After Paris: Doubling Down on Democracy

The terror attacks in Paris, just like other terror attacks before them including 9/11, are a challenge to core democratic values of tolerance and freedom of speech. Turning against Muslims or against refugees is a terrible response as it only confirms the apocalyptic ideology of the attackers. Insisting on a primacy of individual privacy and government secrecy and continuing down a path of moral relativism is, however, equally doomed as a response.

Let me start with moral relativism. Now would be a good time for us to assert that all humans, independent of gender or sexual orientation, should have the same human rights, including self determination. That those rights take precedence over whatever anyone may claim their religion entitles them to impose on others.

That we all can and should say things openly that are critical of governments, corporations, scientists, and even of religions and ideologies. That free speech is important than someone feeling offended by it and that physical violence or threats of physical violence are never a legitimate response to speech (nor that threats of or incitement to physical violence should be protected as free speech).

That all progress arises from a critical dialog between humans who, while acknowledging their emotions, are not controlled by rage or hatred or for that matter by fear.

We have to reassert our confidence in the potential for democracy and democratically elected governments, no matter how deeply flawed the current ones are. As Churchill pointed out, democracy is far preferable to all the alternatives. We will have plenty of time to fix democracy, but not if we abandon it now hoping that dictatorships will be more successful in fighting terrorism.

So far maybe not much of what I have said is controversial, so here it comes: We also have to let go of the mistaken idea that individual privacy and government secrecy are necessary for democracy. Terrorists can and will hide among us and attack us from within for a long time with the help of sympathizers and aided by the anonymity and segregation of much of modern society.

Just to be perfectly clear: I am also strongly against government secrecy. I am against secret detentions, secret courts, and secret surveillance. None of those are compatible with democracy. But I am staunchly for collective intelligence. Collective intelligence in this case against terrorism, but also more broadly against crime and most importantly as a basis for improving education and healthcare. I cannot see how society could avail itself of the benefits of collective intelligence in any form of government other than a transparent democracy. And conversely it makes no sense for democracy to deny itself those benefits.

Insisting on privacy because we fear our own governments will continue to pit citizens against secrecy-seeking governments in a spy versus spy society. Many will protest that we are already there. Maybe so, but why double down on a mistake? Snowden’s revelations have given us a unique opportunity to start over. I would pardon Snowden on those grounds alone.

Governments can and should tell their citizens what information they are collecting and how they are using that information. And companies should disclose which of these programs they participate in. Any and all such programs should have oversight by elected politicians and transparent reporting on their scope and effectiveness.

As for the potential for collective intelligence to help, we see it all around us on the Internet. From the uncannily accurate do you know so-and-so suggestions on Facebook and LinkedIn to the related products on Amazon. I can also observe the effectiveness of collective intelligence from behind the scenes in many of our investments and in particular with Sift Science which does fraud detection. Combining a lot of data really does work.

Democracy, human rights and progress through critical dialog and collective intelligence. We need all of those more than ever.