No Safe Harbor: Fluid Democracy

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Worldwide, Internet-based social computing is creating entirely new political realities (Howard 2011). In Germany, there is much discussion of Liquid Democracy, innovative forms of representation far more flexible than those we have become accustomed to. The phrase “liquid democracy” belongs to the English language, not the German, and it is not uncommon for one language to borrow from another. Often, word meanings are shifted slightly in the process, as for example some Europeans abbreviate software as soft, because they use quite another word for the meaning of the English word soft. The automatic translation website renders Liquid Democracy into German as Flüssige Demokratie, and Flüssige Demokratie into English as Fluid Democracy. Liquid metaphors are quite common in electronics and computer talk, such as streaming video, electric current, wave. I prefer the term fluid democracy because it makes clear that the fluctuating property of liquids is most salient for the discussion.

This essay is a reconnaissance of the technical means available for revolutionizing the political process, using advanced information technology to develop a new alternative to both representative democracy and direct democracy. In the forms of representative democracy prevalent in post-industrial societies today, all too often the elected representatives become captives of wealthy interest groups, rather than really representing the people, or become frozen into outdated ideological positions. Direct democracy presents the danger that the general public will be deceived about the nature of societal problems, whether by distortions broadcast through mass media or by their own wishful thinking, and make foolish decisions, even impulsively changing course so quickly that no progress is made in any direction. Problems that afflict both extreme forms of system include how to protect the right of minorities, how to incorporate professional expertise in political decision making, and how to find responses to new situations that have yet to be defined for popular opinion.

The point is not to jettison political traditions merely out of fascination with novelty, but to find better ways of satisfying the needs of the public for progressive, responsive government, under conditions of rapid cultural and economic change. It is obvious to everyone that the governments of advanced nations have in fact been functioning poorly, and some kind of major redesign is sorely needed. However, this does not mean that the designers of traditional systems were fools, and in fact there is much to learn from them.

A widely understood example is the difficulty of finding the right balance between stability and rapid response, which, for example, the creators of the national legislatures of the United States basically understood. The House of Representatives is elected every two years, from districts with approximately equal population, and thus responds more directly and more quickly to trends in popular opinion. Senators serve for six years, about a third facing the electorate every two years, but representing geographic areas with unequal populations having their own semi-independent political systems. The point is not that this system is ideal, but that it recognizes the design issue of stability versus rapidity of response. When we develop new Internet systems for achieving what has been called Liquid Democracy, using a very different set of innovative institutions, we still need to face this issue. Thus, one example of a design feature that needs to be built into the new system is a feedback mechanism that carefully speeds up or slows down the rate of change, to achieve a dynamic balance appropriate for the rate of change in external conditions, and for the distance to a social goal that needs to be achieved.

Another example is how to balance privacy with accountability. A classic example is the secret ballot, in which the voters know whom they are voting for, but the politicians do not know how individual citizens voted. In more complex systems, finding the right balance can be a real challenge, for example concerning government employees. How can citizens doing business with the government be assured they are being treated fairly, while respecting a degree of privacy for government employees? How can responsible whistle-blowers call attention to problems without endangering their careers? These questions will become acute as we move toward new political systems, facilitated by modern communication technologies, in which many people are constantly shifting roles, being a common citizen at one point in time, a political leader at a second point in time, and a valued worker carrying a public responsibility at a third point. We cannot establish immutable design principle now for the political systems of the future, but we must constantly consider issues like these as we move forward through a period of innovation and experiment.

Current Events

A good starting point is the statement by the Liquid Democracy Squad of the Berlin Pirate Party, a group of about two dozen members who discussed the possibilities from September 30, 2009, until March 24, 2010. Their key idea was this:

Each participant can decide how far he wants to shoulder his own interests, or how far he wants to be represented by others. In particular, he may at any time reclaim his delegated voting right, and this does not have to wait until a new election period. This results in a network of delegations that is constantly in flux. [URL 1]

As conceptualized by the Berlin group, an individual has considerable liberty to determine how he or she would be represented. With respect to tax law, the person may select political Party A as the representative, while for environmental policy selecting Party B. Instead of a party, the person may select another individual. And these decisions can be changed at any time.

It is easy to imagine how this could be handled online. Each person would have a private page inside a password-protected governmental database. It would list some moderate number of areas of government decision making, with the option after each to select registered political parties from a drop-down menu, or to insert the name and unique ID number of another individual person. The database would constantly tabulate support for each party in each topic area, calculating weighting variables to calibrate the relative power of that party to decide the next specific vote in that area. Thus a party’s strength in Parliament would be decided not by how many of its politicians had won seats in the most recent election, but by the momentary fraction of the electorate that had selected it to represent them on the particular issue at hand.

