Reinventing Democracy – The Google Way

In the past, we had discussed the reasons why democracy is fundamentally flawed, needs to be overhauled, and what its replacement should look like.

Admittedly, it was a highly abstract topic. Hence why we had also discussed a simple idea of how democracy could be reformed, to look more like the Jury system, as opposed to mob rule.

Today, I’d like to propose another way of reforming Democracy. One that is more complex, but very intuitively simple. One that closely models the way we ourselves make decisions, seek advice & live our lives, every single day.

Imagine a village of 20 people, voting on whether to adopt Amendment #17412. If you’re wondering what Amendment #17412 is all about, welcome to Democracy. Too often, we find ourselves having to vote on the basis of issues that we barely know about, and are certainly not experts in. And this village is no different. Some people are highly knowledgeable about the issue, but others aren’t. Regardless, like good citizens, they all go to the ballot box anyway & vote according to their best knowledge.

And here’s what the results look like:

A seemingly random splattering of yes votes (green) and no votes (purple) all over. We’ve just witnessed democracy in action.

Now suppose we tried something slightly different. Instead of just asking people to vote on Amendment #17412, we also ask them to name someone they know personally, whom they most trust on this issue.

And here’s what that might look like:


A few patterns immediately start emerging. You can see that a few people, A1, B1, C1 & D1, are highly respected by the community. Presumably because they are knowledgeable, wise, and trusted by the people around them.

At this point, a few quick words about Google, and how they were able to make use of the above patterns to unlock new information & achieve unparalleled success. Back in the 1990s, there were numerous companies trying to succeed in the Search Engine marketplace. Lycos, AskJeeves, AltaVista… the list goes on. And yet, sometime in the early 2000s, they all just disappeared and everyone switched to Google. Their search engine, simple enough that it could be built by a couple of students in a garage, was so great that it simply blew the competition away. When you look into how they implemented this groundbreaking search engine, one of the main pillars was the PageRank algorithm.

I could write an entire article about PageRank but to put it simply, it brought democracy to the internet. It gave every single website the ability to vote on any other website, through the act of linking to it. And Google for its part, crawls through the web everyday, tallies up all the ballots, and posts the winners near the top of their search results. It is in many ways very similar to democracy… with one very important twist. Every website gets a different number of votes based on how trusted it is, as measured by the number of other websites that link to it.

To give an example, suppose the Nobel Prize winner Eugene Fama decides tomorrow to start an economics blog. It’s so insightful & interesting, that NYTimes decides to link to it. Suppose that at the same time, Joe Blow, who took a community college class on Economics, also starts an economics blog… and his brother-in-law who works at the Street Sheet links to it as well. We now have 2 blogs, on the same topic, carrying the same keywords, and each having a link from a newspaper. A purely egalitarian search-engine would give them equal visibility. But Google’s knows that NYTimes is a lot more trusted than Street Sheet, since it has accumulated millions of people linking to it. Hence, it gives NYTimes thousands of ballots more than Street Sheet, and this in turn gives Eugene Fama’s blog a huge well-deserved boost over Joe Blow’s.

It’s a very simple concept, and yet, looking at the quality of search results returned by Google as opposed to its now-extinct competitors, it makes all the difference in the world.

Now suppose we applied this same algorithm to our village’s electoral process. Here’s what the results would look like:

You can see that the patterns we noticed earlier, have produced real electoral results. Because individuals A1, B1, C1 & D1 are so highly trusted by their communities, they are given more votes than everyone else. Going one step further, since person D1 is highly trusted by both A1 and C1 who are themselves highly trusted, this gives D1 the most voting power of all. What earlier seemed like a random splattering of votes, now has a real structure to it. The signal to noise ratio of the voting process has been tremendously improved.

The exact algorithm used might be mathematically complex, but the underlying principle is dramatically simple & intuitive. When you find yourself having to make a tough decision, what do you do? Do you go on facebook, create a poll, and ask all your 700 friends to vote on it? Or do you approach a few people whom you & others trust the most? If they themselves are not sure about the answer, you might go one step further, and ask them to refer you to others who are even more knowledgeable on the topic. Ultimately, you would consider the advice given by these few highly trusted individuals, just as valuable as the semi-informed opinions of your other 700 friends put together.

