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RE:WRITING THE FUTURE: INDECISIVE DEMOCRACY

Please involve your sentiment, as you involve your intellect, and dream.

  • Feb 24 2021
  • Mohamed Ashraf
    is a poet and essayist from Egypt and the editor of this supplement.

FLASHBACK 1

It’s January 28th, 2011. Massive demonstrations took place in Cairo three days ago. Everyone is alerted to the calls urging people to take to the streets today. Everything is set for a big day, big hopes and big fears. The last thing for me to do is to get out of my family’s house. This won’t be easy. They know about my political activities from two months ago, when I was detained by the national security. Out of fear, my father tries to prevent me from participating in today’s demonstrations. Though, somehow, I find my way out. The hours pass by, me among other protesters, and the pessimistic voice inside my head that expected it to be a bone-crushing day with few protestors gradually fades out...

Hero, am I? Well, not really, because the star here is actually my father. Around 4 p.m. I receive a call from Mum (the phones were working in my city) telling me that Dad was arrested at the demonstrations and is now at the police station. Ok! My father, who doesn’t participate in elections because he thinks they’re useless, who has conservative views and has just tried to prevent me from taking part myself, goes to protest and gets arrested! Well, he will be released in a few hours and won’t participate in the rest of the events. Following the news from his sofa, he will tend to agree with those who are calling for ending the sit-ins after Mubarak’s speech on February 1st. While I’m sad and furious about his comments, I will naively wonder: doesn’t that particular revolutionary moment of his – with its contradicted feelings of fear, hope, courage and risk – deserve the attention of the democratic process?


FLASHBACK 2

It’s 2015. The reality in Egypt is changing, demonstrating has become an act of suicide. A dramatic rise of a military دكتاتورية . And there is no way for the few who object to the killing of demonstrators in the streets to express their views – except by virtually weeping. A generally defeatist tone is surging in conjunction with the fourth anniversary of the revolution, in which Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, a peaceful protester, was shot near Tahrir square while holding a rose in her hand.

A Facebook post goes viral, presenting a catalog for how to deal with the Egyptian police. Instructions such as: Avoid passing in front of police stations. Do not look an officer in the eyes. Keep a herring in your backpack to distract the officers from sniffing your books and phone. Stay calm and do not run. A policeman does not attack unless he is hungry or upset with his superiors.

These public defeats coincide with personal ones, with a humiliating incidence of detention and a medical diagnosis of depression. As a result, I too withdraw from activities in the public sphere. Sitting next to my father on the same sofa, wishing that someone would preserve my cultural habits in this moment: me reading “Lady Lazarus” by Silvia Plath and “The Depressed Person” by David Foster Wallace, or watching movies like “The Turin Horse” by Béla Tarr or “Melancholia” by Lars Von Trier. Anything that would document my agony in the face of the dark ghosts of the Egyptian state.

In that moment my father and I – despite our contrasting views – share a similar reluctance in refusing to participate in any official elections. Perhaps the discourse that’s always and forever been fascinated by participation as a “positive” act will consider us two negative men. However, this discourse refuses to consider: Might the current forms of democratic practice simply reduce the compounded thoughts and feelings of these two men? 

 

FLASHBACK 3

It’s 2016. Syria is under the fire of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean. Borders are being closed. Britain is voting YES for Brexit. Trump is elected the 45th president of the US. And Far-right parties are becoming more popular in Europe. Something is happening universally. Not only in Egypt, not only in الدكتاتوريات. People are furious. Years ago, my father experienced a transient moment of rebellion, and I experienced a more persistent, yet subjective, moment of cynicism. Now all of us seem to be affected by the following question: How likely would the current tools of representative democracy be capable of accommodating people’s wrath?

 

BACK TO REALITY 

It’s 2036. A referendum is taking place in a couple of weeks. It will question the future of representative democracies. My avatar claims that the current tools of representative democracy are outdated. He clones my voice and says:

“Representative democracy is multi-layered in oversimplification. One layer is set up in the voting systems that, regardless of its different variations, can easily be abbreviated to the binary option of yes or no. Other layers are baked in the concept of representation itself, which disables the agency of regular citizens, numbing their critical ability, forcing them to ignore the complex and ever changing nature of political views. This is making citizens more prone to the systematic discipline that authority applies, misleading information that is being spread through various media, taboos and intimidation in the case of dictatorships and political regulations that provoke self-censorship, manipulating our opinions by the power of symbolic and actual capital. Even if people survive all these traps, most of the current voting systems still play the 50% + 1 game, ignoring representation of large sectors of the electorate. A procedure that has paved the way for the far-right since the 2010s.

This tendency to oversimplify coincides with ignoring the motives of certain voters, who are losing faith in the establishment, who suffer under the grinding competitive nature of capitalism, encounter lack of opportunities, scarcity of housing, etc. And while many are turning a blind eye to such reasonable motives, they act surprised when others break into the US Capitol like in 2021 and
2027. Not hearing the sounds of warning, that democracy is soon to be abandoned.

Maybe the problem is that with all the legacy of “free” education, activating the critical mind and avoiding questions with yes or no answers, citizens grow up to find most influential decisions like voting defined by the same question that is almost insulting to the intellect: a question that Cambridge Analytica, Data Analysis, and Psychographs can easily manipulate."

