Dunning-Kruger effect (Wikipedia)
Photo courtesy thornet (CC by-sa)
The Steward Medal
There are precious few medals awarded these days, unlike in previous centuries where they were routinely doled out for military, political, and financial honours. We still award a few – Olympic medals, the Nobel, the Fields – and one of the most prestigious of all, the Steward medal.
The medal is a thin disc of gold with the head of an ancient Greek representative on the obverse, with an image of a crowd of people on the reverse. The one I’m holding now was given to Cassandra Carillo in 2033, when she was 96 years old and judged to be among the most trustworthy people in Australia at the time.
The Steward medal had its origins in 2031, as a consequence of the rapid devolution in political power towards a more egalitarian model of direct democracy, originating from the Arab Spring of the early teens and growing directly from the events in the UK and China. With citizens around the world expecting and demanding more of a say in how their towns, cities, and countries were run, they were increasingly asked for opinions and decisions.
While on the one hand, this was a welcome change from the archaic ‘vote every 4-5 years’ system, the abundance of projects, charities, taxes, and initiative that required (or at least, invited) votes from citizens every month made it difficult for most people to make informed decisions – as seen from earlier problems exemplified in the notoriously misused California ballots.
People soon began to tire of the endless decision-making. As Alex Briand, a landscape designer from Toulouse said, “I knew I should be reading up on all of these new laws and subscriptions, but honestly I didn’t have the time or will. I wanted to just throw up my hands and say to someone smart, you decide!”
And, more or less, that’s the route that many people took: they gave their voting and subscription authority to trusted delegates by picking someone – or something – such as a person, an organisation, a collective, an expert system, or more outlandish things – to make informed decisions on their behalf. It had echoes of representative democracy, but crucially, each citizen could choose their very own representation – and while some representatives might have been chosen by thousands or millions, the point was that one did not have to compromise in their choice.
Of course, delegated authority did not appear out of whole cloth. Instead, it began with charities. A British entrepreneur found that most people mentally allocated a monthly ‘charity budget’ that was, in almost all cases, automatically transferred to the organisations that had the most visible marketing campaigns, putting newer and smaller charities at a disadvantage, and proving to be unresponsive to changes for demand.
His first solution was to give users who contributed a set amount a month the ability to allocate slices of their budget to different charities. However, after the novelty wore off, most users discovered they didn’t have the time or inclination to properly research who they should donate to, leading to general disaffection and mild guilt. A better solution presented itself through users delegating part or all of their donation authority to trusted parties – friends, websites, celebrities, and so on.
From there, the concept of delegated authority rapidly spread to other fields that presented a plethora of choices that were difficult to evaluate, from shopping to finances to utilities to, ultimately, politics. Under an experimental system adopted by New South Wales in 2025, voters could delegate authority – subject to their own final personal approval – on smaller initiatives and local matters to trusted third parties.
The system proved popular, although it was markedly more successful in communities with a higher degree of trust and education. In those places, delegated authority seemed like the perfect solution to smoothing out the passions and fevers of the public, so that important decisions were less swayed by advertising and money rather than the trends of the day; indeed, some communities now reward people for using delegated authorities over long periods of time by providing a heavier weighting to their votes. Some even claimed that the system effectively routed around the Dunning-Kruger effect wherein people believe they have more expertise than they really do.
In other communities, particularly the fractured and older areas of the US such as California, the introduction of delegated authority into politics caused it to completely seize up, as citizens lent their votes to charismatic but compromised media personalities who would then solicit massive ‘donations’ from organisations who they would later favour.
Much of this corruption came to a head when a group of conversation brokers pieced together the existence of an underground market to buy delegated votes in 2030, resulting in the collapse of delegated authorities in US politics for the next six years. Thankfully, this setback did not spread to countries where the practice was more suitable for the culture, such as Australia, where efforts were made to improve the system, for example, by requiring popular delegates to declare any conflicts of interest, and by instituting the Steward Prize to recognise the efforts of outstanding delegates and remind people of the strengths of the system.
Which brings us back to Cassandra Carillo’s medal, awarded for her highly principled and transparent votes on healthcare issues, made on behalf of hundreds of thousands of voters. Unlike most other delegates, Carillo did take compensation for her work, but it was a modest exchange for her tireless research into the issues and efforts to explain her choices through frequent videos, talks, and articles – more than we can say for most politicians in the past!