The day we all decided

It started with an image that was passed around on blogs and social networking sites. Some versions had a picture of a cat, and some just had text against a plain background. The text read:

“Enough’s enough! Let’s put an end to poverty, inequality, and war, and start working to meet people’s needs rather than for governments, banks and corporations.”

This simple little message was hugely popular and spread like wildfire. It was translated into several different languages, and people made their own versions by adding the text to their own photo.

Like most Internet trends it died down quickly, and that seemed to be the end of it. But a few weeks later another meme appeared, similar to the last one. It read:

“Remember how we all said we wanted to end poverty, inequality and war? Let’s actually do it! Let’s take a year to figure out how, pooling all our knowledge and expertise. Together we can make it happen!”

For a while this one was even more popular than the last. It seemed to pop up on every blog or newsfeed, and even started to be mentioned in newspapers and current affairs programs. Several prominent journalists and commentators even took up the meme’s challenge and wrote articles or blog posts outlining how, in their view, humanity could work together to end poverty, inequality, and war. Various plans were proposed and were debated in blog comment sections and in letters to the editor. To be honest though, none of the proposals were very convincing. There was a flurry of debate and discussion which lasted a week or two, and then quickly fizzled out. The commentators all declared that it had been an interesting thought exercise, but that it wasn’t actually possible to come up with a plan that everyone would agree on, that was why we needed governments to make decisions.

That seemed to be the end of it. However several weeks later a new website appeared, where anyone could post a plan proposal for doing what the meme had said: ending poverty, inequality and war and meeting everyone’s needs. You could also rate plans that others had posted, leave comments, ask questions, or post factual information. The idea was that, after the website had been going for one year, the highest-voted plan would win, and everyone would work together to implement it.

A huge number of proposals were posted, and very quickly there was too much information on the website for any one person to read. Anyone who wanted their post to be read and taken seriously quickly learned to write clearly and succinctly, with a summary at the top and links to references at the bottom, since otherwise no-one would bother to read it or vote for it. New posts that didn’t get any votes very quickly sank to the bottom of the pile and were ignored.

A small army of volunteer editors sprang up to check if information posted to the website was factually correct. They created links between similar plans or pieces of information, and translated the website into dozens of languages. The volunteers did their best, and there were frequent calls for more people to help out, but nevertheless at times the volunteers couldn’t keep up with the amount of information posted.

It soon became clear that in order to practically figure out how to end poverty, inequality and war, a huge amount of information was needed. Crop yields, locations of equipment, factory outputs. We had to map the flow of energy, materials, food, and manufactured goods across the globe, and all the information had to be verified as being correct. Volunteer researchers around the world eagerly rose to the challenge, and within a few weeks, most of the requested information had appeared, meticulously footnoted and cross-referenced, with ratings indicating the quality of the primary sources on which the information was based.

It was amazing to see all that information mapped out. The amount of waste and inefficiency was incredible: trucks, ships and planes criss-crossing the globe, travelling past each-other carrying similar goods in opposite directions. In many ways our task was to simplify the system, drawing the shortest line between resources and the people who needed them. There were a lot of surprises, for instance, providing food for everyone in Africa turned out to be much easier than expected; it turned out Africa had plenty of food, and we just needed to stop shipping it to North America and Europe.

As the website grew in popularity, there were more and more complaints that new posts weren’t being translated fast enough, and some weren’t getting translated at all. At times this led to a split, with separate discussions taking place in Mandarin, Arabic, and English, at cross-purposes to each-other, while speakers of less-widely spoken languages complained that they weren’t included at all. Thousands of volunteer translators stepped up to help, but the translations still didn’t come fast enough.

Language wasn’t the only problem; many people across the world didn’t have regular Internet access, or couldn’t read, and in many regions bandwidth restrictions meant the website took so long to load that it was essentially unusable. Councils were set up in regions where this was a problem to transmit the latest developments orally, but there were still lots of complaints that certain groups of people were under-represented.

Despite all these problems tens of thousands of proposals were submitted. With the voting system just a few dozen quickly emerged as top contenders, and these top proposals were continually updated, split, or merged, and furiously debated. Within a few weeks there were just half a dozen really credible proposals with a large amount of support, and by the three-month mark, one proposal had clearly come out in the lead, with more than twice as many votes as the second-most popular contender. It became more and more obvious that this particular proposal was going to be the winner.

That’s when things started to fall apart.