In cases when Voter A delegated to Voter B, there are two possibilities. First, Voter A’s party choice could copy Voter B’s party choice, changing whenever Voter B changed a party selection. Second, if Voter B achieves some threshold number of delegations from other voters, Voter B could become in effect an independent member of Parliament. The balance between party influence in Parliament, versus the influence of individual delegates representing many people but without a party organization, could change over time and across issues. In addition, each voter might have several selection pages in the secure online database, one for local government, one for regional government, one for national government, and ideally even one for world government.

Presumably, each political party, and each unaligned individual delegate, would have a public web page listing positions on the various general issues. It is conceivable that some party or solo delegate might choose to communicate privately, even in secret, with individual voters, and no technical barrier prohibits this. However, democracy generally benefits from broad public discussion, and this system assumes that some kind of public debate has identified what the distinct issue areas are. It is one thing to say that tax policy is logically separate from environmental policy, but when a decision must be made about taxing emissions from a polluting industry, the picture becomes complex.

When it comes time to implement Liquid Democracy, there will be a host of very specific technical questions, including many about the processes used to identify opinion leaders and topic areas. The simple idea just presented of a government database with a private page for each voter is only one of many possible ways to proceed, and a modern political system may require combining several of them. Furthermore, we have not considered yet how a political party would develop its platform, and we should imagine how advanced information technology might manage that difficult process. Without pretending at this early point to know which methods should be used in what combination, we can catalog possible components of a twenty-first century political system based on Internet.


A very large number of information technology methods have been developed recently to support group decision making, and they can be assembled in different ways. Many of them have not generally been presented in political terms, so it will take some imagination even to recognize some of the valuable technological resources available to us. Here we shall consider only three: reputation systems, recommender systems, and online group formation systems.

From a certain perspective, Google is a political entity, ruling world culture by deciding where people will find the information they desire, in terms of the most complex classification system that has ever existed, and a dynamic one at that. It is political because it is based on the equivalent of voting, in the form of links people put on their web pages to other people’s pages. Without getting into details, the Google search engine uses two kinds of data. One is the words written on a web page, and the other is the pattern of links coming to a web page. A key part of the mechanism is the pagerank algorithm - actually a class of algorithms that assign a score to each web page in terms of the links coming to it, adjusted by the ranks of the pages that sent those links (Page et al 1998; [URL 2]).

For example, consider the English-language Wikipedia page of Pirate Parties International. To find many of the web pages that have links to this particular page, one can enter into Google: “” On October 21, 2011, Google listed 141 such pages, including some belonging to branches of the party, as well as pages in many different languages. Entering “” turns up fully ten times as many web pages. It is even possible to enter two “link:” URLs, and get a listing of all the pages that link to both of the two target webpages, which can become a metric of how similar those two pages are, in comparison with other pairs of pages that might have more or fewer common in-coming links.

Thus Google page rank is first of all a measure of popularity, but also data that can be used to map web pages in terms of similarity. Of course we should be cautious about using Google as our voting system. Yes, one can easily tabulate the relative numbers of in-coming links for the web pages of politicians, but this is not the same thing as their popularity with voters. Many of the highly ranked pages sending links may belong to ideological organizations, venial corporations, or crazy fanatics who put up many webpages that draw attention for being bizarre, not for being wise. Yet as a technical method akin to a voting system, the Google search engine has been remarkably successful and may have lessons for those who wish to reform the political system in the light of advanced communication technology.

In a sense, Google is a reputation system, and its methods can be adopted to measure the reputations of political leaders, or to cluster them into parties if they have not already organized. The original area in which such network-based techniques were developed was bibliometrics - specifically studying the pattern of literature citations to identify the most influential publications and scientists (Börner 2010; 2011). Similar methods are now used in a number of fields, using a range of computational methods, to identify leaders in a network of communication.

A recommender system is a database and statistical analysis engine that recommends future actions to the user - typically what movies to rent or books to buy - based on the user's prior behavior or expressed preferences (Basu et al 1998; Canny 2002; Herlocker et al 2004). These systems are widely used in Internet advertising, in order to customize the sales effort to fit the interests of the audience, but can be developed not only to cluster small issues into coherent political programs, but also even to conduct a form of science-moderated direct voting. The distinction between reputation systems and recommender systems is unclear, and the two share many technical features. But the best way to get the idea across is to look at one of the best-known pure recommender systems, the Netflix movie rating system. [URL 3]

After people rent a movie from Netflix, they are encouraged to rate it on a preference scale from 1 to 5, and their responses are used to determine which movies Netflix will recommend they should rent. Starting in 2006, Netflix held a contest, providing a huge training subset of their data, based on hundreds of thousands of raters, and challenging contestants to devise an algorithm that would best predict customers’ ratings on movies for which the data were not in the training set. I entered the contest, not intending to compete, but to explore how such data might be used to map the styles and ideological orientations of movies. I knew from my earlier research, that people’s preferences were often largely shaped by the visual style of a movie, the leading actors in it, and the year in which it was released - but modulo all these extraneous factors ideology could sometimes be detected (Bainbridge 1992: 470-481, 2007).

