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Interviewed by Lily Lynch

I was interviewed by Lily Lynch for the BTURN magazine. The article is here. Since the interview was conducted via e-mail, I became a bit verbose… I have that tendency. Most of my answers didn’t make it into the article, which focuses heavily on the Cyber Yugoslavia project, and is really great. But still, I felt that the good bits didn’t get used, so I asked Lily permission to republish the interview in full. Here it is:

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*Lily Lynch: I know you’ve been critical of some of the representations of the Icelandic project in the mainstream media, and I was hoping to get a *very short statement from you about the extent to which this new Icelandic constitution was “crowdsourced”. **

Smári McCarthy: The new Icelandic constitution, which has yet to be ratified, was developed by committee, as with any constitution. In the future it may be possible to engage a large population to develop a complicated legal document, but right now such a task does require direct human intermediation.

What makes the Icelandic experiment interesting is the degree to which feedback was accepted from the general public, and the fact that the entire process was entirely transparent – all meetings were open to all, and the working documents were made available for public comment after being accepted in a plenary session of the constitutional council each week. The following week, any comments on the text so far were taken into discussion in committees, and a very large number of comments were adopted into the proposed text.

While this isn’t perfect, it’s by far the most open and inclusive constitutional reform process I have seen or heard of, and should be used as an example for future constitutional processes to build upon.

An interesting side-effect of a fully open process is the congregation of civil society special interest groups who specialise in certain areas of the subject matter and contribute actively to the conversation. I do not have statistics, but I would guess that at least a third of the suggestions to the council came from groups of individuals rather than individuals – groups who came together explicitly to contribute in some meaningful way to the process.

**LL: In addition I was hoping you could answer a criticism of crowdsourcing, that is that innovation comes from exceptional individuals and not from “crowds”. **

SM: Without a society, the term “individual” is meaningless. Without individuals there is no society. It is very elitist to assume that exceptional individuals are the exception, and it is a fallacy to assume that people less than two standard deviations away from the average don’t have anything to contribute. The farmer, the sailor, the baker and the used car salesman all have experiences of what their society looks like and opinions about how they would like to function within it – to relegate all of their opinions solely to some select “exceptional individuals” who make the decisions is to throw away a lot of hard earned experience and wisdom.

The idea of “the wisdom of the crowd” is based on the assumption that everybody is wiser than somebody. Linus’s law applies here: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”

Crowdsourcing isn’t about getting everybody fully engaged, it’s about allowing self-selection in engagement, creating implicit information flow structures rather than defining explicit structures and assuming fairness. Explicit social structures are only ever exclusive.

**LL: Lastly, as I write for a magazine that deals with Balkan culture, I will be including reference to the Cyber Yugoslavia experiment in my article. This was an online experiment that began during the late 1990s to have individuals collaborate in writing a new constitution in protest against the ethnic fragmentation of the time. Obviously this was more of an online protest and even art piece, and cannot compare to what you are doing in Iceland. But I thought maybe it would be interesting if you could say a word or two about “crowdsourcing” or this kind of direct democracy in times of political/ethnic/economic crisis. **

**SM: ** I was not aware of this project – thanks for the reference. I think it’s fantastic, and in a way serves as a perfect counterbalance to Stafford Beer’s Cybersyn project in Chile during Allende.

In a lot of ways the Cyber Yugoslavia project appears very comparable to what was happening in Iceland. Constitutions are art. Law is art. Building societies is a form of art. We’ve just become incredibly adept at ignoring its artistic value.

One of the wonderful things about crisis is how it blurs a lot of the subtle and unintended distinctions we’ve made about the way the world works. A friend of mine, Dougald Hine, said recently that “whe past was not simply a crap version of the present,” which kind of exemplifies the tunnel vision we have about social structures. We go around assuming
that the way things have been for the last five minutes is the way it has always been and always will be, which blinds us to astonishing potential.

In short: Never waste a crisis.

LL: Can you tell me exactly what your involvement was in the Icelandic constitution? I’ve read about the Shadow Parliament Project, but if you could just briefly describe the connection, that would be very helpful.

SM: I was a candidate for the constitutional assembly, along with 523 others competing for 25 seats. I had previously co-founded the Icelandic Constitutional Society, but left its board to engage in the race. I lost the election, but shortly thereafter I had a conversation with Eleanor Saitta which led to the foundation of the Constitutional Analysis Support Team – a service we are still operating, now focusing on North Africa. After the supreme court ruling that annulled the election due to some slight irregularities, the government appointed the 25 who would have won the election, if it had been considered fair, to the Constitutional Council – a delightfully infuriating example of the ugly side of politics, but a reasonable result nevertheless (more reasonable than scrapping the idea of constitutional reform, which was arguably what the conservative element at the court wanted).

When the council convened, I sent a lot of suggestions for corrections and improvements, both in the form of threat modelling and linguistic analysis of the draft documents through our work in CAST, but also specific suggestions of features and wording. In particular, articles 14, 15 and 16 of the constitutional bill bear my mark – in the case of 15, it is almost exactly the content and wording I proposed.

(Edit: I don’t mean this to suggest that I had a greater role than I really did – at the end of the day, it was of course the constitutional council that did the amazing job of putting the constitution together.)

There was no direct connection between the Shadow Parliament Project and the work on the constitution, although there are a myriad of indirect connections, which are apparent from a wide enough angle.

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