Object 43

The Steward Medal

2033, New Zealand

In previous centuries, during the age of nationalism, medals were routinely doled out for military, political, and financial honours. Times have changed, but we still award a few — Olympic medals, the Nobel, the Breakthrough, the Fields, and one of the most prestigious of all, the Steward.

The Steward medal is a thin disc of gold with the head of an ancient Greek representative on the obverse and a crowd of people on the reverse. The one I'm holding now was awarded to Cassandra Carillo in 2033, who was judged to be one of the most ‘trustworthy’ people in New Zealand at the time.

The origin of the Steward Medal can be traced back to the late 20s, when political power slowly began to devolve into more fragmented and egalitarian models of democracy. In Europe, China, and the Middle East, corruption, overcentralisation, and a widespread feeling that governments were insufficiently responsive all reinforced the expectation that citizens should have more of a say in how their towns, cities, and countries were run.

While this was a welcome change from the laughable 'vote every few years' notion of democracy used in many countries, experiments with direct democracy fared little better. The endless series of projects, laws, charities, taxes, and initiatives that required, or at least invited, votes from citizens made it impossible for the average voter to make informed decisions; just look at California’s ballots in the early 21st century. As Alex Briand, a landscape designer from Toulouse, put it at the time, "I know I should be reading up on all of these new laws, but honestly I don’t have the time. I might as well just close my eyes and press a button, for all I know. I'd like to say to someone smart, ‘You decide!’"

In the end, that's the route that many people took: they delegated their voting authority to bodies they trusted to make informed decisions on their behalf. As such, it shared a lot in common with representative democracy, but crucially, each citizen could choose their own individual representation for different kinds of votes. You might delegate votes on economic issues to a respected professor and votes on environmental issues to a principled non-profit. While some people accumulated thousands or even millions of delegated votes — numbers similar to elected representatives — the point was that citizens did not have to compromise in their choice of delegates when it came to specific issues.

Of course, such a powerful tool as delegated authority did not appear out of whole cloth. Instead, it began with charities.

In the late teens, researchers noted that most people had a set 'charity budget' that they held in their head, and it was usually all spent on charities with the most visible marketing campaigns. This had the undesirable effect of putting newer and smaller charities at a disadvantage, not to mention the fact that the money donated might not be used in the most efficient way.

One co-op’s solution was for users to pay a set amount every month into an online 'charity account'; they would then periodically select charities from a menu and allocate them slices of their budget. But after the novelty wore off, most users discovered they didn't have the time or inclination to properly research who they should donate to.

A better solution presented itself through users delegating part or all of their 'donation authority' to trusted parties — friends, organisations, websites, celebrities, and so on. From there, the concept of delegated authority rapidly spread to other fields that suffered from a ‘tyranny of choice’, from shopping to finances to utilities, and ultimately, to politics.

Under an experimental system adopted by New Zealand in 2025, voters could delegate authority — subject to their own final personal approval — on small initiatives and local matters to trusted third parties. The system proved popular, particularly in communities with a higher degree of trust and cohesion. 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, money, and 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 'patched' the Dunning-Kruger effect wherein people believe they have more expertise than they really do.

In polarised and distrustful communities (such as most of the US), the introduction of delegated authority into politics unfortunately caused the system to completely seize up. Citizens frequently lent their votes to charismatic yet compromised media personalities who solicited massive 'donations' from companies eager to increase their influence. 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; the discovery utterly discredited the use of delegated authority in US politics for the following decade.

This setback was a valuable lesson to countries such as Germany, where efforts were made to improve the system by requiring popular delegates with more than 500 votes to declare any conflicts of interest; and by instituting the Steward Prize to recognise the efforts of outstanding and selfless delegates.

This brings us back to Cassandra Carillo's medal, awarded for her principled and transparent votes on housing issues. Unlike most delegates, Carillo did accept compensation for her work, but it was a decidedly modest amount given the hours she devoted to research and dialogue. Being given the awesome responsibility of a hundred-thousand votes, she explained, was more than enough of a burden — and reward.