An Interface for Politics

December 10, 2008

What happens when we bring interface standards to bear on the experience of politics?

A project manager once assured me he would be a “human interface” between me and another programmer, meaning he would be a two-way relay, transferring questions and requests between us. This turn of phrase was by no means unique. Anyone who lives or works among the digerati can supply their own examples. It stands to reason that, after assimilating great interfaces like Google, Amazon, Tivo, and the iPhone into our lives, we would assimilate the concept of interface itself.

As interface-shaped experience permeates our lives more thoroughly, there will be mutations on multiple fronts. In this post, I will explore the political front, and propose several interfaces that would seriously alter how citizens relate to their governments.

“Politics” is shorthand for the diffuse, diverse process that stretches from voters, to parties, ideologies, and media, and then to actual politicians and bureaucracies. Since the notion of mediation is as elastic a notion as they come, the number of ways we could apply the idea of interfaces to this process is staggering. My own staring point is here doggedly user-centered. What if we were to compare a voter confronting politics to a user confronting an interface?

The experience is scattered.

When I go to amazon.com, I can: search for books; read the blurb and maybe a sample chapter; triangulate the blurb and chapter with user reviews; save the book in the shopping cart; pay for it; choose to pay for fast delivery or not. Shopping for a president is not nearly so convenient or centralized. For research, I jabber to friends, read articles at various sites and watch various shows on tv. Then I tromp to the lobby of a small Korean church, sign in, wait, and finally, blot the ballot.

The whole experience is typically more episodic and passive. Of course, it might seem unfair to judge a non-interface with interface standards. Naturally it suffers in comparison. So why subject a complicated, evolving real-world phenomenon to standards more appropriate to a gizmo or web site, altogether tidier things?

I hope the analogy will soon make sense. For now, some preliminary observations. First, consider that, while it might seem odd to compare politics to an interface now, as more aspects of our lives come under the purview of interfaces, the odder it will seem that politics stands naked, without a dedicated interface.

Second, politics already is somewhat interface-like. Like an interface, with its readouts, beeps and buttons, it allows users both to understand and act. And like an interface, it does not attempt a completely accurate representation of its subject (soccer moms and Uncle Bills on one side, bureaucracies, NATO, the minimum alternative tax on the other), but offers a convenient shorthands and grips.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the nuance and reach of current interfaces vis-a-vis politics. Amazon is definitely not tic-tac-toe. It is by exponents more complex than ink-blot, punch-out, or touch-screen voting. And it does an instructive job of hiding irrelevant complexities (warehouses, server loads) and highlighting relevant ones (clashing opinions, possible alternative books or products).

The experience offers a severe trade-off between control and convenience.

An endemic puzzle for interface designers is the spectrum of possible users. Usually, their design must accommodate casual users and users getting oriented as well power users who exploit every keyboard shortcut and optional nicety. Users experience this conflict for themselves regardless of their level of expertise. For any particular task, they must find the balance between simplicity and perfection. In fact, we are constantly calibrating this balance in our extra-interface lives, too. How much should we bother monitoring money, calories, relationships? What is the optimum trade-off between convenience and control?

The institutions of politics aren’t as mutable as our oft-mislaid plans to count calories, but they reflect this tension as well. At one pole, we have representation. It’s the latest and greatest in convenience. Instead of delving too deeply into policy or ideology, we settle on a person whose outlook seems closest to our own, and vote for them to run the government. It’s intuitive, and works fairly well, especially when compared to the all-to-common non-consensual forms of leadership that have rendered so much history a vicious soap opera.

Unfortunately, representation also disengages people from the power, allowing various forms of self-dealing and trickery to flourish. So direct democracy developed at the other pole. When the peculiarities of the political process thwart the majority, the majority can speak more directly on the matter with initiatives. Unfortunately, voting on fire-department pensions and watershed bonds and the niceties of insurance law is mostly ridiculous. Who has the time or inclination to exercise this degree of control, especially since power users regularly introduce peculiarities of their own into the process?

Some trade-offs are better than others.

Like any essential opposition (security/freedom, diversity/unity, equality/excellence), the tension between convenience and control cannot, in any final way, be overcome. But there are trade-offs and then there are trade-offs. Some will be clearly better than others, and as circumstances shift the best trade-off might also shift.

