== Leo Qin ==

Consensualism, Ecology, and Personhood

books tech

It’s quite easy to find dystopian sci-fi.

I think that this is because our current state and path leads us exactly towards one. However, it is harder to find the opposite; while it’s hard to imagine any fully utopian science fiction that provide the stakes, structure, or depth necessary to also make an entertaining book, I think that there are places to find science-and-speculative fiction that is written with better days in mind.

To wit, I recently read two books that really captured my imagination - and what they both had in common were an optimistic tone, deep focus on ecology as the salve to environmental destruction, and a palpably achievable society in which consensualist decision making was facilitated by sensor fusion (I’m serious, please keep reading…)

The books in question - The Terraformers by Annalee Newitz and A Half-Built Garden by Ruthanna Emrys.

The former, which takes place in the distant future over the course of several hundred years, tells the story of a self-governing autonomous organization tasked with guarding the ecology of a remote planet to transform and prepare it for future human inhabitation (facilitated by capitalism, of course). The main characters use vast sensor networks to monitor the state of the system and intervene to restore a balanced and sustainable state when things go awry. As the book goes on, they participate in the growth of their society and the turbulence that such growth has on their model of consensual decision-making and eventually, the nature of personhood itself.

The latter takes place in a near future (2070s) where nation-states and corporations have been reined in by the influence of federated self-governing autonomous organizations that guard the ecology of Earth against their influence. The main characters use regional sensor networks to monitor the climate within their watershed and enforce restrictions on the carbon output and pollutions of the corporations and nation-states with the aim to restore the system equilibrium of the planet. The conflict in the books centers around the arrival of aliens that believe humanity is destined to outgrow the planet’s resources and invite them to join their own “symbiosis” (read: federation of species) and the strain that such an offer puts on their model of consensual decision-making.

Yeah - these books are super similar, and I can’t help but be taken in by the patterns of governance that they model - de-centralized, consensualist, based on ecological principles, and directly facilitated not by technology broadly, but specifically sensor fusion. What exactly makes this such an attractive model of the future?

Consensualism and Voting Systems

To start - consensualism is an obvious first principle for just governance. In particular, while democracy is a necessary condition for consensualist forms of government, not all applications of democracy operate in a consensualist manner. For example, it could be said that the American system of simple plurality voting is less consensualist that others that set higher bars for political victory - the English parliamentary system takes it farther by providing incentives for voters to express complex beliefs by voting for a diversity of parties, and ranked-choice voting systems make the translation between voter intent and political outcome even less lossy.

The system described in A Half Built Garden takes these principles to an extreme - referendum-based continuous direct democracy, mediated using an algorithmic embedding of the organization’s shared values and with individual vote weighting based on expertise and reputational factors. The embedding of shared values is quite interesting to me, because it allows you to set a functional floor for the outcomes of the process - so long as there is consensus (and consent) on the shared values, voters are safe to vote to their true preference with minimal risk of perverse outcomes. Put another way, we cannot operate a shared society without recognition of things such as human rights and bodily autonomy - these are the table stakes, and if you don’t share in these values, you are not welcome to share in our society. Within these guardrails, anything else is free for discussion.

The latter half of the system does give me pause - weighting individual votes based on expertise feels akin to a social credit score at best, and straight eugenics at worst. It is tempting to think of this as a meritocratic fever dream - but is there a just form that such a system could take? One parallel to draw with the real world may be guilds and other trade organizations that certify expertise - one rationale for representative democracy has always been that individual voters are not capable of learning the intricate details of complex issues to make an informed vote, nor should they be expected to do so. Instead, coalitions of experts (and their evil twin, interest groups) can provide guidance, briefing, and recommendation.

If you think about it that way, it could be argued that expert coalitions and interest groups already do have an outsized voice in our current politic (ok, mainly interest groups). Would it be much different for a direct referendum democratic system to implement this same process via algorithmic weighting? Alternatively (and this is not something that we’ve had the ability to test in the real world) does a constant stream of referenda mean it’s less important for any individual voter to vote on any individual issue? Interestingly, I think that this structure implies that voters should not vote on issues where they have no vested interest, or that do not directly affect them.

