Is Google changing voters’ brains?

In internet, voting on February 5, 2008 by edmundintokyo

Right around the time we all started getting mobile phones, people often used to comment that they were losing the ability to remember phone numbers.

As we get used to having Google on-demand, people are starting to say that they’re using the ability to remember anything.

Much as it may upset the Daily Telegraph, this is a rational response to the acquision of our new information super-powers. When information was hard to get, you needed to spend your time hoarding knowledge that you might need. Now that we can pull up all the information we want in a few minutes, it makes sense to tune out anything you don’t immediately need .

Meanwhile, Mickey Kaus writes:

Q: What do you get when you combine the Feiler Faster Thesis (voters are comfortable processing info quickly) with the Theory of the Two Electorates (the mass of voters who don’t follow politics are less informed than they used to be and only tune in at the last minute)…

A: You get elections that are a) close but b) might not look close three, two, or even one day before the vote…

In the US primaries, a few people here have commented how badly out a lot of the polling has been. It would be interested to know if the late surges that have been a feature of this race are a result of more people making their minds up later in a way they didn’t used to – which could, in turn, be a result of the way the internet has change the way we think.

If this is what’s happening, it will have implications well beyond the US race; Polling will get less reliable, and politicians who fail to grasp what Google has done to our brains will lose.


How to vote securely over the internet

In internet, voting on January 7, 2008 by edmundintokyo Tagged: , ,

Guest blogging over at orangebyname, I’ve argued that a lot of aspects of our current democracy – constituencies, representatives, parliaments, etc. are ways of solving 19th Century logistical problems that no longer exist, and we should get rid of them all and just vote for everything over the internet.

What I’ve suggested is just giving everyone a vote on everything, but letting them delegate it to any person or group they want to.

At this point, some people will be wondering whether internet voting doesn’t have a bunch of logistical problems of its own.

Basically, there are three kinds of problems we have to deal with: Usability, security and secrecy.

1) Usability

Most people are increasingly happy using a computer interface, but there are a few who still don’t get it, and don’t particularly want to. We don’t need to worry too much about them because we can make our new system backwards-compatible with the old one; We can setup ballot boxes once every 5 years or so where people who haven’t signed up as online voters can delegate all their votes to an old-fashioned political party.

2) Security

This is a bit harder, because most people’s computers have long-since been owned by Chinese hackers. That said, in most cases people’s home PCs seem to be good enough for online banking and gambling, so we can probably live with it, even if we do end up passing the occasional spammer subsidy law or whatever. In any case, these problems should get better over time as users become increasingly clueful.

3) Secrecy

This is the problem that a lot of people seem to think is effectively unsolvable – but they’re wrong. The aim here is that it should be impractical to bribe or intimidate people into voting the way you want, because it’s impossible to verify how somebody has voted. That way, with the exception of Japanese people, who have wierd ethics, attempting to buy a vote should tip off the voter that you can’t be trusted, so they can just take your money, promise to support you and go and vote for your opponent. Likewise, intimidation is likely to be counter-productive because you just annoy the intimidatee, who’s obviously going to vote for someone else if he’s confident that you’re not going to find out what he did. In both cases, the key to keeping the system fair is to allow voters to lie to everybody else about how they voted.

Until now we’ve done this by having people vote in closed, managed spaces where nobody can see how you’re voting, but people can see whether you’re being observed. This obviously doesn’t work if you’re voting at home using your computer because it would be too expensive to send somebody over to your house to make sure nobody’s watching when you do it.

At this point it’s worth pointing out that the system we have is already full of holes. For one thing, we also allow voting by post or by proxy, where there’s no way to confirm who actually cast the vote; It would be trivial to apply for a postal vote and then sell it to the highest bidder – you could even do this anonymously, so you’d never even know who you were selling it to. Not only that, voting in a closed space is also now subject to a bunch of vulnerabilities that weren’t there when they came up with the system hundreds of years ago. Everyone carries a little camera around with them attached to their phone, and you can even buy tiny concealable cameras that would allow you to video the whole thing to prove to your vote buyer that they’re getting their money’s worth. Within a decade, the biggest headache for polling officials is likely to be getting people to turn off the cameras on their glasses.

With online voting we can solve these problems. But we’ll need people to show up once – only once – in a managed environment like our current voting booths. Except it will be better secured than our current voting booths, because you’ll be able to show up and do this any time you like instead of everyone having to do it on the same day, so it can be staffed and managed by professionals instead of volunteer old ladies. Or we could stick the things in vans and have them drive around the place like mobile libraries or TV detector vans.

Anyhow, all you’ll have to do at these booths is create some accounts with usernames and passwords that you’ll use to do your online voting. Not a single account – several. (Or as many as you like.) Why several? Because only one of them will work – the other two will be dummies. When you use them to vote, the dummy accounts will look exactly like the real ones – but their votes won’t be counted. The only way to tell which account is which will be from inside the secure booth. That way if someone tries to buy your vote, you can log in with one of your dummies, vote the way he’s telling you and take his money. If you like you can log in again later and cast your real vote.

Alternatively, to fully leverage the power of bloody-mindedness when people try to tell you what to do, we could set it up so that you only have a single account, but you get to choose whether its effect is positive or negative. Then if your violent father tries to force you to vote for his local self-appointed Community Leader, you can sit their clicking obediently while actually casting your vote against him. Nah.

Problem solved.

There we have it: Online voting – usable, secret and (mostly) secure. Pity there’s nothing we can do about the spammer subsidies, though.