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  • Writer's pictureHank Jacobs

The Synopticon and America’s Future

A modest proposal for creating true American Democracy.

Synopticon (n): Surveillance of the few by the many.*


In our representative democracy, the majority of citizens don’t pay attention to what our elected officials are doing. We are content to let them do their work, make their speeches, tell their lies, and make their behind the scenes deals. As long as it doesn’t impinge on our lives, families, media habits, and bottom line, we offer them our tacit support. For most of our history, this has been an acceptable arrangement to the majority of citizens. And our elected officials have more or less honored our trust.

That state of affairs has changed. Our inattention has allowed our political class to become corrupted. Adding in the presence of unlimited corporate money, has been deleterious to our ability to have useful political discourse, and, in turn, enact meaningful legislation that reflects the needs of the great majority of the populace. In other words, our elected officials, using our tax dollars as their tool, have ignored and betrayed us, while further enriching themselves and their wealthy patrons.

Our binary system presents a series of false choices, and the rise of propagandistic media across the political landscape moves us further away from the vast common ground that we as Americans inhabit together.

The Synopticon is a solution to this problem: a truly democratic fourth branch of the American system of checks and balances. It creates a voice of the people that uses the ubiquity of smartphones to leverage the power of mass communication on a scale that the Founders of our nation could never have dreamed of.



What is the Synopticon, and how does it work?

The Synopticon is a system of mass public issue voting on matters vital to the citizenry. It is like a thunderclap, warning the government that action must be taken.

Simple, straightforward questions are asked. These questions will be unambiguous, with a simple, large scale solution explicit in the formation of the question.

Example: Should the federal government make a large (one trillion dollars and above) investment in infrastructure?

There are two answers: yes or no.

A large and neutral information campaign goes out, informing the public that the Synopticon is asking us a question. Each citizen gets a push notification to their smartphone informing them that there is a question, with a link directly to that question, and to approved arguments surrounding the issue. If the citizen chooses to simply vote, the whole process takes less than two minutes. What follows is a 15 day window to vote.

If the answer meets a certain threshold, it is referred to the legislative branch, which then has 120 days to pass legislation that satisfies the answer.

Are the decisions of the Synopticon binding?

Yes. If congress does not pass acceptable legislation (as overseen by a court with jurisdiction over the decisions of the Synopticon), the executive branch is then required to set new elections for 60 days after that. For the entire legislative branch. If the executive branch fails to set and execute the new elections, the court may then hold the President of the United States in contempt of the people. If the President refuses to act, the court can call for a new presidential election.

A high barrier to action.

This might seem drastic, and it is. Because the voice of the Synopticon comes into effect only in moments when our government is clearly ignoring the will of the people, the bar to action is high: in order for the Voice of the Synopticon to be recommended, it must meet the threshold of 75 million votes with a winning margin of over 25%. This keeps away frivolous ideas and divisive, hot button issues that don’t carry overwhelming mass support.

Who would pay for and operate the system?

The budget for the National Office of the Synopticon will be provided as a public service through the portions of the largest tech companies that deal with elections. Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter. A small expense for them, but a giant boon to our democracy.

Is it secure?

Anyone who has a social security number can vote, and each number can only vote once on each issue. The security of the system is related to the transparency of the system, which uses blockchain technology to record results in an open, decentralized way. While specific names and social security numbers are encrypted, the results are wide open on the API, so when there is malfeasance, it becomes clear to anyone looking. The openness of the system is the reason for its security. 

By making the results fully transparent and publicly accessible, distributed database technology could bring full transparency to elections or any other kind of poll taking. Ethereum-based smart contracts help to automate the process. – Ameer Rosic, writing

Yeah, but who decides what questions are asked?

Anyone can ask a question. And anyone who wants to spend a bit more time helping the Synopticon, they can vote on which questions get asked to the larger populace. A question must have 10 million up-votes in order to be asked.


The other night I was getting my 10 year old get ready for bed, when the conversation turned to the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida; even though she doesn’t really pay much attention to current events, it seemed to her that the world was falling apart, and that the ones whose duty it is to keep it together were not doing their jobs.