In the last two decades, interfaces have tipped the balance in favor of control, especially in the fields of recreation and entertainment. It was convenient to listen to the radio, but after the iPod, it become nearly costless to put together a personal radio station. It was simple to go to the theater on the weekend, but Netflix.com speedily dispatched the blase popcorn-muncher in me and installed in his place a decadent cineaste. The efforts associated with taking control have plummeted, so things that used to seem convenient—like blaring radios and theaters with soda-stained carpets—now seem pretty damn irritating.

In this context, our political system seems less than optimal. It offers convenience with only the roughest controls (throw the bums out!), and control without any convenience (the end of the ballot becomes one extended text-block of initiatives).

There are, however, alternatives political institutions that could finesse the convenience/control trade-off. Here are three quick proposals.

Proposal #1: One citizen web account to rule them all would be nice.

Wouldn’t it be convenient to have a web account to access your tax data: your W-2 reports, tax rate, forms, etc.. Wouldn’t it be convenient if this account allowed easy access to past years’ data, and encompassed federal, state and local taxes? And what about filing and paying these taxes? Voting? Getting a social-security credit or school voucher? Let’s throw them in there, too.

Such an account would demonstrate that control and convenience are not necessarily or even usually opposed, since convenience can increase control.

It’s true that this account in itself changes little in the way of particular tasks. We already vote, pay taxes, etc. And yet the whole account would amount to more than the sum of its parts. Besides saving us hassle, it would offer citizens a picture of their dealings with the government that is both strong in outline and generous with details.

I know that my Bank of America online account, by listing credits and debits, and placing credit-card and bank accounts side by side, has made me more aware of my financial status and more apt to take measures to change it. Just as the iPod has made me deliberate about my tunes, it’s made me deliberate about my money. Next is getting right with the government.

Proposal #2: Direct voting on taxes and budgets can be facilitated by mathematical simplifications.

Who gets taxed what, and how the money is spent, are complicated issues. Fortunately, since taxes and budgets are mathematical phenomenon, they can be simplified—and citizens can participate directly in setting national priorities.

The key element would be reducing both the federal budget and the tax schedule to interactive graphics, so voters could easily compare alternatives and vote on them.

The budget could be handled with a series of bar graphs. Each bar would represent a category of spending: stipends for 65+-year-olders; reimbursements for medical care given to them; military; medical expenses for children in families earning less then $16k, interest on the debt, infrastructure, regulation, etc. Its height would represent the proportion of the budget devoted to that category: 20%, 35%, 10%, etc. Voters could sample the different budgets to see how the bars changed, or they could modify the bars themselves and press a button to select the budget nearest their preferences.

Every two years, voters would rank all the proposed budget ratios—and the budget with the most votes (after an instant runoff) would become the law of the land.

The tax schedule interactive would consist of a series of three-bar groups. The groups would be generated by income bracket: 15k, 30k, 60k, 100k, 150k, 250k, 500k+. The first bar would be the tax rate (% of income) for that group, the second would be the population (% of population) that pays this tax rate, and the third the proportion of the total income-tax revenue contributed by this population (% of total revenue). In every grouping, the voter could manipulate the tax rate bar, and as she does so, see the adjustments to total revenue figure and proportional tax burden for each bracket. As with the budget-ratio interactive, this interactive would represent the various proposed schedules, and let voters cook up their ideal schedules.

With interactive ballots, individual voters could vastly increase their sway over national priorities. They wouldn’t have granular control over the whole budget or schedule, but the control possible with budget-ratio and tax-rate simplifications would be awesome compared to that possible with status-quo simplifications like “Republican,” “Democrat,” “tax cuts”, “community.”

Direct, simplification-based voting would also be educational, letting voters model various schemes: Are we really soaking the rich now? If not, would soaking them really produce a large windfall? Would an across-the-board flat tax generate enough income? It would also give them an accurate sense of where they stood, and what “poor,” “middle-class,” and “rich” meant, how much revenue was available, and where it was disappearing to. This could be useful. I for one would appreciate it. I’ve been following politics and reading the New York Times since I was 14…and to this very day and hour, to most of these questions I’d have to respond: Dunno.

You might wonder if voters would be diligent or smart enough to discharge these new responsibilities. I’d turn this question around: Are our current representatives diligent or smart enough to discharge their responsibilities? Other than a few committee members, does the average Congressmen have a good grasp of the structure of the federal budget, or the tax schedule? And if they did, and the perfect tax and budget scheme was spinning brilliantly in their heads, would they be able to act accordingly—or would the lobbyists or party whips get to them first?

