygnusX1, but what you just posted doesn’t seem immediately relevant to the debate. If you explained why you think it is it might help the rest of us to understand what point you are trying to make, myself included. We might agree or disagree, but at least we’d be having a genuine conversation.

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