Perhaps the magic of the system in A Half Built Garden is that politics is not an occasional affair where we fight for survival, or alternatively to exterminate our enemies. Rather, it be a low-intensity stream of small questions where basic questions of human dignity and rights have been settled, and voters who have a vested interest in an issue engage in politic while those without any input or impact simply don’t vote - sitting out an election is not so bad when they happen all the time. It certainly does not hurt that the society described in book has a comprehensive safety net, including food and housing.

When you think about the complexity of the decisions that the referenda might decide, it makes sense, then, that sensor data and statistical modeling is so central to their decision making process. Humans, even experts in the field, have always had trouble with conceptualizing the second, third, and further order effects of their decisions. In our current system, the requirements of expertise are filled by interest groups; of course the wealthiest ones having the loudest voices. This need to defer to expertise may be an inherent flaw (or desirable feature?) of representative democracy - by delegating voting power to an individual we make it almost a guarantee that they do not have the requisite expertise to make an informed vote. Can technology make representative democracy obsolete?

Ecology as a Mindset

Another broad, shared theme of both books is that the most important mission of the autonomous organizations is simply ecology - every technological innovation, political principle is dedicated to safeguarding the ecology of the planet. Perhaps it is not surprising that the destination of intense analysis is ecology - I think that we sometimes refer to the ecological mindset as applied to other domains as “systems thinking”, so it is not necessarily uncommon to engage in ecology. Of course, the plots of the book are set in and around climate catastrophe, but is it possibly the case that the ecological approach begets the plot of the books, not the other way around?

I suspect this may be the case - both authors spend substantially more time (enjoyably so, in my opinion) describing the world and organizational structures that the characters find themselves in, and textually seem much more interested in this than the ecological conservation mission itself. Thinking about these systems as complex characters in the story, an ecological approach to conservation is the only one that keeps these unusual systems of organization relevant.

I am not fully convinced of this, however - it is difficult to imagine a non-ecological approach to conservation that has any chance of success (not that we don’t try - the marketization and financialization of recycling comes to mind).

Expansion of Personhood

Finally - I want to discuss an element of The Terraformers that I really enjoyed - the so-called “Great Bargain”, wherein the society uses a test to measures the intelligence of a species, and a high enough score “brings them into the Great Bargain” - a designation of literal Personhood that entitles them to rights of autonomy and self-realization, as well as implants that allow ready communication with other people. In the same way that there are human people, there are moose people, and dog people, and earthworm people, and eventually - Train people, a new species created artificially. Membership in the Great Bargain means that other People have to treat you as such, but you have to reciprocate and participate in shared society. Not surprisingly, species in the Bargain seem to be universally vegan or vegetarian in diet.

I don’t think it’s ever said explicitly, but it seems that the dark secret (or fantastic joke) of the test that gates entry into the Great Bargain is not that difficult - in fact, entry into the Great Bargain ends up having to do more with the decision to adminster the test, rather than actual performance on it. If we think of communication as the thing that differentiates “intelligent” life from others, then doesn’t the existence of technology that enables communication with any species turn that into tautology?

I like this a lot - the notion of intelligence as an inherent trait has its roots in eugenics, and never made much sense to me.


It’s apparent that both of these books have left a significant impression on me.

On the topic of consensualism, I haven’t ever given much thought about the limits of representative democracy, or the way that technology might mediate solutions to these limits. This is certainly an area where crypto-currencies (or, I guess blockchain applications) have tried to present an alternative, none of which seem to have avoided the financialization that makes all such applications thus far useless.

On the topic of ecology, I feel encourage to approach ecology as a mindset, rather than a subject - the vague label of “systems thinker” that we see encouraged in the tech industry (such as in someone’s LinkedIn title (vomit)) should be treated as a call to arms to learn more about ecology.

On personhood, I find it fascinating to think of the implications of creating a durably expanding notion of personhood. This is perhaps the area where technology plays the largest role in The Terraformers, but it is not even a prerequisite to make use of these lessons in our current world - it is apparent from their actions that many humans do not believe even that all other humans are worthy of the rights afforded by nature to People.

Both The Terraformers and A Half-Built Garden ponder extremely interesting questions of what a distributed, technologically enabled, and equitable future might look like, and what conflicts such societies may yet encounter; simply - the Work is never done.