Proposal #3: Direct voting on one-off issues like declarations of war should take place immediately after a streamed trial.

If you live in an initiative-happy state like California, you know that direct democracy can be a unwanted chore. Yet certain issues are perfect candidates for direct up-or-down votes because they are both dramatic and relatively infrequent. War, for instance.

What kind of direct-democratic process would be best for a declaration of war? Here is one idea: A seven-hour streamed debate, held in prime-time over four days, modeled on a trial and culminating in a national online vote. Like any formal debate, the debate would briskly alternate war and anti-war proponents and arguments. The format would be wide open: animations, maps, talking-head experts, politicians, testimonials, bag-pipers, whatever. The only stipulation would be that of a normal trial: disclosure of all materials. One side could call the other side’s witnesses, re-cut their videos, meta-critique their maps. Two days after closing statements, voters would log on and deliver their personal yeah or nay.

The debate would have several benefits. It would force both sides to gather their best arguments and take responsibility for them. (The death penalty applied to perjury would not, in this context, be inappropriate, and would deter take-one-for-the-team lackeys like Colin Powell.) It would leave voters more informed about their wars than they have ever been. If war was undertaken, it would provide a solid fund of informed consent for war leaders, and would prepare citizens for sacrifices and contingencies. Overall, it would make us peace-loving in a better way, and war-fighting in a better way.

These benefits depend on voter engagement, which the process is structured to maximize. Seven hours is long enough for substantial debate—and will force presenters to vary their arguments and evidence. It is also short enough to keep voters’ attention, and the compact schedule provides a convenient way for inattentive voters to catch up. Moreover, the alternating debate format, familiar from a trillion court dramas, is a proven attention grabber. But the number-one factor in holding voters’ attention will be the fact that they, not some posturing, pre-sold Congressmen, will be voting, and their America-Idol-type power will cast a klieg-bright spotlight on the proceedings.

Political interfaces should be both educational and easy to use.

I’ve proposed three new interfaces—two actual GUIs, one metaphorical interface. I fully expect that these proposals can be improved or superseded. The important thing is to generate designs that manage to be convenient + informative + relevant, no small order. When I present these designs to my left-of-center friends, if the reception is not dismissive (as it usually is), it goes something like this: we can field your little scheme after we fix the education system and regulate the media and mitigate inequality and avert environmental catastrophe, etc. In this they remind me of my segregationist grandfather. Of course, he graciously admitted, blacks should vote, when they are ready for it…and it never seemed quite the time.

What Pops and these liberals miss is that the most vital education, especially for citizenship, is simply what one learns by doing. When dreaming up these three interfaces, I’ve tried to incorporate this principle variously: the Web account that enables an overview of your interactions with the government; the graphics-based voting that shows in detail the consequences of the vote your pondering; and the war debate terminated with a referendum.

Surprise #1! The media is not the enemy.

If you came to this post expecting to read about the Internet and the 2008 presidential campaign, I apologize. I’ve brought you to a queer place, where you see cartoon ballots adjust themselves and IRAQ 3! DEBATE DAY 2 plays on the wall. But, since for some reason I still have your ear, let me inform you exactly how queer your plight is.

When one hears about the media in a political context, it is usually because the media is accused of bias or deception. Liar, liar, pants on fire!

In this post the media’s capacity to misinform has been way less interesting to me than its capacity to inform. My aim in proposing new interfaces is to imagine how the most people can get the most information and act on it most effectively. My assumption is that “the media” is not something right-thinking people can put to one side. If the media can be a conduit for error, it must be the conduit for truth as well. The point is to think constructively about decision processes—drawing upon any media, whether it be print, video, interactivity—that favor the second.

I’m not implying that propaganda is not worth of our attention. Important people are striding around with pants absolutely ablaze, and they always will be. Somebody has to keep pointing them out. But next time you hear the righteous truth teller cry out, prick up your ears. He seems indignant that one set of people is keeping another set of people in a state of ignorance.

But how urgent does he sound about actually enlightening the sorry, defrauded public? Is how we do reach the truth is as alive to him as how we don’t reach the truth? Generally, as long as the public agrees with the truth teller’s positions, nirvana is assumed.