Up to that point the website had been almost universally popular; everyone loved the idea of working together to create a better world. But now it became clear to millions of people that their favourite plan was not going to win, and they weren’t going to get what they wanted. Even worse, there were accusations that the winning plan favoured the elites, who had more access to the website in lots of different ways, and that the entire process had been dominated by those from wealthier nations from the beginning. Many people angrily denounced the website and announced their refusal to participate in making the plan a reality, while some even promised that they would do everything in their power to sabotage it. Supporters of the leading plan lashed out angrily in response, saying that if people hadn’t fully participated in the website they had only themselves to blame, since the website had always been open to everyone. The number of people participating in website discussions nosedived.

Things quickly unravelled. The defection of large numbers of people made the leading proposal unworkable, since it depended on the participation of people all over the world. There was no provision for police or armies to force people to comply; the plan depended on people’s voluntary, enthusiastic participation. There were furious arguments, both online and offline, and angry recriminations on all sides. Soon the website had all but died, and newspapers ran the headline: “The dream is dead”.

And that seemed to be the end of it.

Even after the hubbub had died down and it seemed as if life was just going to go on as usual, there were still a few stubborn people who remained determined to make the website work. Most of them had voted for the winning plan, but some had not. After many long online conversations, they decided to try to change the leading proposal so that everyone would be able to live with it: not 50%, not 90%; everyone.

They sought out those who had been most opposed to the winning plan and asked them: “what would it take to get you back on board?” They listened carefully and began changing the plan to address the defectors’ concerns. A lot of painful compromises were made.

Slowly, more and more people started participating again, and the website re-gained momentum. It wasn’t as much fun as it had been before. Before, it had been an exercise in imagining the world of your dreams. Now, so many compromises had been made that no-one was really happy anymore. But at the same time, people had become attached to the dream that the website represented, and weren’t willing to let that dream go. And most people considered their current situation to be so poor that even a flawed plan was preferable.

From that point onwards instead of many competing proposals, there was only one plan, which was continually updated, filled in, questioned, debated. The goal was to create a workable plan that everyone could live with, even if no-one particularly liked it. People complained bitterly, and everyone seemed to have their own theory about what was wrong with how the website worked. But they didn’t drop out. People began to change the way they participated decision-making; instead of making the proposals that they personally liked best, people made proposals that they thought everyone would be able to live with. It was a waste of time to post something that you knew others would vehemently disagree with, no matter how much you personally liked it.

The plan contained an immense amount of information divided into categories and sub-categories. Some parts were global in scope, and were hotly debated all over the world: particularly the distribution of energy resources, and the construction of new infrastructure in the poorest areas, and transfer of technologies to these areas. Other parts were specific to a particular region, or even a particular village.

As for myself, I was most interested in the parts of the plan that focussed on my neighbourhood and my work. I and my three-hundred or so co-workers agreed that we would stop providing telephone banking customer support at the call centre, since it was generally agreed that this type of service would no longer be needed or wanted. Our workplace would be converted into a high school, since there was a shortage of schools in our area. I and my colleagues all chose new jobs based on our skills and what work was needed by the community. I chose to work two morning shifts a week at a clothing factory, and I would work the rest of the time as a trainee teacher. We had decided that all the children in our region would go to school, even those who were so poor that they had never been to school previously, and that meant that new schools and new teachers would be needed quickly.

Around three months before Implementation Day was due to arrive, several governments which had up to that point ignored the website suddenly took an interest in it. The website was banned and blocked in China, with the Chinese government declaring that it “promoted the overthrow of the government and of the socialist system”. Shortly after that the Cuban government declared the website to be an “imperialist plot”, and banned it as well. Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea soon followed. Posts from those places slowed. Computer programmers all over the world rose to the challenge of getting around the firewalls, by creating hundreds of mirror sites and proxy websites.

Shortly after that there was another crisis. Several heads of state, including the US president, made a joint announcement that their secret services had discovered that the website was not as innocent as it seemed, and was in fact run by terrorists. The source of their information had to remain secret as a matter of national security.

In a dawn raid web servers were taken by police, and the server administrators were arrested. The website went down, but only for an hour or so; then it was restored from back-up copies. A call went out across the globe for technologically-minded people to make frequent copies of the website and its entire database. There were more raids and more servers were taken by police, but the website remained.

Of course there was a huge amount of discussion about this on the website itself, as well as in blogs and in the media: was the website really run by terrorists? The news programs all said so, but it was hard to understand how this could be. The people who had set up the website had done so openly and transparently, and there was no reason to think any of them were linked to terrorist groups. More fundamentally it was hard to understand how the website could be under terrorists’ control when the website very clearly wasn’t under anyone’s control – it was a collaborative work of literally millions of participants.