***

One of the front-runner candidates to substitute the current yes/no model is an operating system made by César Hidalgo. The OS ran previously for simulated elections in 2028 which took place in an experimental universe that was created virtually by a team under Hidalgo’s leadership. It was a bold proposal in which he examined the possibility of developing an avatar for each citizen, that was able to collect data left online and offline. Books, movies, music, likes and dislikes of the citizens, their medical histories, tax information, their use of language, etc. The avatar would continue analysing this data to vote on a bill or to elect a president. The ambitious proposal aimed to replace a representative democracy with one similar to the direct democracy in ancient Greece, though with more and deeper information. Hidalgo believed in neutralizing psychological biases and taboos that express themselves centrally in a voter’s mind, and designed the OS to put superpositionism1 and complexity into account.

There have been doubts concerning the applicability of such a model, but all of the experiments, research and projects to test the idea were completed successfully before releasing the OS for personal use in 2030. Schools, libraries and non-profit organizations used it. Then virtual parliaments were created to test their performance in comparison to the actual ones. 

"The system puts the most vulnerable groups at the forefront of society’s priorities and goes even further, focusing on those most vulnerable people individually and representing everyone’s most marginalized and withdrawn ideas and feelings." This made some people consider it a new manifestation of John Rawls theory of justice. 

A model that deals with the widest possible range of data is probably what we need to adjust the accuracy of democratic representation. Therefore, Hidalgo’s OS acknowledged that the discourses of social discipline, taboos, power relations, etc., will continue to affect our thoughts and feelings to varying degrees. It took into account that these perceived realities would always dominate the statistics and that the only chance to reverse them would be to feed the system other types of thoughts and feelings to achieve a status of equilibrium, thus relying on the contradictory nature of humanity and its multiple dimensions.

The OS was influenced by anthropological and ethnographic writings that have presented a strong critique to the rigid, conventional research methods which ignore the continuous “becoming” of subjects understudying, neglecting their “plasticity” and “unfinished” nature.

 João Biehl and Peter Locke’s avatars directly contributed to the OS by embedding the concept of “becoming” into its code. They made it possible to replace the “totalizing abstraction” of the yes/no model by another model that attends to “people’s transformations and varied agencies".

Bruno Latour’s avatar thought of societies as “assemblages”. A network of human and even nonhuman actors that interchange together and have equal agencies, where the macro is inseparable from the micro. This was called “Actor Network Theory”. Which considered a deterministic process such as the current voting system as “purification”, as a negation that takes over the roles of other countless actors, and not only – as it might seem – a recapitulation of these roles.

Later on, John Law’s avatar examined methods of research that are supposed to study reality, to prove how these methods go beyond studying to actually create reality. He found the conclusions of his book “After Method: Mess in Social Science Research” begging the questions: To what extent are the current tools of democracy producing and not only reflecting the reality of competition, polarization, violence, and hatred? And to what extent would a model in which the actors know that every one of their actions would directly affect society induce a sense of participation and responsibility?

 

FLASHBACK 4

“It is only for the sake of those without hope that hope is given to us.”
Walter Benjamin.

It’s January 26th, 2020. In a seminar called “Who’s Afraid of Digital Democracy”, Franco Berardi says “the political problem is shifting from the level of conscious reason to the level of the unconsciousness.” I pause and I ask myself: Is decisive democracy really conscious? Couldn’t that be what we need? Abandoning the reductionism of decisive democracy? Redefining agency to give it to all actors equally, both those conscious and unconscious?

I am not normally optimistic. Solutionism of technology is not my cup of tea. I am aware that as technology brings solutions to major problems, it simultaneously creates greater ones. Though, as a person who has lived under a military دكتاتورية, I’m relatively privileged to have a high threshold for pessimism. Nonetheless, this is not about optimism or pessimism, but rather about both…

 


Heimlich

About being able to dream in the here and now, where the dream is an alternative fantasy, in which we aspire to a world we would like to live in. An aspiration that’s hard-wired in all of us, belonging to the dreams that were painted on the walls of caves thousands of years ago.

Unheimlich

And I’m reminding myself of times when I was merely watching my wasted dreams from the perspective of a dissatisfied bystander. Back then dreams didn’t appear as a super reality in which a higher degree of happiness was accomplished, but rather as an image, the failure of grasping it is a Sisyphean act. The more the dreamers emancipate themselves within the dream the more they remember that they’re actually moving within a fantasy.

Could this sorrow be effective in our dreaming of the future? Can't the characters of D. F. Wallace be effective in shaping our society, even by practicing the most extreme forms of withdrawal from it?

Endnotes

  • This text was written by an avatar of a man named Mohamed Ashraf from Egypt, who lived in Germany in the 2020s, then returned to Egypt in the early 2030s, after a revolution that toppled the military regime. However, he didn’t survive the series of natural disasters that occurred there as a result of the climate change. This text was written using his data history on Google, Kindle, and Facebook, after the consent of his heirs.
  • The style was composed by Jacques Derrida’s “Trace” technology. 
  • Arabic has been present among the act-ants in the sub-coordination of this text.

___________

This article is an extension of the festival, Re:Writing the Future, taking place from February 25 to 28. It is going to be published in print in the Extrablatt of the upcoming issue of Arts of the Working Class. 

This publication was made possible by the DAAD ARTISTS-IN-BERLIN PROGRAM, as part of its engagement with ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network.

The publication was edited by Mohamed Ashraf and Elisabeth Wellerhaus. 



  • FOOTNOTES
    1.A term that was borrowed from quantum physics by an unknown avatar in the late 2020s, to describe the changing nature of political views.
    2. AKA: ANT, referring to the tinniness of the actors.
    3. Isn’t it a lovely name?

    IMAGE
    Alberta Whittle, Secreting Myths (jade), 2019, Laser-engraved woodblock print on Somerset Satin 300gsm paper with snail trails embossed in gold. 56 x 76 cm

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