Surprise #2! New mechanisms of personal customization and gratification can be applied to politics.

Devices like web browsers are immensely effective at delivering custom pleasures. Within seconds, a web surfer can be staring at hundreds of thumbnails that reveal his perviest inclinations. The emergence of social networking sites like Face Book and MySpace, with their emphasis on self-disclosure and self-promotion, is just a twist on this self-centered dynamic.

So it feels a little strange to take inspiration from these new interfaces to talk about the government…a little like bringing a dildo to the office.

It’s not sufficient to remind ourselves that these interfaces forms and the technologies undergirding them are neutral with regard to their ultimate use, and that pornographers just happened to exploit them before the slow-witted government could. It still feels strange.

The problem is the common notion of politics as an arena which the self should enter without its distracting quirks or daily egocentrism. This notion is strongly confirmed by the most dramatic moments in political consciousness. The soldier dead for his country, the non-profit friend speaking warmly of service in her dinky studio, the politician whose speech evinces a Borg-like ability to subsume his various listeners, the identity-muezzin calling to his race to their rituals—none of these people care whether Bill Clinton wears boxers or briefs.

Yet one can accept that politics has these moments—moments among other moments—and still believe that democracy would be better for permitting fully empowered selves into the process of collective decision making—citizens who can vote directly on war, or taxes and budgets, for instance, without having their votes mediated by politicians or parties. The easiest path to believing this is simply to articulate the opposite proposition, that selves must enter politics through a narrow gate, exercising their powers only in accord with their higher, collective being, whatever the hell that is.

Surprise #3! Internet-based reforms could entail centralization, not decentralization.

Net politics have grassroots cachet: bloggers gleefully stick it to the New York Times; small donors propel dark-horse candidates; regular folks meet up and organize other regular folks; ideas from the fringe strike quickly to the center. The idea that the dreary, locked-down, organization-driven world of politics could suddenly loosen up and morph in the face of decent, determined people is exhilarating—and the reality is even more exhilarating, when it happens.

But have you noticed how little this post draws on “grassroots” imagery or ideology? Instead of tapping into the bottom-up, you-never-know grassroots, each proposal projects new institution that are staid, predictable, and used year in and year out. Instead of reflecting diversity, each scales a similar experience to hundreds of millions of people. In fact, next to the decentralized grassroots, the three of them seem like a re-run of mid-century America. One-size-fits-all!

Let me explain. My goal is to structure institutions that can involve individual citizens in a convenient and informative process that funnels down to discrete decisions. If that were the goal fixed in your mind, when you looked at the current politics and government, you would not see the dead-hand of anti-grassroot-ism. You’d instead see a process that is already overwhelmingly grassrootsy. Small bands of people already have enormous influence, whether because of their money or organization, or just their intensity or canniness. How decisions are made is not usually clear; the process seems chaotic and the results emergent. In deliberate contrast, the institutions I’ve proposed will be comparatively uniform, with comparatively transparent processes and results. And people will like them for that.

Fortunately, one can anticipate these institutions with pleasure and remain fully susceptible to the lure of the grassroots. Along with other politics watchers, I’ve gulped down articles on the avant-garde use of the web by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign: the integration of traditional top-down organizing techniques with email, breaking-news videos and self-organizing cadres.

It remains to be seen if these techniques will give his campaign the edge in the short term, or will ever be as transformative as the 30-second spot, the direct-mail database, or the bricks-and-mortar church were in their heyday. Either way, they’re exciting. The only thing more exciting would be if the power of information technology in politics trickled past the politicians and their strategists hunched over the poll results, streamed down past the crusading organizer madly text-messaging, and lastly, and most radically, cohered into an interface operated directly by average citizens.

Does someone need to be in charge?

By purely democratic standards, the addition of a few good interfaces would be a unalloyed plus, fulfilling the ideal of one-man, one-vote more fully than representation.

But standards other than democracy are applied as people and nations scramble from one morning to the next. Results matter. So how wise will the majority be? The day may come when it regrets having spent less on children, and more on seniors…or less on guns, and more more on butter.

There is nothing sacrosanct about “the people,” because “the people” are just the majority at any given time, and they can be silly, evil, or just mistaken. The people are just peeps.

