With Plurality Institute, I am hosting a reading and discussion group that will discussion Parts 4 and 5 of the Plurality book. In this note I will summarize some personal reactions to Part 5 of the book which is titled “Democracy”.

I think that section 5-0 “Collaborative Technology and Democracy” has most of the conceptual ideas for this part, so that will be my main point of focus. The rest of the sections involve a bunch of pointers and directions across a wide range of technological areas.

Key Ideas in Section 5-0

The main purpose of section 5-0 is to “illustrate the collaboration technologies that can be built on the foundation of ⿻ protocols” which are discussed in the previous section (my notes here). While the book started by discussing technology and “democracy”, Weyl & Tang emphasize that they are not really interested in just “democracy” per se; instead they are interested more broadly in the sociotechnical tools of cooperation and collaboration.

As they put it, they are ultimately interested in describing:

how technology can empower supermodularity across social difference or, more colloquially, “collaboration across diversity

Supermodularity is shorthand for the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For Weyl and Tang it stands in for the idea that there is something to be gained from collaboration across diversity or lines of social difference. For example, they reference the idea of “comparative advantage” in economics which explains why there are “gains from trade” across individuals/groups with differing skills / abilities / endowments of resources. Elsewhere they talk about the idea of diversity as a form of “potential energy” that can be harnessed into “useful work” (what kind exactly?) with the right tools/institutions/policies in place.

There is also a heavy overlap in the mission of this piece from collaborator Danielle Allen (my very rough notes here), which similarly emphasizes the importance of so-called “bridging ties” and outlines a policy agenda to maximize such ties.

At the outset, they also emphasize that there is a key risk of collaboration across diversity: namely, that such collaboration contains the risk of reducing the diversity available for future collaboration. In short: the risk of collaboration / cooperation as a homogenizing force. To guard against this, they emphasize the importance of finding ways to “regenerate diversity”.

What does “diversity” mean for W+T? They emphasize there are many possible cleavages of diversity – religious, geographic, professional, racial, gender & sexual identity, ideological, species, class, ability, generational, and further reassert that identity is intersectional.

Depth-Breadth Spectrum in Collaboration

Given the setup above, the basic normative claim of the section is that – given the value to be had from supermodularity–we should be supporting technological development that allows us to better “collaborate across diversity”.

But what does it mean to better collaborate across diversity? There are a range of possible ways to collaborate under different technological and organizational circumstances; how should we think about which modes are better? To address this, W+T introduce the idea that there is a tradeoff between depth and breadth of collaboration:

  • Depth reflects roughly “the degree of supermodularity for a fixed set of perticipants: how much greater is what they create than the sum of what they can create separately, according to the standards of participatns
  • Breadth refers essentially to the number of participants/groups in the collaboration.

The idea, then, is that there is generally a tradeoff between the depth and breadth of collaboration across different collaborative modes. For example, intimate personal relationships are “deep” but generally only involve two or a few people. Capitalistic markets, on the other hand, are extremely broad – essentially inducing most of the globe to engage in a cooperative mode in some ways – but extremely shallow. This tradeoff is also illustrated e.g. in the distinction between shallow but broad “voting” (“electoral democracy”) vs. deep but scale-limited “deliberation” (“deliberative democracy”).

To illustrate the breadth/depth tradeoff, Weyl draws on the idea of a “production possibility frontier” from economics:


In this context, then (and as the diagram illustrates), the goal of the plurality sociotechnical imaginary is to “push out” this tradeoff at every point – i.e. for any given level of collaborative depth, faciltate greater breadth/scope; or alternatively, for any given level of breadth, facilitate deeper collaboration (or both). This is a natural way to think about the kind of thing technology can do in an economic frame.

Multipolarity & regenerating diversity

The final part of this section addresses some risks and caveats. Two main points:

First, they don’t want to fall too much into the trap of identifying some singular goal / social objective function. So we get this section distancing them from this – objecting to social “objective functions” and “playing god” – and claiming a kind of perspectivism:

We all act from and for specific people and communities, with goals and possiblities limited by who we are, where we sit and who cares what we say.

While there is a risk of claiming neutral objectivity, they also think there is a risk to taking too much of a ground-level view, without view of a bigger goall; here they cite various downsides of exploitative capitalisitc tech.

Instead, they want a “middle, pragmatic, plural path” forward. This is honestly a tough needle to thread, and it will be interesting to discuss whether (or how) it is really feasible. But here is what they say about it:

Luckily, a middle, pragmatic, ⿻ path is possible. We need neither take a God’s eye nor a ground-level view exclusively. Instead, we can build tools that pursue the goals of a range of social groups, from intimate families and friends to large nations, always with an eye to limitations of each perspective and on the parallel developments we must connect to and learn from emanating from other parallel directions of development. We can aim to reform market function by focusing on social welfare, but always doing so based on adding to our models’ key features of social richness revealed by those pursuing more granular perspectives and expecting our solutions will at least partly founder on their failures to account for these. We can build rich ways for people to empathize with others’ internal experience, but with an understanding that such tools may well be abused if not paired with the discipline of deliberation, regulation and well-structured markets.

We can do this guided by a common principle of cooperation across difference that is too broad to be formulated as a consistent objective function, yet elegant enough to unify a wide range of technologies: we develop tools that allow greater cooperation and consensus at the same time as they make space for greater diversity.

Roughly, the goal seems to be guided by a set of principles, but without narrowing (hollowing) them to the sharp point of (say) an economist.

The second key point they highlight is the risk of depleting diversity through collaboration. What is the way out here?

  1. The basic claim is that while bridging/collaboration across diversity can reduce diversity, it can also bring about novel cleavages or forms of diversity – e.g. combining two distant art styles creates not a boring homogenous average but something wholly new.
  2. The other point is that nothing is inevitable – we can & should make choices about how to preserve and develop new forms of diversity and difference.

Key References for Understanding this Section

  • Something classic on comparative advantage
  • Something introductory on production possibility frontiers.
  • Basic piece on bridging ties & why they are important.
  • Allen, Danielle. “Toward a Connected Society.” Our Compelling Interests, Center for Social Solutions, University of Michigan. Retrieved from https://lsa.umich.edu/social-solutions/diversity-democracy/oci-series/excerpts/volume-i/toward-a-connected-society.html.
  • Siddarth, D., Prewitt, M., & Weyl, G. (2023). Collective Provision Under Conditions of Supermodularity. The Collective Intelligence Project. Retrieved June 6, 2024, from https://cip.org/supermodular.
  • Galor, Oded. The journey of humanity: The origins of wealth and inequality. Penguin, 2022.