To illustrate the methods here, I have selected 15 movies that concern artificial intelligence or virtual realities - topics close to fluid democracies in their reliance on information technology for radical social purposes. One consequence is that these films may not differ much from each other in term of ideologies, precisely because they have so much in common. The first methodological challenge is that many respondents rate very few movies, so to get robust results I focused on the 6,551 respondents who had rated at least 10 of the 15, only 110 of whom had rated all 15. They are all diehard sci-fi fans, but if the data concerned politics rather than films, we would be dealing with knowledgeable experts on that very different topic. Table 1 lists the films, the year each was released, the average ratings, and the results of a factor analysis of the data.


Four factors resulted, which may be considered four dimensions of variation across the films, or clusters that group together films with much in common. The number in the four factor columns are loadings, expressing how strongly each film represents the factor. Note the negative loading for 2001 in the last column, implying it has a quality opposite to that of the three other films in the category. The first factor seems to have clear meaning, grouping together very high quality, popular films with considerable intellectual depth. The fact that some clusters of films are hard to interpret suggests we may face a similar difficulty in the realm of politics. Note especially that the factors overlap, which is not common in factor analysis, but could easily be the case in a multi-party political system, in which the platforms of competing parties contained some of the same issues.

In earlier research, I had used the same methods to analyze science-fiction authors, finding not only that four dimensions of variation existed, but that each had extremely clear meaning (Bainbridge 1986). The first group of authors wrote hard-science fiction very closely connected to physical science and technology, and filled with optimism. The second group wrote new-wave fiction, closer to the social sciences, pessimistic, and critical of contemporary society. The third group wrote a variety of kinds of fantasy that ignore real science and emphasize magic. The fourth group consisted of pioneer writers like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells; indeed the fourth dimension of science fiction is time.

If the units being rated were politicians, some of the factors would be clear, representing central individuals in well-established parties. Some would be more complex, perhaps connecting politicians of whatever party who had an anarchist or isolationist streak. Some factors might be based on race, gender, or geographical area, and a few factors might be quite indeterminate in meaning. But if we had a recommender system for politicians, a person who already liked politicians A, B, and C, could be advised what other politicians that person might like, providing links to their websites so the person can check out their platforms and other writings. If the units being rated were specific political positions, then each factor would represent a reasonably coherent platform of compatible positions.

Especially for local politics, it is important to build into the mix of methods some that enable formation of groups of ordinary citizens to tackle particular problems of interest to them. Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games do this all the time, and some have excellent systems for short-term team building. For example, World of Warcraft has a good system for assembling small teams of five players, or even raids as big as 40, linking themselves through a real-time communication system on the basis of a short-term practical goal (Bainbridge 2010). When there are as many as 40 participants, the system is hierarchical, usually assembling individuals in realtime into 8 sub-groups of 5, with more intense communication among the leaders of these small groups, and from the momentary leadership down to ordinary members. The newer MMO, Rift, has successfully worked out methods to bring together similar numbers of people instantly, in a given local area under sudden attack, even without much communication, or at least exceedingly fluid communication.

Long-duration voluntary groups are also common, often called guilds. A guild called “Science” I created in April 2008 in World of Warcraft to organize the world’s first major scientific conference held inside an MMO, is still in existence three and a half years later (Bohannon 2008; Bainbridge 2010a). When I registered the guild inside World of Warcraft, I had the power to name each of a half dozen levels of membership, and use the guild-leader part of the interface to decide what powers each level would have. For example, I let all members above the first level recruit new members to the guild, but only very high-level members could promote someone to a higher rank. After the conference, reasonable discussions with the most active members transferred the leadership from me to a subgroup of them. Structurally, such guilds look like dictatorships or oligarchies, but any group of dissatisfied members can always start their own guild, so the nominal leaders of successful guilds are more like servants than kings, exerting great effort to satisfy the membership.

To outline the contours and establish ubiquity of such guilds, Table 2 provides some data about 3,676 members of the largest such group in the classic MMO, EverQuest II. Called Blackhawks, it is organized into the series of eight membership ranks given in the table. In EverQuest II, as in most MMOs, there is a set system of experience advancement, an objective status ladder based on successful completion of missions inside this virtual world. Currently, the levels of experience run from 1 to 90, but with levels above 80 available only to committed players who have annual subscriptions. The three factions listed have evaluative labels in EverQuest II, but can be thought of as geographic representation districts, because members of the Good faction come from one district of the virtual world; those in the Evil faction come from another, and the Neutrals can come from either district.


