conservative vs progressive, and openness

by Hugh

I’ve been thinking lately about evolution and politics. All this comes out of a revelation I had in the early days of LibriVox, that as an open project, the whole thing – the system – evolved like an organism, getting more complex in response to environmental challenges. More readers, more books, more languages, more projects required a slow evolution of a management from “Hugh collects the files and then uploads” to something very different. We currently have 338 active projects, representing probably 5,000 or more individual audio files – all of which must be collected, checked, named, assigned metadata, and eventually uploaded, and cataloged. That’s a lot of work. Point is that the management system, is very complex, and it evolved in a way that I expect looks a lot (on a small/sped-up scale) like how political systems evolve.

On the conservative/progressive split, there’s an old saw in US politics that the left thinks the right is evil, and the right thinks the left is stupid. Neither is true, of course, or not entirely true, and I think there’s an unwillingness, and sometimes just an inability to understand where the other side comes from. Maybe evolution is useful model to explain things.

Conservatives, generally, appeal to how things have been and claim that we shouldn’t change what’s worked in the past. There’s a sense to that, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

Progressives, on the other hand, appeal to how things ought to be and claim we should change things to make it work better or differently. There’s a sense to that, that changing environments call for changed response.

By this nomenclature the Bush White House was filled with Progressives, in the sense that they decided to junk the past 50 years of diplomatic standards and wisdom – rule of law, international agreement, importance of history and understanding of the enemy, experience of occupying forces etc – in exchange for a bold new vision of transforming democracy. They thought the purity of the ideal would be enough to carry the day. While the liberals [what was left of them] argued for, essentially, a realist foreign policy approach, more cautionary, and more tied to past experience. The Bush Progressives were shown to be naive at best. And many other things at worst.

I am a temperamental conservative, and an intellectual progressive. Even within LibriVox (a progressive project, I guess), now that we have a system that works pretty well, I am always loathe to change many things substantially, since I worry about the unforeseen impacts changes might have. Because the system evolved through an unknowable cocktail of influences and reactions, I don’t like tinkering with certain of the intangibles, especially the ones whose influence is uncalculable. For instance, there has been a movement to change the disclaimer that comes at the start of our recordings (This is a LibriVox recording, all LibriVox recordings are in the public domain, to find out more or to volunteer, visit; I have resisted in part because I have an intuition that this disclaimer has had some kind of impact on the creation of the community that makes LibriVox succeed. Reciting it, in some sense, joins us all into a common cause, and that makes for a tighter-kint group – actually, some call us a cult!).

Slipping back to the evolutionary model: as the environment changes radically (say, political, economic, or ecological) there is tension between the conservatives and progressives. Conservatives look back and say: it worked before, it’ll keep working. While the progressives look forward and say, we must change! Without having much idea if it will work.

So I’d argue that a healthy society will allow for strong interplay between the two tendencies, the stabilizing force of conservatism, and the evolving force of progressivism. Balanced against the uncertainty of progressive solutions and the rigid inability of conservatives to change with changing circumstances.

Which is one of the reasons I think we need to find new ways to make democracy work. We need to open the process more, to put more of the decision-making process (and the data behind it) into the hands of the people. Our democratic system is very rigid, and does not change easily. One way to change that is to get the data out, to let people find solutions that might be better than the ones the paid beurocrats dream up.

Because I have a feeling – with peak oil, climate change, population growth, the rising power of china and india, political instability in the Middle East, and the newish digital universe – that we are in for a rocky road in the coming decades, and we’ll need to marshall new tools for addressing those problems. Open democracy, open data, is one way to spread the decision-making ability to a bigger, more complex, and more nimble system.