July 13, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Local game developer shares ‘Liquid Democracy’ metaverse

14 min read
Chris Calef sees extreme political polarization in America, and hopes his software can bring neighbors back from the brink: "Part of this is my earnest, best attempt to prevent a civil war."

Greens to hear proposals for large-scale participatory democracy Sept. 17

A local software developer hopes the Pacific Green Party will adopt what is known as “liquid democracy.” He’s crafting a metaverse where you can vote directly on every issue, or choose someone to vote for you, exactly as you want.

Chris Calef: I’ve had this interest in liquid democracy ever since Leif Brecke told me about it. And since long before that—my entire adult life, basically—I’ve been aware that our representational system isn’t really working for us very well.

[00:00:27] Traditionally it’s been necessary to enact our democracy by electing representatives who will go back to the seat of power and represent their entire jurisdiction on every question that comes up.

[00:00:41] That made sense in the 1700s. We’re in Oregon and we have a Washington, D.C.-based government. We need to elect somebody who’s literally going to ride his horse or get on a train and get all the way across the country. And then that person is the only one who can make any decisions for people in Oregon.

[00:00:59] But by now we have computers, we have the internet—we have many ways that we could make more democratic decisions than this.

[00:01:07] And the idea of liquid democracy starts from the principle that every citizen really ought to be able to have a vote on everything the government does. A totally inclusive democracy would say, ‘We all get to decide that.’ You’re going to spend money to invade a country? Then we all want to put in our two cents and decide if that’s a good idea before we do it.

[00:01:24] But the corollary to that is that obviously that’s impractical. As 300 million people, we’re not all going to have time to make decisions on the millions of decisions the government makes. We also don’t have the knowledge personally to make an informed decision about every single thing the government does.

[00:01:40] But the core concept of liquid democracy is that we can select representatives from among our own friends and acquaintances. And those representatives can be selected based on subject matter, so we don’t have to say, ‘This friend is going to vote for me on every single thing that comes down the line.’

[00:01:57] I can have an electrician friend and say, ‘This guy really knows a lot about electrical infrastructure. I’d like to rely on him to make decisions about changes to the power grid, but I have another friend who is an environmentalist. He knows a lot about old growth forest, and I’d like him to make the call when we’re having logging questions.’

[00:02:13] And agriculture, social sciences, prisons: Everything we can do in our society that the government is involved in, we could pick somebody, we all know somebody that knows probably a little more than we do.

[00:02:25] And the second part of this that my electrician friend may not have time to do all the voting here. And he also may have friends that know even more than him about subsets of electrical work, even. So that person can delegate the decisions that I delegated to him up to somebody else who knows even more.

[00:02:41] And at any point along the way, I can withdraw my consent and decide to give it to somebody else or vote for myself if I don’t like the direction he’s going with it.

[00:02:48] And we can also make the vote ourselves. If we really want to be involved every step of the way, liquid democracy says, ‘Go for it. Vote on everything if you want to.’ But you have an option to not have to do that and still make informed decisions.

[00:03:00] So in a nutshell, that’s what liquid democracy is.

[00:03:03] John Q: He tried an existing system called “Liquid Feedback,” but decided to just write his own, called “Vote Machine.”

[00:03:10] Chris Calef: I wanted to get back to the more roots of just basically that we can make choices, we can delegate our choices and let’s keep it simple.

[00:03:17] I’m a game programmer / web developer / computer programmer for decades. So my skill set is one that allows me to use the internet to reach people. So what I’m bringing to the table here is a basic implementation of the theory of liquid democracy.

[00:03:32] This is a website called Vote Machine. I named it that just because I like the mechanical aspect that we’re going to be collecting votes from them at all times, on every subject. We’re going to throw the decisions into the machine and it’s going to clank and whir and spit out results and of many different directions so that we can analyze these results for a lot of different reasons.

[00:03:51] And another core feature of what I’m doing is anonymity. I’m going to make it so that people can make their own groups. So if you are a member of a nonprofit or part of the leadership, you can start a group for your nonprofit and invite your members and they can come in and join and you can get input from them and I hope it’ll be an easier way for nonprofits and civil organizations to stay in touch with their membership.

[00:04:11] But each person who makes a group can decide what kind of privacy concerns they want to enforce. You know, there’s a spectrum between the advantages in a small group of knowing everyone’s name and actually knowing what everyone voted. You may all want to do that. And you can all vote and say, ‘We want names. We don’t want anonymous.’ But in larger groups, it may be more effective to keep everyone anonymous. People are free to speak their mind and they don’t fear retaliation or any other effects from how they voted.

[00:04:45] So the baseline default of my system is that everyone is going to have a UUID, which is basically a string of numbers and letters. And that will be the only identifier, but once you become familiar with the UUID, even though you don’t know who it is, you can follow that person’s voting record and see what they voted everywhere.

