Scene 27: Frieda edifies friends about Tondal

In which Frieda learns about Tondal from Luis Calderon, and then helps her friends understand the findings.

Granting the human limits of language and of tribalism, a more “administrative” form of government in the far future can be imagined.

Calderon and Frieda

Frieda leaned forward in her seat as she eyed her graduate advisor's visitor. His name was Luis Calderon and he was a potential future employer. His Tondal Government Institute was mostly devoted to analyzing transmissions from Tondal that provided clues about Tondal society.

In the rumpus room, her advisor, Zhan, and Dr. Calderon spent about a half-hour discussing recent findings about Tondal's democratic mechanisms. What was described was a system where public planning went on continuously, at every level and for every time scale, and suitable "voters" were pulled in for specific decisions and proposals. There was also thought to be something resembling our Constitution, though apparently it was rarely revisited or reexamined because it had been refined over eons.

As soon as questions were invited, Frieda raised her hand and asked, "Thanks, Dr. Calderon. You suggested that their topmost political decisions had to do with global learning priorities, like, what should be the main project for next fifty years, like biology, or… So my question is: how knowledgeable do citizens have to be, to be allowed to vote on that huge decision?

Dr. Calderon smiled and handled Frieda's question deftly. Participation in a vote was about both "who cared" and "whose opinions needed to be specifically included." (Or so Dr. Calderon and associates theorized.)

Later, at Finney's house, Frieda shared her new knowledge about Tondal with Finney and Ramesh. Finney listened to her somewhat-lengthy summary and then commented, "I'm surprised they say that a 'research direction' is the most important policy question. Or even that a policy question is the biggest decision—what about election of leaders, of representatives?"

Ramesh Frieda Finney

Frieda replied, "Yes… I guess Tondalians have less need for a Big Daddy than we do. There's probably, you know, a big administrative bureaucracy. There's elections, but it sounds like they're small affairs."

Ramesh jumped in, "So, are we going to use all this information to try to implement reforms to our own governments here?"

Frieda paused, then replied, "Possibly some of them, but, it's tough – our forms of government are less evolved, and we're still very tribalist, and there's still big global conflicts… We can't just start doing things their way."

Ramesh thought aloud, "Well, I assume there are some things we can adapt..."

Frieda nodded and said, "Sure, but… here's an example: on Tondal, it appears that they've eliminated a lot of forms of lying and misrepresentation in public realms. So, votes are actually more about, you know, technical issues than about feelings and impressions. How are you going to make that happen here?"

Ramesh felt Frieda's question was a little argumentative, but he grunted his reluctant assent.

How should we understand the theory underlying democracy?  Hundreds of millions of individual people, with different ideas, different interests…are we trying to plot our future by computing an average?

In sketching this glimpse of Tondal democracy, I wouldn’t want to be accused of silly idealism. I am sure, in fact, there are theoretical limits as to how much better our "Earth" democracies can be made—in the medium term, and even perhaps in the long term.  One, because of human nature and, two, because of the limitations of human language.

Natural human selfishness and its social version, tribalism, are naked facts. Groups form, and we affiliate, and from there it's "us versus them." Our factions today include ethnicities, social classes, geopolitical entities, religions, political parties, and even specific ideas. Of course, over the millennia, we've made progress countering some of these impulses through laws that increase cooperation and punish cheaters. But a society without factions is unimaginable.

Human language is another limitation. Language is a pale, pale reflection of reality. Outside of the physical sciences, what statement ever captures the whole truth? It often takes an entire book to frame the nuance of an idea or question, and still of course no book is immune from coherent, legitimate criticisms. Given these facts, it is extremely difficult for voters to evaluate the truth and meaning of public statements, let alone to accurately predict the effects of a proposed policy.  Written laws, of course, aim to minimize ambiguity; but ask any lawyer about how effectively the words resolve conflicts in the real world.

I am also hesitant about describing an "advanced" system like Tondal, because some might wonder whether  I am in favor of a dystopian society where individualism is crushed and a hypersocialist bureaucracy decides everything about everything.  Good Lord, I don't want those things! And our sad experience has been that attempts to directly implement socialist societies were abject failures.

Yet, sometimes dreaming about the far future can give us useful ideas today. As long as we keep ourselves tethered to the realities of human nature and the limitations of language.


cast of characters