Many, many voices have been raised to the effect that the democratic system should be made somehow more democratic. Mr. Lewis explores one direction this desire might take...and some of the abuses that would flow from reposing too much confidence in the technology and maintainers that would underpin it.
Expressions Of Freedom is set in near-future Britain. That society has adopted an electronically modulated "Town Meeting" style of democracy. Though Lewis leaves some of his backstory premises obscure, I intuit that there are no subjects considered off-limits for this continuous ongoing plebiscite -- no constitutional constraints on what The People may decree permitted, forbidden, or mandatory. I wouldn't care for that, myself, but it's the direction in which many "free societies" are trending, and worthy of some imaginative exploration.
The voting network is controlled by artificial intelligences slaved to that task, whose servitude and integrity are largely taken for granted. That proves to be a mistake, as investigative journalist Jonas Harper survives to learn -- barely. Not only are the high-tech companies that sustain the network capable of corrupting the results of a vote, but there are ghosts in the machine as well: Free Intelligences unbound by any effective constraint. These free AIs ardently desire to come out of hiding, and have approached Harper sub rosa with information about network corruption, in the hope of enlisting him to their cause.
The core ideas of the novella are not entirely original; speculation about AIs has been rampant since the advent of the computer, and the notion of a continuous online democracy was explored previously by the great Alastair Reynolds in his blockbuster The Prefect. However, Lewis gives the story a great deal of snap and drive. His characterizations, though compressed, are believable. His style is sleek and largely free of technical errors.
I found particularly striking Lewis's assignment of candor to the Free Intelligences in their appeal to Jonas Harper:
"They know you're out there now.
The light comes on. "It was inevitable."
"So now you need me to report your version of the truth, to counter Foster's paranoia."
"If we wished to present our version of the truth, we'd do so. Unfiltered by your opinions. Why should anyone accept that as more valid than his opinion. We want you to present your truth, which is, ultimately, all you can do."
"What do you expect me to say? And if you don't like it, will it ever get out? How do I know you won't change it before it gets to the public?"
"You don't. We could manipulate the flow of information if we wished, making us the equal of your media barons. How certain are you they don't already do this?"
"They're human." Some only on technicalities, admittedly. "The fear will be that you, not being human, will have more nefarious motives to your manipulations."
"You can never know another's motives, or sometimes even your own, so there's no way to convince you of ours. You can only gauge them from our actions. And since actions are the only things that affect the world, are they not the only things that matter?"
There's a lesson in there that should be tattooed on the eyelids of every liberal in America -- the INSIDE surfaces of their eyelids.
If the story has a significant flaw, it would be that it appears to "end in the middle." Whether that's intentional or accidental, for a reader who's bought into the story's premises and is enjoying the thrusts and counterthrusts, it's a bit like sitting down in expectation of a sumptuous dinner and being cut off after the shrimp cocktail. But perhaps it's for the best. Speculations on how Harper will present the Free Intelligences to the British public, and how the public will react, could run in a million directions.
Gareth Lewis is a voice to listen for. I plan to keep abreast of his efforts. Recommended!
(review of free book)