Thinking about Sortition and Discovery


I have been toying with an idea about generating a piece of work and documentation around discovery based on sortition. Please excuse the jargon that is also one of the things I am toying with.

Sortition/Protocol project is an experiment in culture creation through
restructuring and preserving network topologies on the principles of
sortition. It is an exercise in taking ideas from anarchist and Marxist
notions of personal practice and extrapolating them to activities that are
now controlled by algorithms, professional taste-makers, and influencers.

Lets talk about instagram, twitter, facebook, or any social network where
people attempt to communicate and connect. These networks originally
promised a many-to-many topology, where everyone communicates with
everyone else. To use an overused phrase – it was heralded as democratic. The reality of the network topologies that we see in social media is more of a
one-to-many relationship, with a small number of influencers communicating to a
large number of individuals who have exponentially less connections. The
communication is asymmetrical in its content and impact.

There is also the matter of surfacing this content, how is an influencer or individual ‘seen’ is largely regulated and controlled by opaque algorithm. I call this the hidden layer, analogous to the hidden layer of a neural network that creates the weighting and vectors determining the structure of the network. This hidden layer in conjunction with the network topology assist in creating a certain epistemic and interactive regime that we are going to overthrow.

How are we going to overthrow it? Sortition.

What is sortition? Sortition is a method of governing by selecting leaders
based on random selection or lottery. It was the way that the ancient
Athenians selected political officials. Although, the pool of potential leaders in Athens was exclusionary and limited to the small number of landowning men of leisure, the idea that anyone could rule, or make important decisions is a stark contrast to today. In our society algorithms and influencers guide and create the world of our possible virtual experience.

The idea of sortition has not disappeared. Theorists such as the Marxist
scholar CLR James have proposed sortition as an alternative to current
governing electoral paradigms. What does it mean to select people by lot
to make decisions? It is anathema to the contemporary emphasis on
democracy and meritocracy, but perhaps the meritocracy is a fiction and we
should replace it with a different narrative.

The Sortition/Protocol project randomly selects, every few days, a new group of people to post to the Sortition/Protocol social media account for a short period of time. I will refer to these people as leaders. The code for this selection is open source so anyone can change, fork or submit pull requests. This is the engine of our new network topology; a constantly shifting nexus. But what does this mean for creating a framework or fiction around what we are doing?

The traditional algorithmic and influencer networks persist in time, but they have no history. The eternal construction and mediation of a persona is their narrative and their mythology. The history of these networks are quantitative measurements of success in getting people to click, friend, like, or buy. What are the metrics for a network on a sortition topology? What do the temporary leaders have as a record of their tenure? Does it matter that they have a record? What does it mean to have a record for this sort of network topology, or in other words, how is history related to a network topology based on sortition?

A sortition topology does indeed have a history in a way that a topology
based on algorithmic or influencer decision making does not. Each set of
leaders represent a different epistemic regime. I am intentionally
referencing Foucault and the notion that a network represents a
power-knowledge system. The ground of that knowledge, in the case of
sortition, changes with each new group of leaders who create a new
knowledge regime.

Another question becomes, how to create a narrative for a topology in constant change and epistemic flux. Can we even create a narrative or a mythology? A sortition network is a discontinuous network and in order to find continuity and a sense of communal responsibility we should strive to create this base level of meaning. This is the document. The act of leading, of being selected and posting content, and managing the Sortition/Protocol account, is the performance. The documentation is the artwork and the codification of a symbolic regime or episteme.

We can also consider the document in phenomenological terms as the
condition for phenomenological bracketing. The notion of bracketing in a
phenomenological context is to suspend judgement and experience a phenomena without cognitive biases. In the context of Sortition/Protocol, there is a question as to whether we should suspend our personal judgement and act as
Sortition/Protocol, or if we should act as our personal selves. The history of Sortition/Protocol documentation provides a meta-narrative for Sortition/Protocol against the personal proclivities of the temporary leaders. Bracketing in this sense is bracketing personal personal judgement, experiencing the historical document, and when acting as the Sortition/Protocol.

The sort of documentation that we create, like the program for selecting
and running sortition itself, is public and open-source. Initially it is
conceivable as a LaTex program run over the history of items shared and
activity generated on the social media account. The LaTex generation and
object selection is itself an algorithm, but rather than using the
algorithm to surface data, we are using the algorithm to create a past
narrative – a construction of what it means to exist in this new topology.

It is a step away from real-time posting, sharing and exchange, but a
moment of reflection and historicizing. Since the documentation structure
is open source we can extend the documentation to include video, web
documentation, sound, or a multiplicity of representations. With all the
code open-sourced, different communities can implement their own sortition
network topologies on a variety of networks such as instagram, twitter,
mastodon, or scuttlebutt.

Let’s subvert the existing trend toward algorithmic obfuscation and
consolidation of power. It’s no longer about narrative but about
structure. Let’s change the structure and create a narrative around that
structure. Let’s promote historicism and ephemeral media and turn it into mythology.

Leave a Reply