Full disclosure: My political beliefs fall on the progressive end of the scale. I believe that global warming is a huge problem for our world, as is income inequality. The government should be at the service of the people, and that when all of our citizens have a certain level of their basic needs taken care of, the entire society is better. But I’m not dogmatic, and I’m always open to positive ideas that could work through a well regulated marketplace.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you a bit about my personal history, as context for the genesis of this idea.

I have lived and traveled extensively in the United States. I’ve connected deeply with different kinds of people. I was raised in a White Christian community in the upper Midwest, while attending school among Orthodox Jews. I was blessed with the opportunity to go to a majority African American public arts school in Washington D.C., where I learned both what it was to be a racial minority, and about the redemptive power of art. I married into a multi-ethnic family with roots in Europe and Asia. My adventures as an actor and filmmaker have taken me to the heart of the conservative rust belt. I have spent extended time in Texas, among both White and Tejano populations, riding in pickup trucks, waiting in deer blinds, feeling the thrilling power of firearms. I have spent time among the extremely wealthy, and those who can barely scrape together a meal. I have been tested in heavily male-dominated societies, and nurtured in powerful, female-led environments. I have crushed beers with proud Rednecks, smoked pot with beautiful Hippies, rolled blunts with bright OG’s, experienced the sweet kindness of Mormons. I have trained with cops, cavorted with criminals, and broken it down with lawyers.

In all of these places, I have been welcomed into homes and confidences, shared laughs and aspirations, broken bread with unfamiliar foods, witnessed and taken part in a huge variety of family and religious rituals. Some have been fun, some intense, some harrowing. And without fail, I have always been impressed with the love people have for each other in their communities.

Yes, I have encountered hate and intolerance, been singled out, abused, beaten, and feared. I recognize that we are a country with slavery and genocide built into our foundation, and that we have a spotty record on how we treat one another. But it is not necessary that we weave these experiences into the future that we build together.

I celebrate our multiculturalism, it makes us strong. Yes, there are differences: music, language, dress, ways of communication, and, fascinatingly, what it means to be cool (I’ll do a post about that subject soon); but on a fundamental level, we as Americans have have far more in common than anyone would ever believe from the public discourse.


What are these commonalities? What are things that the majority of people want for themselves and their families across our heterogeneous society? Here’s a list I’ve developed through conversation with people all around the United States:

  • Safe, quality schools that teach and nurture their children

  • Low crime rates

  • Safe streetsClean air

  • Clean water

  • Common-sense gun control

  • Freedom to practice their religious, spiritual, and ritual lives

  • Good healthy food

  • High quality roads and bridges

  • A basic level of health care that will not destroy our way of life if we or our loved ones get sick or injured

  • Efficient and safe air and rail transportation

  • Enough money to get by day to day without much worryFast, inexpensive access to the internet

  • Good entertainment- film, TV, theater, art, sports, games, books

  • Respect

  • To be heard and understood when we are unhappy

  • Sensible tax rates, and the requisite public works that we pay for

  • Work that makes them feel accomplished

  • Opportunities for their children to have a better life than we do

  • Freedom to celebrate and ritualize life the way we see fit

  • Positive action to protect our environment

  • Humanity should explore the universe

And as long as our needs are being taken care of, we don’t have a problem.

But lately, these things have not been taken care of. And we have a problem. A big problem. That is why I have presented the Synopticon as a practical solution.


Okay! Now that I’ve put my idea out there, I would love your feedback. I am a writer, not a political scientist, activist, or information technologist. This idea is based on anecdotal experience rather than hard data and research.

Is this idea feasible? If not, maybe it will open the door to better ideas.

Tell me why I’m naive (kindly please).

If you love the idea, please take it and run with it, all I ask is to remain in the discussion, through attribution, links, or direct contact as you try and create something like the Synopticon in our world.

Our democracy needs protection, and we need to work together to save it. The privileged few are terrified of our unity. Let us strike loud the bell of true democracy.


*from the work of sociologist Thomas Mathiesen

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