Recruit 1554 34.2 28.3% 42.6% 29.2%

An extensive literature exists on MMO guilds, and we cannot take the time here to discuss all the findings, or all the tools used by different MMOs to create and support these groups. However, one point deserves emphasis because it links to fluid democracy. The members of Blackhawks are not people but avatars of people. EverQuest II is the only current MMO that makes public which avatars link together through one player, although it does not reveal the real-world identity of the person playing that set of avatars. These 3,676 Blackhawks avatars belong to 1,782 game accounts, for an average of 2.06 virtual representatives per person. The Berlin group imagined that each person could behave almost as multiple persons, with one vote per political issue area. The system of multiple avatars in MMOs, suggests there might be several ways in which voters could become multifaceted, even earning extra votes through investing time and effort in the system.

The Blackhawks website indicates that a single person is Leader of the guild, but this person has nine avatars, three of which have reached level 90. The 40 avatars in the council represent 8 people, only two of which lack level-90 avatars, for an average of 5 avatars each. Captains and Commanders are also considered to be leaders. The 43 captains represent 19 accounts, while the 32 Commanders represent 23 accounts. The guild seems mostly to operate by consensus among the higher ranks, but we could imagine a system in which each top-ranked avatar had a vote, giving some people multiple votes. EverQuest II offers many ways in which an avatar may earn points for the guild to which the avatar belongs, chiefly completing difficult missions inside the virtual world, earning status points with the guild. The system by which Blackhawks promotes people is very well stated on the guild’s website:

Basic promotions happens based on length of service and amount of status earned. Once you have made your first forums post, the first promotion is to Member. The next title, Contributor, requires at least two full weeks in the guild and a minimum of 5000 earned status points (per character - alts do not inherit your main's rank!).

Contributors and above may take advantage of guild perks like buying certain status items and rent/mount cost reductions. The next promotion, Senior Members, are veterans of the guild who have been here for 2 months and earned a minimum of 15,000 status points.

To be promoted to Commander - you can either be nominated by two of your peers or by someone of higher rank.

To become a Captain you need the nomination of two Captains or higher. ALL nominations are subject to Council/Guild Leader approval.

A Commander will have a limited number of guild abilities enabled. These will be specified at the time of promotion. Captains will have slightly more authority. All ranked position holders generally have to have been a member of the guild for at least two months and have accumulated at least 20000 guild status.

Council members will be selected from the ranks of Captain or via special appointment from the Guild Leader.

All promotional guidelines are subject to change at any time. On rare occasion a member may be promoted before meeting the criteria posted above. This is at the discretion of the guild leader. Occasionally, we may also hold elections if the number of nominated people is high.

The promotions process is, as a general rule, intentionally vague. We are not seeking members who aspire to become commanders and above for the sake of holding a title, or wielding authority. Instead, we seek those individuals who lead by example and action, show organizational and leadership skills and an overwhelming desire to help others. That is the best way to get promoted on our team. Help people who need it, take the initiative and host some events, show maturity and leadership by example. [URL 4]

As outlined by the Berlin group, Liquid Democracy allows citizens to decide from moment to moment who will represent them on what issues. Earlier we noted that it is important to build into the political system a stabilization adjustment that achieves a favorable balance between rapid change and consistency. One way to do this is to delay the effect of a vote, and let the voter rescind it instantly if the voter changes opinions, or to distribute voting dates across the population, for example letting a person cast new votes annually based on their own birthdays. But as the EverQuest II system suggests, a very different way of stabilizing the system is to award political leaders points for things they achieve for their constituents, and have these points degrade at a slow rate.


Traditional sociology assumed that each viable culture possessed a set of relatively stable values, often described as widely shared goals for social action, supported by systems of norms that constituted institutions (Parsons and Shils 1951). From this traditional conception, any weakening of the values and norms led to what the French called anomie, but has also been called cultural strain and social pathology (Durkheim 1897; Merton 1938; Smelser 1962). Today this conception seems very naive, both because the conditions of life are changing rapidly, and because different groups in society experience them in radically different ways (Bainbridge 1994). However, governments require goals, so it is still worthwhile asking what the values of society might be at a given point in time, being ready for the answer that they are varied and changing.

Since the 1930s, public opinion polls have been used to chart general popular sentiments, as well as in very focused efforts to predict or understand particular elections. A more recent example is a battery of questions about government programs incorporated in the General Social Survey (GSS), a long-running questionnaire study of the American public, which I am especially familiar with because I managed funding for it in the mid-1990s and have frequently used the data in my own research. One item from that battery, concerning funding for the space program, is a useful, future-oriented item to consider here.

