How Can We Revamp Democracy? 5 Answers From Science Fiction

Democracy's self-destruct mechanism has been activated! And the computer voice - which sounds like the drone of a thousand cable news anchors - is counting down to the end of our precious system of government. As the information age and the hypermedia explosion turn democracy into a crazy spin game, it's increasingly likely we'll need to look at other models of allocating our dwindling resources. So it's a good thing science fiction offers us a number of alternative models for future government.


Science fiction isn't particularly positive when it comes to democracy. Democratic governments are too quick to rush into stupid wars and give power to despots, like Senator Jar Jar in the Star Wars prequels. Doctor Who shows some mob uprisings in a happy light on occasion, but also lampoons democracy as a system that forces politicians to pander to the people, or else get electrocuted, in "Vengeance On Varos." Winston Churchill famously said democracy is the worst system of government - apart from all the others that've been tried. But Winnie The Chill never tried living under a council of artificial intelligences, or a merged mega-consciousness. Here are some ideas for a post-democratic form of government from science fiction:

Let the artificial intelligences call some of the shots. Considering that our voting machines may already be choosing our candidates for us, it may just make sense to let truly independent AIs run the show instead. We'll see how long farm subsidies, corporate welfare and earmarks last when you have a system of AI control in place. Maybe the most famous example of government-by-AI is Iain M. Banks' "Culture" novels, in which the artificial "Minds" govern without corruption or undue favor. They're not entirely impartial, because they appear to have whims and idiosyncrasies in some of his books. But the main criticism people have leveled at them is that they're "too good." In place of laws, people in the Culture are governed by reputation and good manners, and even the Minds can gain or lose reputation according to their behavior. Only the best Minds get to be Hub Minds, controlling whole biospheres themselves. The novels of Isaac Asimov also often depict a "robocracy" ruled by machines or computers. Give the keys to the White House to a merged consciousness. In Peter F. Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy, the Edenists live in peace on space stations orbiting gas giants. Their secret of harmonious living: "Affinity," a form of telepathy where everybody is linked. All Edenists join together to create a government in a process known as "Consensus," where they link all their minds together. When an Edenist gets old, he/she can back up his/her consciousness and live on for hundreds more years inside the habitat, before gradually becoming submerged into the habitat's shared consciousness. Try techno-democracy, with a system of distributed government. In Tobias Buckell's new novel Sly Mongoose, we discover that the inhabitants of the planet Chilo use brain implants to allow a large cross-section of their populations to control their representatives directly. "There are three hundred thousand people from a variety of Aeolian cities voting on my every word because I'm their avatar, emissary, diplomat, or whatever you would like to call me," says Katerina. She signed up for this duty when she became a citizen, and was randomly selected. She has all of their voices "sitting behind her skull," and if she doesn't do a good job, she could be fined, exiled, or lose her citizenship. Just imagine if you could vote on every word that comes out of George W. Bush's mouth! Give the techno-hippie/green/feminist socialist utopia a chance. In novels like A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski and Woman At The Edge Of Time by Marge Piercy, everybody lives in harmony and everything is decided by the collective. In Ocean, the underwater happy lesbians are actually called the Sharers of Shora, and they share everything together. They live on rafts, or in the water, and use the verb "share" as much as possible. In the utopian future of Edge Of Time, everything is communal and people live in small towns that are "own-fed" (self-sustaining) and peaceful. Men breast-feed and everybody lives according to rituals and customs. And then there's the happy future of Star Trek and especially The Next Generation. Want and deprivation have been eliminated, nobody owns anything, and everything is peaceful and mellow unless Deforest Kelley is yelling in your ear. Thanks to inventions like the replicator (and an apparently inexhaustible supply of energy) the citizens of the Federation can make anything they want. And though we only get hints here and there about the government of the Federation, it's clearly not a democracy - there's never any mention of voting, and we see the Federation Council and President making decisions in a somewhat unilateral fashion. Or try anarchism. There are a few examples of functioning anarchist societies in science fiction. In Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed, for example, the anarchist followers of Odo split off from the mainstream society and form their own quasi-anarchist society. In theory, there are no laws on Anarres, and you can do whatever you want with your time. The main constraint is that you need to be able to work with others and gain their support in order to have access to the scarce resources on the planet. There's no property, so everything is shared, but our hero Shevek discovers over the course of the novel that there are still structures of authority, and you still have to kiss the ass of the man. And then there's The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, his main venture into anarchism. The lunar citizens have no written laws, and no way of enforcing contracts except based on someone's reputation. As one of Heinlein's mouthpieces says:

We don't have laws. Never been allowed to. Have customs, but aren't written and aren't enforced — or could say they are self-enforcing because [they] are simply way things have to be, conditions being what they are. Could say our customs are natural laws because the way people have to behave to stay alive.


Thanks to Lauren Davis for research help.

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