Network Democracy

I was a philosophy major, and so when I’m not hacking I sometimes muse about the underpinnings behind what I’m working on. Well, rarely are they so rich as with my current work. Here’s some recent thoughts:

There are several reasons for choosing representative democracy over direct, or pure democracy. One is about scalability: the larger the population, the more decisions that need to be made, and the more work it is to keep up with those issues and make informed decisions about them. Another is stability: concentrating power in a smaller number of people’s hands means that, by and large, the same kind of values and methods will be applied to making future decisions as past decisions.

Representative democracies solve the major problems of direct democracy. By delegating the right to make decisions, citizens can focus on other aspects of livelihood, and career politicians can specialize, building the background and skills necessary to make governance choices. As representatives are themselves elected by the populace, they must present themselves as good proxies for the decisions their constituents would make, and they must stand accountable to those constituents or risk losing the next election. It all makes sense.

But we can look at representative democracy, also, as an information processing optimization that minimizes the number of decisions that have to be made by each participant. It’s not surprising, when we look at it this way, that representative democracies are hierarchical. Hierarchies (also known as “trees”, since their is always only one path from any branch to the trunk) are the key to scalability–they’re why we can represent one million with seven digits instead of a million, and why databases can find a single record out of millions in a fraction of a second.

Humans form hierarchies to manage the number of decisions they need to make. Hire a good store manager, and you don’t have to worry about keeping change in the cash register. Shop around for a good job, so you don’t have to worry about running a business all by yourself. Or vote for a candidate for president, so that your guy (or gal) is in office, standing for your country.

All of these decisions have the same character: delegation. By delegating someone, you enable them to make decisions on your behalf. In order to be able to delegate, you need to trust that person. Often this comes down to a mix of reputation–what others think of them, and what you think of those who think of them–and individual judgment, whether it be an assessment of their education, a gut feeling about their eyes, or anything else.

So every decision to delegate is simultaneously about scale and stability. If it weren’t about scale, then there’d be no need to delegate in the first place If it weren’t about stability, then it wouldn’t matter who you delegated to make decisions.

With The Hourly Press, we’ve been looking at delegating the choice of who’s worth listening to. Put differently, it lets you curate the curators of information. The idea is that, by building up a medium scale network (say 50,000 people) through a couple of levels of delegation, users can get the information that’s most important to flow to them. This delegation is about scale, because users can leverage the decisions of other users: instead of following 50,000 people, they can follow 20 who they trust to make the right choices about the others. And it’s about stability, since their selections, if made well, can be expected to stay focused on a particular community, topic, and set of values.

This experiment has led me to think about how the loose hierarchy that powers the Hourly Press with simple follow/unfollow gestures in twitter might be applied to the general topic of democracy. The structure of the Hourly Press network (which we sometimes call an Authoritative Social Filter) has some aspects in common with direct democracy, and some in common with representative democracy. I think it’s something new, though, which I’d like to call a network democracy.

In a network democracy, there are two primary decisions that participants make. The first is a decision about whom to trust, or whom to delegate decision-making power to. The second is about issues–whether it be about recommending a link, or spending money, or going to war. Every participant makes both kinds of decisions. Trust delegations can be made at any time, though decisions about issues often will have a deadline.

Now, let’s look at how power is distributed in such a network. The first thing you can say is that the more people who trust you, the more power you have. Sounds reasonable. If you misuse such power, you might alienate those people and lesson your influence–so there are checks and balances at the core.

Power is also a matter of perspective. If you’re trusted by one million people, but I don’t trust you, then you might have no standing from my point of view. This kind of network reflects that fact. Put differently, power projects from some point or set of points. In the case of staying informed, it might project from your own personal perspective: these guys are worth listening to; follow them; leverage their decisions about others. In the case of social order, it might look a little different: power projects from each individual citizen, and therefore the influence someone has is proportional to the total number of people that trust him.

An assumption that I have not yet spelled out is the transitivity of trust. I would argue that this is a common factor in any hierarchical organization as well as in social networks. If you trust someone who trusts untrustworthy people, you’ll probably trust that person a little less (and vice-versa). But how long can such chains be expected to proceed, and at what rate do they attenuate?

With our work on the Hourly Press, we’ve become rather enamored of the number two. Two degrees seems to be a very good spot, as it makes it easy to scale to numbers that are statistically useful, while retaining a very transparent chain of trust. If someone two degrees away from you makes a bad decision, you can see to whom you delegated the choice of that selection and interact with (or unfollow) those people. However, in the case of three degrees, the accounting becomes much more complicated, and the actions needed to respond to a bad decision will also be more complicated.