And this is exactly the same principle on which Google’s PageRank algorithm is based, and has worked so successfully. We all intuitively understand this same insight & apply it in our lives everyday. It’s time we started applying it in our political process as well. Doing so can change our electoral map from a noisy random splattering of votes, into a highly sophisticated & structured network of trusted information. We may not all get an equal number of votes, but that’s fine. After all, we’re not all equal experts in governance or public policy. However, we all would get an equal say in deciding who the trusted members of our community should be. It could be your brother, your father, your daughter, your teacher, or your priest. And ultimately, trusting in the wisdom of the wisest individuals in our community, will take us a lot further than polling our entire facebook feed.

Related Links:

More details about the Google PageRank algorithm

Why democracy & equal voting is fundamentally flawed

Another suggestion to reform democracy, using the Jury system as a model

About OutlookZen

Ex-Journalist & Columnist. Loves exploring the world.
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25 Responses to Reinventing Democracy – The Google Way

  1. Pingback: It’s Time to Reinvent Democracy | Outlook Zen

  2. Pingback: Democracy by Jury | Outlook Zen

  3. Apart from referenda, isn’t this just normal democracy?

    Various parties propose people to represent you, and you vote for the one you trust the most to think about these things and make an informed decision.

    Or in a referendum, people actually just ask those people they respect what they think.

    • OutlookZen says:

      In an ideal democracy Kevin, this is exactly what would happen. People would vote for representatives whom they know personally & trust, and those representatives would then make all the hard decisions.

      In practice, unfortunately, the ties between the representatives & an average constituent are so weak, that voting on the basis of whom you know personally & trust is not feasible. In practice, people form their own beliefs about small government vs big government, stimulus spending vs tax cuts, immigration reform vs build a fence… and they then vote for representatives & parties who promise to carry out these measures. Representatives who make unpopular votes on controversial topics like immigration reform or healthcare overhaul, get swiftly punished by voters who feel otherwise. Eric Cantor is a great example. One day, he’s the 3rd most powerful & trusted GOP representative in the country. The next day, he comes out in favor of some immigration reform, and is swiftly booted out in the primaries by his own party.

      There’s actually an entire post that discusses this issue in more detail if you’re interested:

      • waterNWine says:

        May I comment that in a true democracy there are no representatives. I mean this in its purest form. Of course all democracies have representatives, however the republic form of government, as well as a democratic republic, off representative based alternatives.

        Just wanted to clarify that portion of the voting process. Democracy isnt flawed, its just not made for 1 billion people. Its made for 1000 athenians, if you get my drift.

    • Bowrick Wowbagger says:

      The main difference between this and the democracy we live in is more choice. I don’t like either choice our last presidential elections, but there are many people who are not running who I would put my faith in. This system allows anyone to be voted for and does not require those voted for to do anything.

  4. Jeremy Z says:

    Basically you’re proposing to allow proxy voting on electoral issues. Couldn’t you do the same thing now with absentee ballots by just letting someone else fill them in for you? (Whether that’s legal or not I don’t know, but it seems like it would work in concept.) Or asking your trusted friends which way you should vote? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the idea of knowledgeable people being given more influence in the processes of government. That’s what a meritocracy is supposed to be. This system that you’re proposing though does seem like it would require an incredible amount of trust–people would have to name someone to essentially vote in their place. And if they’re willing to go that far, it seems like they’d be willing to do the easier task of voting themselves the way their trusted friend says that they should.

    • OutlookZen says:

      You’re right that it does seem somewhat similar to a proxy-voting system, with one big difference. With this system, no one has to give up their vote, in order to designate someone else whom they trust. Using the example given, even though person D1 is the most trusted person in the network, even he can still designate C1 as someone whom he trusts, while still maintaining his voting power. The PageRank algorithm also has non-linear elements to it, as opposed to absentee voting. When person A1 designates his trust in D1, that has a greater impact than person A2 designating his trust in A1. This is in fact a key feature of PageRank which makes it a successful algorithm. Such non-linear relationships wouldn’t be possible through a absentee-ballot system.

