October 27, 2003
Reinventing the Wheel

With all the buzz that’s been happening over the last few months about how digital technologies can help reinvigorate democracy, there’s been a lot of ideas being fired off into the ether by a lot of very smart people. But some of those ideas aren’t as new as the people who are propounding them think they are.

Here’s the example that got me thinking about this. Joi Ito has been doing a whole lot of invaluable work on the idea of Emergent Democracy, which I find to be pretty exciting stuff. However, recently as I was clicking through his collection of materials, I came across a user-contributed page describing something called “Liquid Democracy” that sounded a little familiar:

In LiquidDemocracy, you have proxies. On way of seing it is that you delegate your vote to the proxy. Another is that you listen to what the proxy has to say on that subject, and vote for what he advises you to…

So the main point is generally to get someone’s opinion on an issue, and to construct your opinion from there on. You don’t even need to vote (though, as we will see later, voting can also be considered). Since the emphasis isn’t on voting but on opinion, your “proxy” gives you more than a Yes/No. He gives you a summary of what he thinks on that issue…

Basicaly [sic], on a given issue, you revieve “opinions” from whoever’s opinoins [sic] you subscribed to, you then process these opinions and publish your own.

Now, I don’t mean to call out this concept because it’s bad or wrong — I’m only calling it out because it’s nothing new. Political science has already hashed over this ground many times. The question of how people form the opinions they hold is, after all, central to the discipline of political science, and therefore naturally of great interest to everyone in the field.

What “Liquid Democracy” is describing is the formation of a class roughly analogous to what political scientists would call “opinion leaders”. Basically (my apologies if I’m rusty on this, I haven’t cracked a textbook on this stuff in six years), this theory of how people get their opinions goes that the world is too complicated for any person to understand entirely on their own. For this reason, people tend to concentrate on carving out a corner of the world that they understand very well, and then for the rest of their opinions they take cues from the judgment of trusted others in their communities who they believe know better than they do. These “opinion leaders” may hold positions of official authority (elected office, civil servants, etc.), but that’s not necessary; they could just as easily derive their authority from other bases, such as religion, family standing, wealth, and so on.

Two things about opinion leaders make them track very closely to the ideas in the Liquid Democracy piece. First, opinion leaders do not have the same authority in the follower’s eyes on every issue; followers instead tend to look to different leaders on different issues, just as described. Second, opinon leaders do not have complete control over followers; they merely provide cues, which the followers use as a starting point for making their own decisions. The followers can (and often do) diverge from the conclusions of the leader; but the opinion of the leader provides them with a handy logical shortcut from which to start reasoning without having to know every single fact about an issue.

(Is this to say there’s nothing new in Liquid Democracy? Not at all. In fact, what first excited me about blogs was precisely that I saw them accelerating and streamlining the process of the formation of new opinion leaders — something which had always thought to be geographically constrained was now wide open. Today I take my cues from people around the world — people like Joi! That’s what’s new. But this is a refinement of a well-known process, not the creation of something completely new out of whole cloth.)

So, even if the two ideas are correlated, who cares? Why bring it up? I raise the issue because, frankly, it’s silly to go inventing a whole new dictionary of terms to describe ideas and concepts for which terms already exist. It’s also indicative of how lopsided the participation in our movement is at the moment, with lots of techies on one side, and not many liberal arts folks on the other. In that kind of environment it’s going to be natural that elementary poli-sci concepts are going to be reinvented.

I’m with Joi and his crew in their belief that Emergent Democracy has the potential to really let people make a positive impact on the world. I just believe we’ll get there a lot faster if we stand on the shoulders of all those who came before us. Reinventing democracy isn’t a simple process; we’ll need all the good ideas we can get, so let’s not waste brain cells thinking up new names for old ones.

Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at October 27, 2003
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Ant's Eye View is edited by Jason Lefkowitz, a consultant and Web developer in Alexandria, Virginia. Got a question, comment, or concern? Let me hear it!

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