The GSS is administered by an interviewer in the respondent’s home, and the interviewer would introduce the battery of items thus: “We are faced with many problems in this country, none of which can be solved easily or inexpensively. I'm going to name some of these problems, and for each one I'd like you to tell me whether you think we're spending too much money on it, too little money, or about the right amount.” In 1973, fully 61.4 percent of the 1,430 respondents said too much was being spent on "the space exploration program," while 7.5 said too little was being spent, and 31.1 percent said the right amount was being invested. These results could be compared with other government programs, and with the responses for the space program in other years. In 2010, 37.7 percent felt too much was being spent on the space program, 17.2 percent said too little, and 45.1 percent felt the current investment was about right. Anyone who wants to explore these and any other results from the General Social Survey can do so online. [URL 5]

If these data were the basis of decision-making through direct democracy, the space program would have been shut down in 1973, but would be continued today. It is possible to weight data from the general public, to give some people more influence than others. For example educated people and those who score higher on tests of scientific knowledge favor the space program more. We have already seen how advocates of fluid democracy plan to identify and empower opinion leaders. However, there is a different but highly compatible approach, seeking to identify the general values served by some government program or policy decision, and measure how important those particular values are to the public at large, even if they do not currently understand the specific issue at hand. Then, professional experts would go through a similar but more complex process to decide how to achieve those goals.

I chose the space program as my example, because years ago I did a pilot study to explore some of the methods needed (Bainbridge 1991). The inspiration was the intense experience of being at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the time of the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, and sharing the horror of all the people there who had dedicated their lives to space exploration. Lacking funding, I was in no position to survey the general public, but the rather knowledgeable students of Harvard University were available to serve as respondents. I administered two very different questionnaires. The first one consisted largely of open-ended questions, where respondents were encouraged to write a number of possible goals for the space program, and 1,007 students did so. Their responses were then typed into a computer, although classification was done manually because today’s natural language clustering programs were not yet available.

The second questionnaire asked respondents to rate each of 125 different possible space goals, which had been derived from the first questionnaire, on a scale saying how good a reason each one was for continuing the space program. Because the data matrix for 125 variables x 125 variables x 894 respondents was too big for the social science statistical software available at the time, I wrote my own clustering program to extract the fundamental values being served by the space program as reflected in how the respondents grouped the items implicitly. For example, military values were distinct from scientific ones, which in turn were distinct from idealistic goals. This pilot study was reported in a book, which is now available online. [URL 6]

This process can be carried out very effectively online today. In 1999, a massive online questionnaire study sponsored by the National Geographic Society, called Survey 2000 (Witte, Amoroso, and Howard 2000; Bainbridge 2004), included an open-ended question I developed asking people to write a brief prediction about the year 2100: “Imagine the future and try to predict how the world will change over the next century. Think about everyday life as well as major changes in society, culture, and technology.” About 20,000 people responded, and after considerable analysis of their written text, 2,000 formal questionnaire items resulted. I wrote them into a Windows-based computer program that anyone can use to explore their own conceptions of the future, freely available online. [URL 7] In connection with fluid democracy, this study suggests one way in which the general public can be polled to identify issues of concern to them, of course using a variety of open-ended questions appropriate for a range of policy areas, and even larger number of respondents than a mere 20,000.

While it is very important to develop a new political system that can adjust the balance between direct democracy and representative democracy, the decisions of legislatures are only one early stage in political decision making. The study of space goals can illustrate this. Table 3 lists 14 space goals, out of a preliminary list of 49, which clustered together correlationally as revealed by a factor analysis. The data came from a 1977 pilot study of 225 American voters who lived in the Seattle, Washington area, data collected with the able help of Richard Wyckoff who at that time was a graduate student. This was only a pilot study, and the 1986 study was more extensive, yet because it polled voters the 1977 study seems symbolically appropriate to use here. The factor loading for an item represents essentially the correlation between the item and the underlying but unmeasured concept that unites the group, so we can see that the fundamental idea focuses on human colonization of the solar system. The popularity of each item is


Certainly none of them have been achieved, and a recent retrospective on my old study implies that the goals that could have been achieved, given humanity’s technical capabilities, have been achieved, and we completely lack the technology for colonization of the solar system (Bainbridge 2009a). Many of the goals were relatively unpopular in 1977, but all of them touch on hopes for humanity that many future-oriented, thoughtful people hold. Today, the government of the United States is deadlocked about what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration should achieve beyond the confines of Earth.

I have argued that the funding should go entirely into fundamental research in science and engineering, that will increase our knowledge about the universe and perhaps prepare the way for much more advanced space technologies in future decades, and the manned space program should be halted (Bainbridge 2009b). However, any politician who advocates this position is likely to lose votes, because many people in the general public like the idea of human spaceflight, but lack the technical understanding to know how little we can accomplish at the present time.

