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Hacking Society and a Proposal for Beta Towns - Andy Broomfield

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.



I’ve been spending time thinking about the current touch points within western democratic systems, these are the parts where we ordinary citizens (not politicians or those in power) interact with them. The most obvious is elections, whereby we go to the polls and choose a candidate on a ballot paper (or more if we are lucky / unlucky) who will then go forward to represent us. Then there are public services, our interactions with municipal government, right through to active participation in public duties such as jury service. How can these be twisted into serving different social purposes than those originally intended? What new outcomes can be built on top of these systems? How can they be made hackable? Where will the next generation of social hackers come from?

There have been interested attempts at hacking the electoral system, though some reach critical mass more than others in terms of public consciousness. MPs who would vote according to polls conducted by constituents, independent representatives' networks, tactical vote-swapping buddy sites. For some reason though, these never seem to take off. Jury Team, the anti-party party for example, failed to gain ground in the EU elections, and is now becoming more like a traditional party with set polices that must be agreed on in order to participate. It's a shame that public appetite still seems to be for choosing between established parties, and that calls for reform are based on which system is best for choosing from the same bunch of representatives. It’s a shame as the area of design politics, currently based on old traditions and institutions is ripe for innovation.

We’ve seen new ideas, hacks of society. Online, the open data movement has been gathering, bringing with it greater transparency. Services like MySociety and other mashups have allowed new ways of interacting with government, outside of political space, on a local and hyper-local level, with differing levels of success in subverting and building on top of existing local norms and communities. Local currencies are encouraging trade, a social hack that works on top of Pound Sterling, but becomes localised in helping local traders. Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), have shown their success in allowing people to exchange their alternative worktime for alternative work, which also serves as a community building exercise - again a social hack that combines work, trading and community building. Empty shops projects provide an interesting parallel, re-using empty space on a temporary basis, they potentially change the construct and expectations of the larger space they occupy.

I think we need places to try out these new ideas, where social and governmental systems could be redesigned to be openly hackable. This is a proposal, an idea to have designated ‘Beta Towns’ whereby experiments, designed and organised by the residents themselves, could be run to test alternative ways of doing things. The designation would take place at the will of the residents themselves (a referendum) or it could be new towns, perhaps similar to how the Free State Project is gathering libertarians to move to New Hampshire. Perhaps it’s not even designated towns, but patchworks of land designated as belonging to a ‘Beta Town’ and having that legal framework applied to it, similar to how the project Land works. This would allow neighbours to choose whether to stick with the ‘Stable’ branch of lawmaking, or move to the more dynamic, but risky ‘Beta’ model. It would also allow residents to ‘fork’ a Beta Town without having to up sticks.

How do Beta Towns work? I think they would take cues from the Cathedral and the Bizarre Free Software model. Changes to legal framework are considered on wikis, debate in mailing lists perhaps, either online or with live debates mixed in. As part of being a member of a Beta Town, each resident takes responsibility for leading a certain area of the town, and depending on the size there may be a ‘Benevolent Dictator.’ Court proceedings and other touch points in town processes would not just act as facilitating services, but also as a point of contact for bug reporting and adjudication, to ask what’s the issue: the person or the code? Processes would be fast, even a small ‘Alpha village’ of no more than 30 people would try out nightly builds of legal code.

The open data movement has proven successful in prying open often closed systems. Other social hacks have brought forward ways of ‘altering the way things are designed’ . Beta Town is an idea for one way, a new set of hacks to bring forth a generation of ‘Hackers of Society.’