This is the Agora in a nutshell: it is a social network tailored specifically to the goal of solving problems. The problems to be solved are both those of its users and society at large.
Its users, as a group, take a (naive?) rational approach to problem solving:
- For each problem in the set P of all problems:
- Describe it as thoroughly as possible.
- Maintain a set of known or argued possible solutions, S(P).
- For each solution in S(P):
- Describe it as thoroughly as possible.
- Maintain a set of resources (people, time, attention, money) needed to implement it, R(S).
Individual users also declare their views on the state of the world explicitly: they define which subsets of P, S and R they agree with, in the sense that they believe they are feasible, true, interesting.
Users that agree on their defined subsets can then efficiently collaborate on solutions as they become available by pooling of resources.
We apply some good old recursivity and seed the Agora with the problem of how to build itself. That is, how to build a system that allows participating users and entities to collaborate optimally in the face of adversity (such as biases, irrationality and even actual ill intent)1.
The Agora should be built on a federated protocol to limit the harmfulness of diasporas. Groups might temporarily diverge in their views enough to want to run separate Agoras, but different Agoras should be able to cooperate on problems and solutions for which there is enough ideological alignment, and eventually merge.
I have a more focused and detailed unpublished document which will probably replace or complement this chapter soon.
I know the premise sounds almost like a joke: what the world needs is a new social network. The internet and social networks are technologies we are just barely learning to live with, and the recent cause of a lot of polarization and political escalation and Trump Being President2. It doesn’t sound at first like we should add another stick to that particular dumpster fire. But hear me out.
We need a designated place in the internet where we can discuss ideas in a constructive way. In particular, where we can discuss possible strategies to face the problems that humanity is facing. This is already happening, for sure; but is it happening somewhere on the internet where everybody can contribute? I don’t think so. If the Agora exists already, please point the way — I’d like to get there, and building it from scratch would be hard. The network of universities and institutes are the closest we have and I love them, but the Agora should be fully open and available to all over the internet, so every participating individual can contribute work and thought. Of course the whole internet could be an Agora; but the internet as a whole is chaotic and disorganized and thus its implicit Agora is entangled with places that are not constructive and not safe. There must be a better way.
Nick Bostrom has a paper on existential risk where he talks about a kind of lottery of ideas; humanity is constantly playing this game, the metaphor goes, and drawing ideas out of big lottery wheels of Science and Technology and Culture. Some of the balls in this wheel are colored white; these are good ideas. They contribute to human good, and we’re glad we found them.
There are also black balls, though. These are bad3. They are things that, on the whole, produce enough bad to be existential risks to humanity. Nuclear power seemed to be this for a while; perhaps mutually assured destruction could have resulted in an apocalypse. But it didn’t! Aren’t we lucky? If (and it’s a big if) things stay this way, we got away with playing with something dangerous. Perhaps we can use the idea for whatever good it holds (clean-er power?), or perhaps we decide to bury it underground in a big vault of ideas (this one doesn’t have to ever spin again) that says Do Not Go There, Trust Us. For now, though, the idea might still turn out to be black; we could, perhaps, represent this situation as a grey ball of whatever shade we deem correct.
We need a social network for discussing ideas. For talking about Bostrom’s lottery urn, and what it has in it for us. In the Agora, we discuss ideas and their shades and merit; we discuss, first and foremost, ethics. We need to talk openly how to move forward ethically as a group of humans, with respect to the technologies we create and find and the resources we have.
But the Agora is a social network, like I said, and social networks are yet another technology: what if social networks are grey? If so, how dark is their own shade? I don’t want to think they are black. I want to believe a better flow of information is always A Good Thing in the end. But we need to be cautious, and this is why I wrote this and you are reading it now.
I need your help.
what if Twitter is already a decent Agora, and Trump just woke up to the fact that it’s a superior meme transfer device sooner than others? ↩
White = good and black = bad is in the original paper. Now, an apology: I don’t like the fact that our culture encodes bad things as black, it’s associated with death, etc. I think associating black with badness is a bit unfair in a world that values so much being a particular kind of yellow. ↩