Knowing what segments of the public want does not directly tell us how to give it to them, nor does it help us weigh the costs, against the costs and benefits of other goals the public also desires. The fluid network method described earlier, and already worked out in its general principles by leading thinkers in the worldwide Pirate Party, should be fully successful for many issues, but a second method with which we already have a good deal of experience is also worth considering. Indeed, the best approach may be a flexible mixture of the two methods. The second method I have in mind is peer review used by many scientific publications and science-funding agencies. It may be especially suitable when the public goals present difficult technical challenges that require unusually solid expertise that requires a considerable period of time to establish.


The general public often conceptualizes the political process only in terms of elections and the functioning of legislatures, yet much of the real decision making is done inside government agencies where the processes are obscure by nature and intentionally hidden from public view. Major exceptions to this lack of transparency are many science-funding agencies of technically advanced nations. In particular, the scientific peer review process involves a very large number of experts, who are not government employees but teaching in universities or occasionally working in other technical settings. The use of these methods could be expanded, at the same time that fluid democracy was introduced into the electoral and legislative processes, to make proper use of expert knowledge that is too specialized or complex for the general public to understand.

Here is one of the ways a contemporary science agency can manage the peer review process (Bainbridge 2011). I will describe it in somewhat idealized terms, and not all of the features exist in any particular case; however all of these features are common.

In the course of human scientific development, new areas open up, and a sense develops in the relevant scientific community that funding should be devoted to research in one or another of them. In a somewhat chaotic process, individuals and small groups of colleagues may write white papers, outlining the potential of a new area. A science funding agency may then fund a series of small workshops, or even a major conference, to work out a scientific agenda for the early stages of exploration of the area. If the output of all this communication is promising, a new funding initiative is announced, with funds devoted to it either from several related existing programs or from a central fund of the agency. A formal funding announcement or solicitation is posted on the web, with a particular deadline date for submission usually set a few months after the posting to give academic researchers time to write proposals.

The weeks after the submission deadline are an exciting and very demanding time for the employees of the science agency that posted the solicitations, because they must sort the proposals into categories for the peer review. Strictly speaking, some of the scientists managing the new program are not government employees, because they are university faculty who have come on detail for a period of time, often two or three years, and will return to their universities when their tour of duty has finished. These rotators exemplify a different form of fluid democracy that might be applied more widely in government.

Let’s say that 500 distinct proposals have been submitted. This is far too many to review in one lump, so they are divided into groups on the basis of the expertise required to evaluate them. After much reading and discussion, the program officers might divide them into 20 groups of 25, for example. Each of the 20 groups would be reviewed as a unit by one panel of reviewers, managed by one or two of the program officers. The managers of each panel then recruit reviewers, following some mixture of two different approaches.

It is possible to recruit separate reviewers for each proposal, what are called ad-hoc reviewers. It is also possible to recruit a group of panelists, each of whom would review several proposals. For example, a panel evaluating 25 proposals could have 10 panelists, each reviewing 10 proposals, to provide 4 reviews for each proposal. And of course, the panel could handle fully 50 proposals at this rate of review writing, if half the reviews were of the ad-hoc type. Each written review would have a summary rating of the quality of the proposal, plus text that might follow a template listing the criteria for the particular competition.

Great care is taken to avoid using reviewers who have a conflict of interest on the proposal, and typically nobody submitting to the particular competition can serve as a reviewer or panelist. The proposals and reviews are usually confidential, and everybody involved in the process swears to avoid exploiting any intellectual property that is in the proposals. Depending on the particular science agency, the panel may or may not precisely rank the proposals, but it certainly will separate those that deserve further consideration from those that do not. Again, depending on the rules of the particular agency, the program directors may have a significant role in deciding which of the fundable proposals to move forward for actual funding.

The entire process is Internet-facilitated. In addition to having computerized records of past reviews, the program officers have efficient tools for finding new reviewers, such as checking the rosters of recent conferences in the given area, and of course visiting academic websites. Reviewers and panelists are recruited via email. A special web-based information system handles the submission of proposals, and their distribution to the individuals who will be writing reviews. During a panel meeting, a well-designed groupware system gives panelists access to the proposals and reviews for their particular panel, allowing them to develop a collective written record of their deliberations, and to assign proposals to funding priority categories. A number of agencies have recently experimented with conducting the panel meeting itself online, using videoconferencing or even virtual worlds such as Second Life (Bohannon 2011).

We do not usually consider the rotators, reviewers, and panelists to be political representatives, because we tend to focus on their technical expertise rather than their values. Yet ideally they do represent the public through their judgment of how to achieve the goals that society seeks. I can imagine expanding this system - with whatever improvements we can devise - for decision-making outside science funding. Questionnaire surveys, recommender systems, and the form of fluid representation suggested by the Berlin committee could establish goals that the society wants to achieve. A fluid peer-review process could then work out the specific means to achieve them.