At the same time, there are reasons to believe that having them establish priorities in war and treasure would lead to better results than can be obtained by the status quo alone. An informed, involved people might pick better fights than presidents, and fight them more fiercely; an informed, involved people might pick budgets more shaped by objective reality than Congressional reality.

Of course, this is impossible to prove for now. Empirical comparisons will be impossible until interfaces are prototyped and tried out. In the meantime, the fate of out-there proposals like these depend more on gut reactions than analysis and conjecture.

Does someone need to be in charge? In our daily lives, someone often is: parent, teacher, cop, doctor, shoe-repair man, submarine captain, boss, pastor, president. How we feel about this fact reveals a lot about how we see ourselves and our society.

If your inclination is to think nobody needs to be in charge, great. I hope you will cotton to these proposals, and I expect that more will join you there as new interfaces (Google, Wikipedia, Face Book) deepens the profound, and ever-surprising, insight of capitalist, democratic societies—that freedom need not be prelude to chaos and destruction.

If, however, your gut is heaving in the other direction and you are unsure why, let me clarify. Of course someone sometimes needs to take charge. Duh. Context is all. So try imaging the alternatives as clearly as possible. Imagine reform and all its inevitable problems, then imagine the status quo and its inevitable problems. And don’t skim over the status quo on the skates of complacent idealism. A part in all of us would love to believe that someone special is in charge, and everything will be alright. If wishes were fishes…

Obama-mania is a faint sign that interface-based reform is plausible.

There is nothing to stop these reforms from being tested right now on a pilot basis in a town or student government. That said, federalizing them anytime soon would entail overcoming some serious political and constitutional barriers, to say the very least. So the best short-term strategy for reforms is simply to make them conceivable, and the best medium-term strategy is simply to make interface-thinking familiar and popular, and bet on a trending culture.

If I were to scan the contemporary landscape for hope-sustaining signs, the frenzy among Barack Obama’s core supporters would be it.

This frenzy has multiple overlapping sources. Democrats are nearly berserker after 8 years of Republican misrule; Obama can deliver a mean-ass speech; the perpetually ineffective pairing of idealistic students and non-corporate white-collars has been joined by blacks, who went for Obama massively once they realized whites were voting for him.

In this fortuitous constellation of factors, I would single out the frenzy of the student-professional nexus as the most historically curious and consequential.

Its politics have been traditionally explained by idealism. Students haven’t matured into adults with specific meat-and-potato interests yet. Caucasian “latte liberals” aren’t directly impacted by edicts on unions, minimum wage, affirmative action and welfare, so they gravitate towards centrist or “post-political” rhetoric.

Maybe, maybe not. What this explanation definitely misses in 2008 is that the young and the white-collar, especially the creative professionals who luuuv Obama, happen to be the most immersed in digital and interactive forms. Whether networking on MySpace, playing a video game or editing in Photoshop, these people are versed in the rhythm of easy involvement—and Obama’s rhetoric hits right on their sweet spot. When Obama references “the movement,” which he does, constantly, and throws love back on his supporters, which he does, constantly, it resonates with them. “We are the change we’ve been waiting for” is their slogan.

Are Obama’s core supported so psyched by the prospect of relatively faster withdrawl from Iraq, or middle-class health-cost help—things that a fairly cautious Obama has promised? Is this really a movement like the civil-rights movement, with members ready to get hosed down?

Not really. Those who criticize the extremes of Obama-mania as issue-less are approximately right. But these critics could not be wronger in the long run. In politics as in many other areas, the proliferation of interfaces have opened up a space for easy involvement. It means being more than a voter, but less than an organizer. It is intense but not especially intense. Obama has lured a first wave of people onto the dance floor of casual politics, as it were. That’s given him a temporary advantage, but soon enough, other people will be lured onto the dance floor as well.

The last generation of political entrepreneurs in this country were conservatives. It was their stated plan to shrink the size of the government until it could be drowned in a bathtub. That didn’t work out, at all, but their two-step plan (shrink/drown) remains instructive. My guess is that the next generation of political entrepreneurs—whether conservative, libertarian, populist, nationalist, liberal, or something heretofore nameless—will attempt to shrink the size of the government to the size of an interface, hoping that, if they bring the mass of citizens nearer to center of power, citizens will enact their agenda.

And that’s not an eventuality that scares me, since, whatever the agenda, I believe in the ultimate decency and common sense of the peeps.  

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