Likewise, using a PageRank-style iterative algorithm to accumulate trust in a large scale network, while very compelling, does not seem to facilitate personal participation. For example, someone two steps away might have a very high influence due to a global calculation, regardless of your personal opinion of him. There are two problems with this: it’s necessary to communicate this increased influence, and it’s not clear how the user can respond if they disagree. In short, it takes the power out of the individuals hands’ and puts it in the collective.

Another assumption I’ve made is that trust is generic. In other words, if one person trusts another, that trust applies to any kind of decision. It certainly is easy to give examples where this isn’t the case: for example, you might trust your car mechanic with your car but not your hair, and similarly for your hair dresser. Certainly the desire to categorize people along different lines is popular in social networks, for example with twitter lists. Nevertheless, for simplicity, I’m going to assume that trust is generic for now.

Generic trust, I don’t think, is as bad as it might sound. Unless you have a particularly good relationship with your hair dresser, I doubt you’d trust them as a source of information or to make decisions about how to spend tax dollars. And if you do have a good relationship, then I’d say, go ahead and trust them. If their values are quite different then most of the other people you trust, their aggregate power over any particular issue will be very small anyway.

Now, being trusted in not just a thing that happens: it’s a process that evolves over time. The way that people will accumulate power in such a network is by being trustworthy. If they make haphazard decisions, they’ll never get into a position where their decisions matter much. Likewise, once they’ve achieved power in such a system, they are strongly incentivized to make good decisions. After all, many eyes are on them, scrutinizing the decisions that they make, and unfollowing them when they make poor ones. If the highly trusted car mechanic were to make an assertion about hair care products that was frivolous, he would jeopardize his hard-earned standing.

Notice that while the network is clearly flexible and “democratic”, the power will accumulate based on long-earned reputation. Stability is at its core. And possibly more so than representative democracy, where formal structures don’t necessarily match de facto power structures (eg, Cheney’s power as vice-president), and expensive, slow processes like elections can trail far behind political realities.

And of course it’s also scalable. Participants can get as involved or uninvolved as they choose to be. They can delegate power to the popular choices and move on with their life, or they can mine the details, figure out who makes the most sense and most worthy of their trust. And, of course, all of that work is re-usable by anyone else, who can delegate their decisions to those with more time or inclination to scrutinize.

Now, The Hourly Press is about attention, and much of what I’ve been talking about here is collective decision-making. But there’s another step to be made, bringing these ideas together: the same trust network can be used to inform as well as make decisions. By delegating trust to someone, you’re simultaneously giving them some piece of your attention. As issues come up in that person’s sphere of interest, they will show up in your inbox as worthy of your consideration. If an issue arises that you’re not interested in, then you might simply unfollow the person through whom that issue came to your attention: if you don’t care enough to know about it, you also won’t care what kinds of decisions that person makes about it.

So the scalability of the system is not just about delegation of power, it’s also about delegation of attention. If you have a new interested in, say, the use of fresh water in your county, then you’ll start finding people and media outlets that are covering the topic about that topic. As you get to know them, you follow the ones you think are saying the right stuff, and the more you do this, the more informed you will be. As issues come up for vote, you’ll be notified through these very same channels, and be able to cast your vote using the same tools. By letting individuals choose to be as involved they want, one network could scale indefinitely to cover all the kinds of collective decisions we as humans need to make.

So this is a very rough sketch and there are a number of questions that need to be worked out. Where to start? I’ve been picturing some kinds of small scale experiments. Maybe a small town or even a company or school where decisions are made either hierarchically or by voting. One could start doing experiments, letting them arrange themselves and vote using network democracy, and see what happens.

I’d expect such an experiment to start to answer a few of the huge questions in my mind, and many others I haven’t thought of. So, for instance, are the follows public knowledge, or are they secret? What would be the protocols around following and, more importantly, unfollowing someone. (If people are afraid to unfollow people because it will hurt their feelings, that would undermine the value of the network.) Should symmetric follows cancel each other out? (Hmm… that might solve the feelings problem.) Is trust generic, or do people need to classify others based on the kinds of decisions they want to delegate to them? What about transitivity of trust: is our position on two-degree networks right, or will longer lengths provide more value?

If representative democracy emerged, as I suspect, due to considerations about the efficiency of the flow of information, then maybe they’re not actually the ideal way for people to make collective decisions. Maybe we don’t need to live with “the worst form of government except for all the others”? I’d love to play a part in finding out…


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