In ancient times, political power was enforced by clubs and spears, and later emanated from the muzzle of a gun, so it was of necessity tied to a particular territory of land defended by an army. But if humanity can evolve beyond warfare, or at least be assured of peace within wide territorial units, then the ultimate basis of the state need no longer be military in nature. That means that government actions and policies may be developed and applied in a manner more subtle than territorial defense. With the Internet, political constituencies need no longer be defined in terms of geographic districts, but can devolve to the subgroups of humanity most concerned with any issue. Thus it becomes possible to achieve what Bruce Tonn and David Feldman (1995) called non-spatial government.

There have been examples in the past when governmental jurisdictions overlapped to some degree, depending upon different functions that were performed. Voting districts, school districts, and postal delivery areas often fail to coincide. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created by the United States government in 1933 to serve energy needs and manage resources in an area covering portions of seven states. President Roosevelt conceptualized it as a new kind of organization, “a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise” [URL 8]. However one may judge that particular experiment, which continues to the present day, it suggests that for certain purposes even old-fashioned forms of government could aggregate geographic areas in different ways for different purposes.

Today’s communication technology allows us to escape geographic boundaries altogether, for some public purposes. Just as fluid democracy seeks to assemble people into networks in which temporary opinion leaders may represent constantly fluctuating constituencies, the scope of decision-making and policy application may be geographically different for every topic, and at each historical moment. For some policy issues, quite different systems may coexist in a given area, but serving different constituencies.

A good hypothetical example is marriage laws. In secular societies, marriage is no longer a sacred institution bound by traditional customs, but a kind of contract, and there can be many different versions. Over the course of human history, a wide range of marital practices abounded. Whatever we may personally think of them, many ancient societies had strict rules of exogamy, forbidding marriage within culturally defined segments of society (Levi-Strauss 1969), others permitted polygamy, and others differed greatly in the rules governing erotic behavior among young people (Malinowsky 1927). Why should decisions about the legitimacy of different practices be decided by the particular latitude and longitude where the people live?

Given the liberalization of local laws relating to marriage, one could imagine multiple worldwide networks arising, each representing people who wished to follow a particular marital system. In most cases, the network would be of only modest importance in a family’s life, and for other purposes its members would be embedded in quite different networks, including one representing their geographic neighbors. The marriage network would develop the precise standards for the particular kind of marriage contract, might have as a minor adjunct an online dating service, and offer marital counseling and courts appropriate for its particular principles. It would judge cases of marital discord - except the most violent outbursts which might need to be handled locally - and define the remedies for most problems. Only people who had married within the system of a given network would participate in its political processes, but they could live anywhere on the planet.

It is possible that over time many institutions of society would become non-spatial, or at least allowing several alternative, specialized political networks to occupy the same territory. In major cities, there already exist multiple schools systems - secular, religious, public, private, charter - as well as home schooling in the United States for many families. Laws would need to be changed to permit public funding of religious schools, but each system could be funded only by its own constituency, so that nobody was required to pay taxes for a kind of education with which they did not approve. Multiple overlapping school systems would therefore have their own fluid democracy political systems, each designed to satisfy the particular needs of its constituency.

Whether we are really prepared to move toward non-spatial government, the worldwide digital communication network permits it. Marriages and schools may not even be the best examples of institutions ready to evolve beyond the limitations of local geography. Internet provides the world great freedom, along many dimensions of human action and experience, and we will need wisdom greater than any individual can possess, to know which directions to explore first.

Intellectual Property

The idea that government should regulate intellectual property through copyrights and patents is relatively recent in human history, and the precise details of what intellectual property is protected for how long vary across nations and occasionally change (Bainbridge 2003). As a scientist, I am offended by the fact that scientists are accorded no legal rights with respect to their discoveries, which may have required intellectual genius and exhausting labor to achieve, whereas an engineer who tinkers up a new device can often patent it, and even rotten authors can copyright their scribblings. There are two standard sociological justifications for patents or copyrights: They reward creators for their labor, and they encourage greater creativity. Both of these are empirical claims that can be tested scientifically and could be false in some realms (Ganz-Brown 1998; National Research Council 2000).

Consider music (Bainbridge 2000). Star performers existed before the 20th century, such as Franz Liszt and Niccolo Paganini, but mass media produced a celebrity system promoting a few stars whose music was not necessarily the best or most diverse. Copyright provides protection for distribution companies and for a few celebrities, thereby helping to support the industry as currently defined, but it may actually harm the majority of performers. This is comparable to Anatole France’s famous irony, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.” In theory, copyright covers the creations of celebrities and obscurities equally, but only major distribution companies have the resources to defend their property rights in court. In a sense, this is quite fair, because nobody wants to steal unpopular music, but by supporting the property rights of celebrities, copyright strengthens them as a class in contrast to anonymous musicians.