Only a few days after the shocking announcement, documents were leaked that revealed that, while the CIA did consider the website to be a high-level security risk, they had no evidence that it was linked to terrorism. This was justified in the media with government officials making the case that the website “would be easy for terrorist groups to infiltrate, and we consider it extremely likely that this infiltration has in fact taken place”. The TV news reporters thought this was perfectly reasonable, and if I had not participated in the website I might have thought so, too. It was true that terrorists could post to the website, if they wished – but so could everybody else. Posts that were not widely seen as being reasonable and useful quickly sank to the bottom of the pile and were ignored, so it didn’t actually matter if terrorists “infiltrated” the website, they could infiltrate all they like and it wouldn’t make any difference.

From then on the media continually condemned the website, but the accusations were confusing and contradictory. One week commentators were saying that anyone who posted to the website was a terrorist, or a terrorist sympathiser at the very least. A week later the website was denounced as being communist, which was strange given that the communist countries had been among the first to ban it. The week after that the newspapers all said that most people using the website were naive, well-intentioned people, but that the website was secretly controlled by a small, secret group of hardcore anarchists. The accusations became wilder and more unbelievable, and people speculated that those in power felt threatened by the website, and were desperately trying to discredit it.

There was another leak of government documents, revealing that governments and corporations around the world had hired armies of astroturfers to post misinformation and stir up arguments on the website. All posts from users who were proved to be astroturfers were removed, although undoubtedly some undiscovered astroturfers remained. Nevertheless, the plan continued to take shape.

As Implementation Day approached, the attacks against the website actually tailed off, and many of those who had been jailed for their involvement in the website were released without explanation. It seemed as if the whole world was holding its breath in anticipation.

The day finally arrived. I got out of bed and washed and dressed as usual, but I was shaking with excitement. I found myself thinking over and over: “Is this really going to happen? Or was it all just a game on the Internet?”

I went to the call centre at the usual time and greeted some of my co-workers. We milled around, talking to each-other in low voices. No-one sat down at their desk or put their headset on. My supervisor was there, but he didn’t reprimand us for not getting to work, in fact he didn’t say anything.

One of my colleagues said: “So, half the computers are to stay here, for the new school, and a van will arrive soon to take the rest, is that right?”

There was general nodding and murmurs of agreement. This was what had been agreed on the website. Now it was going to become reality.

“We’d best start moving them downstairs so they’re ready to be picked up when the van arrives,” my colleague said.

People started unplugging keyboards, mice, and headsets from PCs, winding the cords up neatly, and carrying them downstairs. My manager smiled at me, a little sheepishly, and joined in. Very quickly we had moved half the computers downstairs, and started moving furniture in preparation for the new school.

When we stopped for a break I went for a walk with some of my co-workers. Everywhere you looked people were working away, some at their usual jobs, others doing work that was entirely new to them. Everyone looked happy, and many people smiled and called out greetings. We passed a group of three adults with two dozen or so street children clustered around them. The adults were passing out parcels of food, while explaining to the kids that they were going to live in a house from now on, and that they would be fed and looked after and would go to school.

While the vast majority of people were on board with Implementation Day, not everyone was. A few shop owners tried to “fire” their workers, who were giving merchandise away for free to anyone who asked for it, but the workers took no notice and went on with what they were doing. They called the police, but the police didn’t come, and all the private security guards had disappeared.

Even after Implementation Day had passed people kept using the website, since there was lots of new information to be shared, and decisions to be made. For smaller groups we quickly found that talking things through in person works better than having discussions online, so I have bi-weekly work meetings, and monthly neighbourhood meetings to go to. To be honest it gets tedious going to all these meetings and keeping up with the latest discussions on the website as well, but it’s still much better than the alternative. Despite all the problems with the new system, we have achieved the goal of making sure everyone in world has enough to eat, and we are working towards reducing the inequalities in access to healthcare, education, infrastructure, and technology.

What does the future hold? In some ways the new way of doing things seems very fragile. There is nothing holding it in place; there are no police to force people to participate in decision-making, or to arrest those who don’t comply with the decisions made. In fact it does frequently happen that a group of people become so angry and frustrated with the way things are going that they drop out of the process altogether, causing havoc. Even if the group of drop-outs is quite small, this is a very threatening situation for the rest of us, since those who are not part of the process have no reason not to sabotage it. So far, whenever this has happened there has been a renegotiation, ending with the drop-outs being given at least part of what they want, as an enticement to re-join the process. There has been quite a lot of muttering that “these special interest groups have the rest of us over a barrel”, but the truth is we all have each-other over a barrel. The system only works because 99.9% of us want it to work. Most people find the process very frustrating at times, and pretty much everyone has ideas about how the website could be improved, but nevertheless practically everyone participates. People much prefer the way things are now compared to the old days, even those who were materially better off under the old system. After all, in the old days we all went along with the way things were because we believed there was no alternative. Now we know better, and we will never go back.