Rolf Strom-Olsen


On occasion, it is a matter of some felicitousness that my fellow bloggers choose the many interesting and varied topics that they do. Julián’s comments on the intersection between the increased velocity of modern existence with our ever-increasing participation in the everyday is just such a moment. I was going to post this week on the role of Victorian graveyard epigraphy as a topos of modern science fiction (ok, no I wasn’t), but instead Julian’s discussion made me think of what Jean Jacques Rousseau would have thought in a world full of cell phones.

Actually, it was Julian’s mention of the Eurovision Song Contest that provoked this thought (honest). Anyone who has actually sat through an evening of the mind-numbing musical bling of Eurovision can attest to it’s being one of the oddest cultural moments of modern times. It can regularly be counted on to feature various musical acts that test the extreme end of execrable; the costumes alone annually redefine cursi.  But of somewhat greater interest are the extraordinarily consistent cultural-political cross-voting patterns that predictably help shape the outcome of the contest. People cannot vote for their own country, so as a result voting blocs have coalesced: thus, Greeks vote for Cypriots, Scandinavians for each other, while the formidable Eastern voting bloc  has managed to prevail in 4 of the last 7 contests. These voting patterns are generally (heck, usually) without regard to the underlying quality of the song. (And if you don’t believe me, last year Ukraine was a contender and if you don’t know how bad that is, consider your ears and eyes spared.)

Rousseau opened his Social Contract (bear with me here) with the famous phrase, "l’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans les fers," a pithy soundbite that became the rallying-point for high-minded democracy-mongers of the Enlightenment and beyond. For Rousseau, the underlying preoccupation of the Social Contract is how best to approximate that initial freedom which, since we live in organised societies and require government, must to some degree be circumscribed. I won’t bother with a rehash of his arguments, beyond noting that the mantle of freedom for Rousseau is what he termed the General Will. The sovereignty of a nation always resides with its people and the General Will is therefore the expression  of that sovereignty. But before Rousseau’s goes on and on about all that, he notes almost incidentally that an ideal society would be one where the General Will is always recognised in the execution of government. He imagines to this end the frequent assembly of citizens to make decisions. This, of course, was impossible, so he he didn’t bother developing the idea in any great detail.

What, however, if Rousseau had been able to imagine a world where the technology existed to create virtual fora and placed in their hands a means of immediate and inexhaustible expression of will? Television, radio, the internet and cell phones: these are the building blocks of Rousseau’s ideal society. Technology has made the impossible possible and it would be interesting to speculate on how Rousseau might have changed his view of the feasibility  and desirability of the ideal participatory society.

So speculate I will. I think it would have taken only one Eurovison Song Contest to send Rousseau urgently rushing to call his editor to stop publication of the Social Contract so he could redraft it. Only one, because the voting tendencies in the Eurovision  make it clear that the General Will is easily swayed by a range of emotional and cultural factors that often make little or no sense. Rousseau probably knew as much. He could declaim the ‘ideal society’ as one where the General Will existed in a state of perpetual consultation precisely because he knew it was unattainable. Now that technology has made that a thinkable proposition and now that we have instances where we can see it in action, it raises the question how much Rousseau-style ideal freedom is really good for us.

Much of this is because we tend to make bad decisions about things (whence, George Bush). Or perhaps, to put it better, we tend to suffer from what Sloan School economist Dan Ariely has termed "coherent arbitrariness."  Ariely has recently published a study which notes a correlation between the price that subjects (in this case MIT students) were willing to pay for something and the last two digits of their social security number.

Although students were reminded that the social security number is a random quantity
conveying no information, those who happened to have high social security numbers were
willing to pay much more for the products. For example, students with social security
numbers in the bottom 20 percent of the social security number distribution priced on
average a ‘98 Cotes du Rhone wine at US$ 8.64, while those with social security numbers
in the top 20 percent of the distribution priced on average the same bottle at US$ 27.91.
Because the assignment of social security numbers to students is random, we can regard
the two groups as identical with respect to their underlying tastes and knowledge of wine.

That’s an interesting insight into consumer behaviour and decisions; it also suggests mass participatory government would be disastrous. When we vote, we are making a decision based on the consumption of information (no matter how miniminally) related to the question at hand. Rousseau’s conception of the General Will does not foresee the possibility that we might base our decisions on arbitrary factors that inform how we value (and evaluate) things. It is possible, perhaps, to argue that in the aggregate the "sensible" will usually tend to prevail. But I frankly doubt it. Because even Rousseau, I suspect, would have invariably voted for France.


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