Supporters of the BJP celebrate early results from the Karnataka assembly elections in Bangalore. Countless elections the world over have shown how Kenneth Arrow’s mathematics work in actual practice. Photo: Ramegowda Bopaiah/Mint
Supporters of the BJP celebrate early results from the Karnataka assembly elections in Bangalore. Countless elections the world over have shown how Kenneth Arrow’s mathematics work in actual practice. Photo: Ramegowda Bopaiah/Mint

On mathematics, technology, and voters

In his doctoral thesis, Kenneth Arrow identified that in any electoral system where three or more preferences exist, the proponents of the minority voice paradoxically have the ability to dictate the broader choice

The world of information technology (IT) is currently obsessing about European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws. I will get to GDPR soon, but for this week, I want to focus on something different.

In a past column, I wrote about Kenneth Arrow, an American mathematician and the youngest Nobel Laureate ever.

In his doctoral thesis, completed in the 1950s, Arrow identified that in any electoral system where three or more preferences exist, the proponents of the minority voice paradoxically have the ability to dictate the broader choice—in a finding now called Arrow’s Paradox.

I shall not explain it here as I have done before; a simple web search will enlighten you—all you need is a rudimentary understanding of mathematics to understand it.

Arrow’s Paradox can cause an election which should have a predictable outcome to become a farce since the outcome can be gamed to allow minority factions to prevail.

Countless elections the world over have shown how Arrow’s mathematics work in actual practice.

The latest examples are in Italy, where a young lawyer with no political experience has been asked to form the government, and in state elections in India.

How then, do individual members of the electorate, who might actually represent the majority opinion, get their voices heard by those from the minority who, thanks to Arrow’s Paradox, may now be in power?

While faced with news like GDPR compliance, we worry about our privacy online. While that is natural, when the opposite is the case, and we want our voices heard, we do not really know how to speak up in the electronic age.

I have seen people take to Twitter and Facebook, and now increasingly to WhatsApp, in order to get their opinions to as many people as possible; but these fora are unreliable, and have come under fire recently for a variety of reasons.

Last week, a US court ruled that President Donald Trump was violating the US’s First Amendment, which allows freedom of speech, by blocking people who expressed opinions different than his own on his Twitter account “@realdonaldtrump".

The plaintiff’s argument, upheld by the court, was that Trump’s personal Twitter account is now being handled by the government and by a sitting president, and not by a private citizen, and so, its handlers now have the constitutional obligation to allow voices of dissent to show up on Trump’s Twitter account.

We need a new method to allow people’s voices to be heard without going through today’s social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook which are fraught with legal challenges, regulatory problems, and investigations.

I met last week with Bart Myers, the chief executive officer (CEO) of a start-up firm called Countable which is trying to solve just this problem through its platform, which can be found at www.countable.us.

Countable has already grown to more than 1.5 million monthly users and has allowed them to send more than 11 million direct messages to elected officials.

Naturally though, it also allows click-throughs to established social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Myers claims Countable is neutral, and works with all political parties, as well as with corporations such as Starbucks.

Starbucks, and others like it, often have a large workforce, many of whom don’t have email addresses at the firm and cannot communicate with the senior management.

Conversely, these employers sometimes need to reach out to their workforce in an efficient way: Starbucks had a fiasco last month when it was put into the spotlight for racist behaviour at its cafés.

The CEO reacted immediately by closing all US cafés for a day to train employees on removing racial biases.

Another example of where such platforms could be of use when workers need to organize—or when corporations need to get the word out to workers, would be with firms such as Uber and Ola, who have large ‘casual’ workforces who do not always have a sufficient voice.

The average voter at least has an election every few years; it is doubtful whether such direct mechanisms exist at corporations that have an ‘independent’ workforce.

After all, as a Washington lawyer once told me, the three rules for people in power are: deny everything, concede nothing—and if caught out, allege fraud.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.

Close