[00:05:03] And you may decide you agree with them, even though you have no idea who they are. You may say, ‘This person’s always going my way. I think I’ll just follow what they do for a while and save some time.’ And you can check it later and withdraw that if you want to. But those are called proxies in liquid democracy. We’re going to have ‘choosing your proxies’ and making use of that as a huge part of the system that we want to encourage everyone to do.

[00:05:24] John Q: The metaverse already features an amphitheater and smaller open-air meeting spaces guiding voters to ongoing discussions.

[00:05:32] Chris Calef: Because I’m a game developer, my day to day work is in Mozilla Hubs and what I’m doing for work involves making metaverses. Basically for this project it felt like maybe it’s kind of a weird thing to throw in there, but on the other hand, it’s very modern and sexy and fun, you know, and I want to get the younger generation involved.

[00:05:50] I hope they’ll feel comfortable, coming into a 3D environment, and have verbal discussions in this environment, to use it to have the discussions that lead up to those decisions so that—and I find this to be a critical need in our society right now.

[00:06:04] So what I’d like to have on my Vote Machine site is a place for each of these major community discussions to live. And then a place where the best arguments, pro and con, each of these discussions can be bubbled up and voted on so that when you go there, a new person can immediately see what has been filtered out as the most compelling arguments for the pro and con position of everything we’re discussing here.

[00:06:27] And then if somebody comes in with some stupid thing that’s been debunked a million times, it’ll just get pushed down and be like Point C, you know (Point) D down here. It’s been covered. If you have something new, then give it.

[00:06:38] But that’s one of my main goals here is that I feel like we’re never going to solve these problems unless we can actually have informed discussions where people are responsible for their opinions and have to stand them up and then stand by them. So if the metaverse helps that, I’m all for it.

[00:06:52] I also want to have it just to be a place that people have fun, and I’ve had my own aspirations to create more of a democratic open source metaverse that people can use and create their own copies of and do fun things in, we can do game-type environments in (Mozilla) Hubs.

[00:07:07] You know, take it down a notch in terms of how serious everything is and just have a little fun too, and laugh a bit, and hopefully start to enjoy the company of the people you disagree with a little bit, so that you can have a little more respect for them and treat them more like friends and less like enemies. So that’s all part of why we’re making it in 3D as well as 2D.

[00:07:25] John Q: One option (which can be turned off), is to use ChatGPT in the interface.

[00:07:33] Chris Calef: We’ve done a bunch of good work in my day job implementing ChatGPT behind a virtual human bot. So with—the level I’m at right now allows me to hit a record button and actually speak to the bot. And then behind the scenes, I can convert that speech to a text string and then send the text to ChatGPT. Given the background, ChatGPT can respond to me with text. I can run it through a Google text-to-speech and then I run that audio file (that I get from the text-to-speech) through a lip-syncing tool. And at the end of all this, which does take a few seconds, I have the virtual bot talking to you and moving lips accurately.

[00:08:07] And it does a pretty good impression of, you’re talking to a human, even though you can hear that it’s a computer-generated voice. The accents are wrong sometimes and it’s not perfect, but it’s a heck of a lot more perfect than was ever available in the past. So it’s kind of fun.

[00:08:22] We’ll end up with a list of issues that will be votable. So basically, the way it works is you can click on the actual proposal and there’s a box down below that shows you the description, more, a larger body of text to explain what the issue is about. And then there’s ‘Arguments For’ and ‘Against.’ So what you’re going to do here is, you’re going to be looking at the proposal and then decide, ‘Hell, yeah! That’s a great idea! I’m going to give it plus two.’

[00:08:50] And then when you do that, you will be on the ‘Arguments in Favor’ side of this proposal, and that means that you can submit ‘Arguments in Favor,’ then you can also vote on ‘Arguments in Favor.’ So there will be a long list in here and you can scroll up and down with these things. And if you go down through the arguments and you see one that you think is just encapsulates everything you think, if that’s perfect, then you’ll give it two thumbs up.

[00:09:12] And if someone’s going to have an argument with you about it, you should go here first and see what’s been said and make your choice on it and then go forward. But don’t just endlessly repeat ourselves and have the same argument over and over and over again. We’re all going to just die having the same argument. We’ll never get a conclusion.

[00:09:27] John Q: The focus of the news could shift to upcoming discussions and opportunities to vote.

[00:09:34] Chris Calef: Part of the group page is the public group page. I hope that evolves into a big, complicated page that has a lot of parts. There could be news about what happened in the group and news about upcoming issues and decisions that are going to need to be made, and graphs that show what the votes have been on different issues.

[00:09:53] I would definitely like along the way to gather data on all of these bigger subjects and then be able to shine a spotlight at the end of the day on how many people I can see have voting records that lean them rightward and other ones that have voting records pronounceably leftward, and they all come together on some of these issues. And that would be data that I don’t hear about every day. No one’s shown me that data and I suspect it exists. So that’s what I’m here to find basically.

