Thresholdware: Making Change by Leaps
By Dan Bashaw
Thresholdware is software which allows activists to coordinate intentions and actions on a mass scale. It works by securely and privately storing individual commitments, and then putting the aggregate of those individual commitments into coordinated action when a specific critical mass or threshold has been reached.
These can include financial transactions, such as fundraising commitments, or `action transactions', such as strike votes or civil disobedience. The point of threshold is to allow a network of users to register and commit to intentions which can be carried out successfully only when a predefined, mutually agreed upon tipping point is reached.
The theoretical concept behind thresholdware is outlined in some detail in Harel B's [1999/2000] essay `On Funding: A Plan to Put the Movement on Solid Financial Basis' . Harel was an early adopter and advocate, starting in the late 80s/early 90s, of creative ways to harness the power of the internet for activism .
Thresholdware is a powerful, transformative social technology, in that it acts as a social `capacitor' that stores the charge of social change until enough energy has built up to accomplish a social goal immediately and rapidly. This ability to leap over the obstacles to change has the effect of reducing the risk of failure, minimizing the effort needed to make change happen, reducing financial and legal risks for individual activists, and helping prevent activist burnout caused by the slow grind of attempting to overcome resistance to incremental change thrown up by the status quo.
Perhaps the simplest example is in fundraising, where a $100,000 project might be built out of many small donations. Using thresholdware allows users to rack a $50 donation onto their credit card, with the knowledge that it will not be processed until enough donations have come in to make the project a success. By using thresholdware, the risk of your donation disappearing into a black hole because a project does not raise enough funds to succeed is eliminated: every donation is actualized in the real world, and donors can be confident that their contribution will make a difference.
However, the applications of thresholdware goes well beyond the economic realm. Consider this scenario:
Suppose - hypothetically of course - that there is a rogue superpower that intends to invade and occupy several Middle Eastern countries in the coming year. Having already used up their standing army in losing two such wars, the nation in question will need to institute a military draft to carry out this latest project.
Based on prevous history, citizens of the rogue state might decide to individually resist this military draft. They might do so in the hundreds, or even thousands, in a series of symbolic actions. The result would be a trickle of resisters, efficiently tossed into jail individually and in small batches.
For resistance to result in actually stopping the proposed war, it would have to be far more effective than past efforts, which invariably resulted in manageable numbers of political prisoners, and the diversion of draft resistance efforts into prisoner support campaigns.
On the surface, draft resistance is a completely separate topic from fund-raising. But they have in common the usefulness of conditionality. In the case of making donations, interactive, `intelligent' and conditional donations are desirable because you don't want to waste your donation; you would like to be able to base your choice - at least in part - on what others are committed to doing.
The same applies when the stakes are higher than money. In draft resistance, a resister's effectiveness depends on how isolated they will be. Will the action merely be symbolic self-sacrifice and jail, damaging both the activist and the movement as it shifts energy from taking action to supporting jailed activists, or can thresholdware ensure that it becomes something much more?
How about if resistance simultaneously involves 100,000 or more other citizens, organized through an encrypted thresholdware system? A critical mass far beyond the number that can be prosecuted and jailed? Here is one way this might work, paraphrased from Harel:
Say the thresholdware campaign was set up so that when the threshold is reached all resistors would simultaneously and automatically send an electronically pre-signed letter of non-compliance to the authorities. One concern participants might have is that of premature release of their identifying information. To guard against this, we might imagine an independent organization like a lawyers' guild, looking at the online secure `draft resistence thresholdware' software, and being willing to offer a kind of insurance to each participant: insuring them against the very unlikely possibility that there is a malfunction and a letter is sent with their (pre-authorized) signature, but with a total number of such resistors being less than the limit they set (100,000 in our example). That is certainly a possibility. The insurance may include money, guaranteed hours of free legal defense, or both.
Thus anyone participating would have a high degree of confidence that "if the software works as advertised, there is "safety (and, also crucially, effectiveness) in numbers" - and that "there will be 100,000 or more of us." But not only that - also the confidence in and assurance of the process.
Just as having added "conditionality" allowed us - due to considerations of both safety and effectiveness - to increase the number of people willing to participate in draft resistance, likewise, "assurance" procedures such as these would increase even further the number of people who are ready, willing, and able to take part in such a mass-based act of civil disobedience.
Thinking still further ahead... a government may try to make it a criminal offense to even conditionally give permission to the grassroots organization to send out such a letter on your behalf, but that runs into several problems. First, how will the government find out you did it, without succeeding in breaking the encryption of the grassroots campaign's computers?
And what if the government goes after grassroots organizations suspected of running the "conditional draft resistance"? Let's just say that there may be a lesson to be learned from the history of file sharing, where Napster was much easier to deal with, having a central server, than the Gnutella type de-centralized software, where no central body is in control, but large numbers of users just choose to get together and run that software. Similar ideas could - and should - be investigated to protect citizen's rights and freedoms from unjust control by the State.
While the draft resistance scenario is extreme, it does dramatically point to the potential use of thresholdware in all kinds of citizen actions: flash demonstrations, strike votes, union organizing, tax revolts and more could certainly be organized and carried out using secure thresholdware.
In summary, thresholdware succeeds by:
As for the underlying technology for secure thresholdware, there is much relevant work that has been done in the last few years, some of which is summarized in Using Technology to Protect Free Speech in Dangerous Places. It is not hard to visualize building a secure thresholdware application based on current open source technologies: It's a sweet spot at the intersection of secure communications, distributed storage, and decision-making groupware - all Free/Libre Open Source applications that already exist.
By building thresholdware into our systems and thinking, we can leapfrog the status quo, and overcome resistance to change in ways that more incremental approaches cannot.
If you are interested in learning more about thresholdware, either as a non-profit fund-raiser, an activist, or a programmer interested in working on an open source project to create thresholdware applications, please contact us at email@example.com. To discuss Thresholdware with Harel and others, go to the GroundAction forum.
 For the Fuller story of, and original piece about
 Harel B - In 1991 Harel co-founded usenet's first moderated progressive newsgroup, misc.activism.progressive, whose daily readership reached 60,000. His two-part article "Electronic Activism" was circulated across the internet, and was chosen by Z magazine to teach an online course on internet activism in the early 90s as part of Z's Left Online University (fellow faculty included Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn). Harel founded economicdemocracy.org in 2000.
The above is a 2½ page summary. For the full
depth about Thresholdware and its potentials, see: http://economicdemocracy.org/fund-and-act.html
Contact: econdemocracy at gmail dot com (Not "economicdemocracy" at gmail)
This work by Dan Bashaw and Harel B is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.