Government deregulation of music - ending copyright - could reduce the advantage of centralized music production over decentralized and diverse music. In a deregulated market, the Internet could help myriads of local and noncommercial musicians find audiences. Arguably, the communication technologies of the twentieth century commercialized culture, but now the Internet may decommercialize it by eroding the power of the distribution corporations.

Internet music file sharing has become a significant factor in the social lives of children, who download bootleg music tracks for their own use and to give as gifts to friends. Thus, on the level of families, ending copyright could be morally as well as economically advantageous. On a much higher level, however, the culture-exporting nations (notably the United States) could stand to lose, although we cannot really predict the net balance of costs and benefits in the absence of proper research. We do not presently have good cross-national data on file sharing or a well-developed theoretical framework to guide research on whether copyright protection supports cultural imperialism versus enhancing the positions of diverse cultures in the global marketplace. It will not be easy to test such hypotheses, and extensive economic research has not conclusively answered the question of whether the patent system really promotes innovation. We will need many careful, sharp-focus studies of well-formed hypotheses in specific industries and sectors of life. For example, observational and interview research can uncover the factors that really promote cultural innovation among artists of various kinds and determine the actual consequences for children of Internet peer-to-peer file sharing. However, there seems to be little interest on the part of government research-funding agencies to look at politically sensitive issues like this, so while science will be a central part of our future revolution, it is not in a position to fire the first shots.

Quite apart from the economics of music, there are also many questions in the space between governance of creativity and music technology. A half century ago, a very different technology existed that had political implications, namely tape recorders, which I can describe from first-hand knowledge. I obtained my first tape recorder in 1958. This was actually two years later than I obtained my first computer game, the remarkable Geniac.

For several years, I used tape recorders to make personal copies of classical music from New York City FM radio stations, including many European avant-garde concerts that never appeared on commercial recordings. It never occurred to me I was violating anybody’s intellectual property rights. My third and fourth tape recorders were quarter-track stereo machines that could put two hours of high-fidelity monophonic music on a single cheap tape. The radio stations published their schedules well in advance, so it was both fun and easy to make these recordings. There was little incentive to make copies for friends, both because they had different musical tastes, and because copying was more tedious than the original recording, requiring two machines plus a fair amount of labor, and added noise to the recording. Today’s DVDs and online file sharing make copying easier, but also there has been a shift in who copies what kind of music for what purpose. Reel-to-reel tape recorders like the ones I had half a century ago were often used to record live events, and were not a good technology with which to deliver popular music to the masses.

There is the real political dimension in this issue. Music distribution companies, and the mass media in general, exploit people through advertising that uses many tricks to get them to buy culturally inferior products. Teenage children, physically exhausted working class families, and people who are socially isolated from the local musical culture, learn to gobble up the latest recordings by celebrities. In general, we should seek the decommercialization of the arts, even as we seek new ways to reward very large numbers of artists in their local communities.

This brings us back to devolution, and to new technology-based forms of democracy. On the one hand, we can simply abolish copyrights and watch the music distribution industry wither away, as already seems to be happening with respect to magazines and newspapers. Or, we could create such attractive free sources of music, that the masses liberated themselves from their current cultural thralldom, and simply stopped buying recorded music, but gave the money instead to their local singer-songwriter. More likely, several things will happen at once, and a variety of collective decisions will need to be made by governments, guilds of performers, and segments of the general public. The online devolved decision-processes described above will then come in handy for music and the many subcultures within it, as it will for the art arts and many other dimensions of life.


Fluid democracy can be considered a high-tech approach for improving existing government institutions, or it can be considered a revolutionary approach that would entirely replace them. Indeed, one of the adjustment mechanisms that can be built into the new system could be how revolutionary it is in practice. For example, if fluid democracy completely replaces the old system, then all of the financial obligations incurred under the old system become void. If investors see fluid democracy rising in political significance, they would be well advised to sell any government bonds they hold, because these “securities” very well could become worthless if the new system in fact took power. Once fluid democracy was in place, the new system could avoid government debt by allocating funding across government departments in terms of a percentage of tax revenues, rather than as defined dollar amounts. That allocation could be decided annually as voters told the government database what fraction of their own taxes they wanted to go to each department, or which political party they wanted to make that decision for them.

Clearly, we have a long road to travel before fluid democracy can be a reality. In addition to political activism, much research and technology development will be required. A large number of pieces must be assembled to complete the puzzle. Yet it is clear that traditional political structures are failing, so the opportunity for healthy but radical change has now arrived, with the maturity of Internet, at this particular point in human history.

From the perspective of a third of a century later, these 14 goals may seem even more fanciful than they did in 1977.