End notes from Karl Schroeder's "Degrees of Freedom"

story in the "Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future" collection. hieroglyph.asu.edu/story/degrees-of-freedom

Humanity’s biggest problem isn’t how to imagine or design solutions for our economic, environmental, and social woes; our problem is that we can’t agree to implement them. By 2013, for instance, international agreement on curbing greenhouse gas emissions was further away than ever, despite years of conferences, meetings, expert panels, and millions of dollars spent on studies. This issue—of how we decide important things in groups—is the “meta-problem”that trumps all other issues. If we solve it, our other crises become manageable. If we don’t solve it, it doesn’t matter how many fixes we come up with. If we can’t get them implemented, we might as well not have wasted our time.

Wicked Problems

Many of our most important problems are ill-defined. There’s little agreement surrounding possible solutions to such problems, and there’s no way to verify if a proposed fix will work or if one that’s been tried has worked. These are called “wicked problems”because you cannot simply engineer a solution to them. Fortunately, methods do exist to manage them—if not to solve these messes, to at least improve them. One such approach is called Structured Dialogic Design, which was developed by the Institute for 21st Century Agoras, primarily by cyberneticist Alexander Christakis. SDD builds upon decades of research into small-group interactions to provide a process whereby people with radically different, even hostile agendas can sit down together and agree upon mutually beneficial plans of action. An introduction to the process can be found in the book The Talking Point, by Thomas R. Flanagan and Alexander N. Christakis. Decision Architecture There will be no “Facebook for politics,”no single solution to the problem of human governance, because politics is a wicked problem. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve political processes at all levels, perhaps dramatically, by solving many smaller subissues using communications technologies, cognitive bias filtering software, decision-making strategies, and so on. SDD is just one example of how to do this. The story “Degrees of Freedom”showcases a possible set of such improvements, just a tiny subset of the many possibilities. I’ve included more information about some of these below.


Humans are hardwired to detect extremely subtle differences in facial expression. In 1973, Herman Chernoff suggested using this capability to make complex multivariant data more easily visible to analysts. Different parameters of a complex data set are mapped to different features on these “Chernoff faces,”making it easy for viewers to perceive small differences between sets. Extending this idea, Dorians are pictures of yourself that are more or less happy, healthy, or fit depending on how your current behaviors or habits are trending. Basically, they show you your future self as you might look if you keep doing what you’re doing. Dorians are a natural and intuitive interface for “quantified Self”apps such as sports and fitness trackers, though in this story they also interpret the results of more significant life choices. You can think of the augmented reality app Nexcity mentioned in the story as a form of urban Dorian (see SimCanada, opposite).


Liaisons are a concept I developed for a Canadian military foresight project in 2009. A liaison is a Dorian that personifies a corporation, government, organization, or group. It can serve as your interface to that organization; for instance, when you do online banking you might choose to do so by talking to the bank’s liaison. The trick is that the bank doesn’t control how the liaison appears and behaves—instead, its personality is an aggregate of the public’s experience of the organization—its social media “likes”and “dislikes,”to put it crudely. A company that tries to paper over bad practices, lies to its customers and the press, etc., will have a shifty-looking liaison. One that promotes philanthropic causes will look saintly, and so on.


Padgets are a European Union experiment in democratic technology. Padget stands for “policy gadget.”You can find out how they work at the project website, http:// padgets.eu.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows how large sets of diverse models can be ganged together to create robust quantitative simulations of the future. SimCanada and its imitators build on this technology by using climatic, economic, social, and cultural data to present constantly updated future versions of the country. Citizens can explore possible outcomes of economic and political policies, climate change, and wildcard events by running them through the model( s). With a gamified graphical interface, the system will even let you walk through your city or province as it might appear years from now—in effect, as a national or urban Dorian.

Gwaiicoin and the Block Chain

Gwaiicoin is an altcoin: a derivative of Bitcoin. Bitcoin itself, while interesting, is a sideshow to the more important technology underlying it. This technology is a cryptographic system known as the block chain. It can be used for far more than “just”creating a revolutionary new form of money. The block chain can support decentralized, fraud-proof implementations of nearly any kind of registry. Everything from voting systems, citizenship and ownership contracts, constitutions, corporate structures, and decision-making processes can all be done in the block chain. Faced with the question of “Who has ultimate authority?”on nearly any matter, the answer no longer needs to be some committee, statute, ministry, board, or person. The answer can be “the stakeholders, directly, using the block chain.”

Project Cybersyn

Cyberneticist Stafford Beer partnered with the Chilean government of Salvador Allende from 1971 to 1973 to build a new form of government based on cybernetic principles. Project Cybersyn was a new model of socialism, a “third way”that was different from both capitalism and Soviet or Maoist communism. Cybersyn was based on advanced communications and feedback systems. The system was destroyed, and Allende killed, in the September 11, 1973, coup backed by the CIA and led by Augusto Pinochet."

Start reading this book for free: amzn.to/1PS6KH9