      You’re right that if everyone got together, discussed the trust network in great detail, and found out exactly what their trusted friends are voting on for every single choice in the ballot, they could recreate this system. However, the coordination costs of doing all this is humongous. In practice, the people least knowledgeable about politics, are also the ones least likely to discuss it in-depth with their friends. This system represents a simple way for them to harness the wisdom in their social networks, without them having to manually do so themselves,

  5. Joe Blow says:

    This sounds a lot like the electoral college from United States history.

  6. geoff says:

    how do you transform ranked choices like this into a decision? I see that you could pick the largest bobble, which leaves minority groups like the B* crowd in the cold. Or you could sum the values of the ranked bobbles and make a choice that way, which would only be different from regular democracy when someone ‘trusts’ someone who disagrees with themselves. I wonder if people would feel terribly well represented in a system which only behaves interestingly when someone trusts a person they disagree with.

    I would love to know if theres a better way of transforming these into a final choice.

    I really like that this system would transform questions that are difficult to understand or whose potential consequences are largely opaque, even to a relatively well informed person, into a question that most people can usually answer unhesitatingly, who do you trust?

    • OutlookZen says:

      If you go by the PageRank algorithm, you do indeed sum up all the weighted bubbles, to get your final answer. You’re right that this system truly shines when people place their trust in someone who holds non-identical beliefs. In practice, given the large number of ballot initiatives & local election candidates, where people don’t have strong opinions on which way to vote, these non-identical beliefs would happen extremely frequently. Often times, people will even feel more strongly about trusting someone they know personally, as opposed to having to choose between 2 state legislators whom they know nothing about.

  7. exploderator says:

    This system is still ultimately vulnerable to corruption, in a whole many ways that equally foil our present systems. The core reason for that is representation. The moment you have a few people represent many others, their power becomes a guaranteed target for manipulation, corruption, and abuse, or at very least, a point of vulnerability due to personal fallibility. It usually becomes a money race, instead of an honest knowledge or truth race.

    But lets look at the real question here: who knows best about subject X?

    If we shouldn’t trust the public about subject X itself, then what makes us think they know best who to trust? My bet is that they don’t, and instead they mostly fall prey to manipulation and pandering, by people who seek their vote for some corrupted goal. Look at how poorly science is understood, if you want an example of how little the public at large understands who really knows what and why. This is inescapable, absent a real motive for the wider public to get far better educated than they are at present.

    Again, the real question here is: who knows best about subject X?

    I think we have a well established and understood process to answer to that question, that works well enough that we use it to qualify people in all manner of subjects, especially when public safety depends on their knowledge: make them pass a test of their knowledge. We qualify all of our most important professionals that way, because it works.

    We need to stop pissing around with proxies to the actual question, who knows best about subject X? We can answer that question directly and with certainty. And I say, if you pass the test, because you know the subject matter, then you deserve a vote on topic X, and the people who don’t know the subject do not deserve a vote, because they have no fully rational basis for their preference.

    I propose a system whereby people pass academically sound tests on any subject they hope to be allowed to vote on. If they pass, their vote counts, equally to all others who also know the subject. This would have been plainly infeasible in the past, due to the expense. Computers and the internet offer a solution to that expense, as well as to the expense of allowing people to vote more directly and often on anything they are qualified to vote on. On line banking proves that we have the technology to operate such systems cheaply and with sufficient security (if I can manage my money on line, the technology could handle my vote as securely.)

    We need to cut out the middle men if we hope to cut out corruption. The decisions cannot be left in the hands of a chosen few, no matter how they are chosen.

    I also suggest that people will be much more motivated to self educate, if the reward is to have their voices heard, and that is ultimately the most important convergence of goals I can imagine: people having their voices count, and people making their voices count.

    • OutlookZen says:

      “If we shouldn’t trust the public about subject X itself, then what makes us think they know best who to trust?”
      You bring up an interesting point, but I do believe that the above problem is one that the common person is quite good at solving, and does so everyday. If you were to ask me a complex mathematical question involving differential equations, I would have no idea who to solve it. However, I can certainly point you towards my friends who have done Math PHDs, and place my trust in them. They may not have the exact right answer themselves, but their input will be a lot more valuable than mine. Same goes for questions about cars, economic policies, and any number of other topics that I know very little about, but do know of people who spend a lot of time & energy on it.