[00:10:21] Another issue that will be up to the people creating groups and issues here will be whether other people can re-vote on an issue. Are you allowed to only vote once or can you change the vote? And if you can change a vote, how often? Are you allowed to every five minutes or you only get one chance a week that you can change your vote on this? It’ll make a lot of difference for groups that are trying to use this to actually make decisions.

[00:10:42] But at the same time, the whole point of this is to change people’s minds. We don’t want them to just stand where they are and say, ‘This is where I am.’ We want to exchange information and arguments and get to a point where people might decide you’re right. But that’s part of the system. We do want people to change their minds.

[00:10:59] And one of the core reasons I’m involved in this is I see the current polarization going on in America right now and the world, really, but especially in America as our biggest problem, really, that we can’t even agree on facts anymore. We’ve totally lost any kind of common thread.

[00:11:16] And now we’re at each other’s throats and people actually think people on the other side of the political fence are enemies / evil / should be killed. You know? I mean, it’s terrible and it’s only going to get worse. And so this is part of this is my earnest, best attempt to prevent a civil war.

[00:11:31] I mean, I don’t want to go to war against my neighbors and I hope they don’t either, you know, but my hope in this representative proxy kind of system is that I really hope that people will find people that they trust to represent their opinions.

[00:11:45] But I’m hoping that at least when we come down to these intractable, unsolvable problems, we can at least shine a spotlight on what the actual breaking point is.

[00:11:55] When we come down to some of these really important decisions like the climate, we can have a whole debate just about that source, and then that source can have votes, upvotes and downvotes on both sides and have these arguments really boil down to what we’re relying on for facts and not something you can just throw it away and walk away but be held accountable and have your, you know, your voting record is always there.

[00:12:17] John Q: Chris Calef’s Vote Machine supports liquid democracy, allowing you to represent yourself, or pick a friend to represent your position on any issue. The Pacific Green Party will discuss liquid democracy at its convention Sept. 17.

from Chris Calef

I have been attracted to the concept of Liquid Democracy ever since Leif Brecke introduced me to it. Like many of us in this dystopian hellscape we call home, I have been frustrated, if not to say enraged, for my entire adult life by the inefficiency, ineffectiveness, inflexibility, and all-around corruption of our governmental entities at all levels, local to federal.

For most of my life I have been of the opinion that the root of the problem was the money in the process—because there are no limits to the forms of advertising political campaigns can engage in, all candidates who want to win are forced to assemble massive war chests to put on television and radio campaigns, and this money comes from self-interested wealthy private parties who have every intention of seeing a return on their investments. Hence, the interests of private corporations are served, at the expense of the public good.

This is all still true, but what Liquid Democracy brought to the table for me was the idea that there is no reason we need to do it this way, at all. There could be other ways. This way might have made sense 200 years ago, but it does not anymore.

In our current system, we elect one person for every district or seat, and these people then essentially go ride their proverbial horses to Washington, D.C., and proceed to make every single decision on every subject for the entire population of their jurisdiction, for the entire length of their term. While they are off in the capital, they are subject to being wined and dined and flattered by the best lobbyists in the business, with the deliberate intent to turn them, by whatever means necessary, from serving their constituents toward serving the corporate overlords. They pass bills that were written by the very same corporations that the bills purport to regulate. They rarely even have time to read the bills they vote on, because they must spend all their time seeking more funding.

The whole point of Liquid Democracy is that we have computers now. We have phones and the internet, we can communicate instantly, we can keep track of who supports who and who wants what, to whatever level of detail we care to specify. We could theoretically make every government decision, at every level, be subject to a vote.

However, of course, the other core feature of Liquid Democracy is that nobody really has the time or knowledge to make decisions about everything every single part of the government does, every day. So, Liquid Democracy does provide the option to delegate votes, but with total flexibility.

Instead of picking only one person to have 100% of the power, you could choose one person to make decisions for you on the subject of housing codes, a different person to represent you on healthcare choices, and a third for environmental questions. At any time, you can change or rescind these delegations, and at any time, your delegate could pass the votes delegated to them up the chain to another expert, perhaps on specific subject matters within their field.

There is nothing simple about this proposal, but the failings of our current system are on display for everyone to see, more this year than any previous year, and it is high time IMHO that people start looking around at other ways to organize themselves. We essentially lack any mechanism by which to make fair and accurate public decisions today. Even though changing the national system may be out of reach, we could start at any level from the most local on up, if we simply started doing it.

… I am building [software] to be able to host an open source, trustable interface that local groups and organizations can use to help them make internal decisions using Liquid Democracy methodologies. All they would need to do is have someone start a new group, invite members, and start creating Issues/Proposals/Requests.

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