      “I propose a system whereby people pass academically sound tests on any subject they hope to be allowed to vote on.”
      I can certainly sympathize with this idea, but I greatly fear for the real possibility of abuse & systemic bias. Imagine a subset of the population that is being denied equal educational opportunities, which in turn makes it very hard for them to pass the voting-tests. This system would discriminate against them precisely because of the bad policies currently in place which need fixing.

      In an ideal world, expertise based voting power would be great. But being more prone to abuse & false disenfranchisement, we would have to approach this with baby steps. Once people get used to the idea of more complex & nuanced voting systems, this topic could be revisited & reconsidered.

      • exploderator says:

        I want to preface this reply with a sincere statement of my thanks and appreciation for your thoughts here, and the work you’re doing. And for the fact that you’re willing to engage the discussion with whoever wanders by, including me. Please don’t think I’m being combative here, or arguing just for the sake of arguing. My desire is to figure these things out together, and my disagreement is only meant to seek what truth we might be lucky enough to find by cooperating on the problems.

        “I do believe that the above problem is one that the common person is quite good at solving, and does so everyday. If you were to ask me a complex mathematical question involving differential equations, I would have no idea who to solve it. However, I can certainly point you towards my friends who have done Math PHDs, and place my trust in them.”

        That you have friends with PhD’s, and blog about this subject, makes you unrepresentative. I disagree that people are good at solving the problem of who to trust, of who knows what is right. If you were right, there would be no Republican party in its current form, nor any but a handful of young-Earth creationists, teaching their filthy lies to children who need to learn science. The phone scams claiming to be Microsoft, having detected a virus on your computer, would not exist, along with the bad reputation of used car salesmen and a host of other manipulators. I’m sorry, but a large majority of people are basically idiots with regards to most subjects, unless they very deliberately educate themselves. You and I, and probably ever other commenter here, are already far ahead on the curve. I beg you to consider carefully how abysmally manipulated the vast majority of people are, before you decide they are any good at solving the problem of who should represent their interests. All I see is another setup for another rip off.

        “I can certainly sympathize with this [test qualified voting] idea, but I greatly fear for the real possibility of abuse & systemic bias. Imagine a subset of the population that is being denied equal educational opportunities, which in turn makes it very hard for them to pass the voting-tests. This system would discriminate against them precisely because of the bad policies currently in place which need fixing.”

        You have described our present system almost exactly. The only difference, is that our current system has no explicit way for anyone to earn a voice, with the sole exception of having a HUGE amount of money to buy influence. If people have an explicit mechanism to earn the irrevocable right to vote directly on decisions, then they have a real fighting chance to gain far more influence than the ABSOLUTELY NOTHING they have now. I see a despondent public, who’s apathy about voting is fairly well founded considering the negligible degree to which most politicians care about what the peons have to say. When your only vote is for a crooked mis-representative, you don’t actually have a vote. If we had a system where people could vote directly on issues, they would have the first voice they’ve had in a long time, that nobody could ignore.

        “But being more prone to abuse & false disenfranchisement, we would have to approach this with baby steps.”

        I honestly can’t imagine how anything could be more prone to abuse & false disenfranchisement than our present state of affairs. We are already being systematically destroyed and consumed by corruption from almost every angle. We honestly have no voice save big money and referendums, which situation reliably silences about 99% of us in most matters. Having a direct vote seems like the only way we can hope to avoid corrupt misrepresentation, and thus make some genuine progress. With luck, that progress would include honestly improving direct voting, instead of what representatives do for us, which is they do everything in their power to prevent us from having any say, because it would usurp their control.

        I’m sorry for sounding harsh and cynical about politics, but I can’t escape what I’ve seen for the last 30 years that I’ve been trying to pay attention. And now we’re even back to fighting simply for access to vote, because one party, in a wonderful display of the democratic spirit, has decided that if you can’t win, you might as well disenfranchise the opposition, and/or rig the vote. We’re in a backslide if anything, and the handful of honest players barely help. I won’t apologize for no longer being willing to trust ANYONE to represent my interests. And I quite frankly can’t accept any of the excuses I’ve heard as to why I ought to. It’s a tough one.

    • bgie says:

      This solution does not solve the problem, it just relocates it.

      Imagine an elite of bureaucrats deciding which ‘academically sound tests’ someone must pass in order to earn voting power… Question 1: “on which day did God create the animals?”

      You would still need a system to assure the contents of the tests is decided in a democratic way.

    • DEFINITELYNOTkimjungun says:

      Where is the upvote button on this website? I cannot find it! >.> <,<
      All silliness aside, I came here to say something along these lines, but you put it more eloquently than I could have…. so….. bravo. Anyways I just wanted to say to the author of the article as well as this post to keep Brainstorming on these sorts of ideas because really something. is. seriously. wrong. with. our. system. So don't give of on this sort of political philosophizing whatever.

      ALSO – I wanted to add one thing to the discussion. One of the big problems that I see in our system is hum drum of legal terminology. It would be great if we could find a way to get out of the whole "Amendment #2543: Revoking the privileges set forth in article 34 section B" bullshit and simply find a way to put things into terminology that people can simply understand. GRANTED I know that the reason the terminology IS this way is to try and write away loopholes and make the rules comprehensive, but I worry that by taking Joe Blow out of the voting equation in favor of people who are more knowledgeable about the system lends itself to corruption.

      But that the root of the problem isn't it? The problem that every large-scale long running organization (not just governments) in history face — corruption. there is no way to write it out no matter how hard you try. People will corrupt it. guess that's why you gotta tear that shit down every once in a while.

      In conclusion: We need to find ways to make the current system simpler rather than more complex. That's my two cents anyway. Also: Keep up the theorizing!

    • Tom Brown says:

      Yes, I’m not sure why other people adding comments haven’t mentioned liquid democracy / delegative democracy etc.

  8. Sean says:

    Why is that, Kirito? Do you imagine the people who currently vote Democratic would suddenly place their trust in expert proxies whose values contradicted those of the candidates they vote for now? Your post makes no sense. I know what you mean to say, that all “true” experts who “should” be repositories of trust, agree politically with you, but don’t you see, that’s just what your current opponents would think too? Go back and read it again, it doesn’t say the most financially successful people get the most votes.

  9. Brandon says:

    The problem is many people are lazy and would likely vote for the most recognizable name — regardless of track record (up to a point). I currently work with and analyze huge amounts of data to suss out weighted sentiments toward various public figures. From what I’ve seen so far, we could very well end up with a government full of celebrities.

    Chuck Norris or Kim Kardashian for president! Or oddly, Alex Trebek (holds a very high trustworthiness ranking amongst Democrats).

  10. Scottie says:

    Unfortunately people from a religious background (priests or youth leaders etc) would be voted in by all the people from their church groups / organisations / communities and I don’t want a priest making decisions for me on abortions, euthanasia or teaching evolution etc.

  11. Lauri says:

    In this system, every vote has a name on it, so it seems you would have to sacrifice secret ballots to implement this. Since secret ballots are typically the most important safeguard against corruption and buying votes, I think this is an issue you should address. Do you think we don’t need secret ballots or is there some way to have that in this system?

    • OutlookZen says:

      I agree that secret balloting is vital and it should remain that way. In order to implement any system similar to what is proposed here, we would have to replace human counting of votes with computerized algorithms. The Page rank system certainly cannot be committed manually by hand, and needs to be done by a computer. This should remove the need for a human to look at the ballots being cast, thus preserving their confidentiality.

      This confidentiality can also be further enhanced by asking voters not to fill in names on the ballot, but instead, voter IDs or other such numerical IDs. A computer could be set up in the voting booth that would allow voters to look up the voter ID for the person they trust.

      The precise implementation details do need to be figured out, but I agree that confidentiality is key.

  12. Amar P says:

    We trust our religious figures. I don’t like the representation idea simply because we trust those who simply agree with our ideologies, not who is actually impartially educated with expert information, like you argue. I like the jury idea. We should think more about how we can select our jury, isolate them and encourage real conversation in that isolation.

  13. This idea is actually explored in detail in the recently published book United States of Dysfunction. There is even a historical account of this method of elections taking place and working. A must read if this topic interests you.

    The United States of Dysfunction: America's Political Crisis and What Ordinary Citizens Can Do About It


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