Transcript of my lecture in Second Life on the Democracy in Virtual Worlds


Here is the transcript of my inaugural lecture of the Craedo Auditorium in Colonia Nova in Second Life:

Welcome to this seminar about “The theory and practice of democracy in virtual worlds”.

I want to thank CARE, CRAEDO, and the Confederation of Democratic Simulators for inviting me to give this talk at the inauguration of this auditorium.

After the presentation we will open the discussion, and I will be very glad to answer all your questions during our live chat.

What are we going to talk about?
We are going to try and define how democracy might work in virtual
worlds, and how it should differ from its traditional forms.
What elements form the basis of the polity in the real world
The new challenges and opportunities that we face and our choices
What is the new role of law and justice
How do we practice democracy online
What is the cloud of will
How do our freedoms evolve

My objective today, in analyzing the nature of democracy online is that of persuading you that the online worlds cannot exist in isolation, and that they are interdependent with the real world. This mutual influence is a non-zero sum game, beneficial to both, and it is up to the new to shake up the old, it is up to the online world to lead. I want to give you my views on how it must be possible to arrive to a virtuous circle, where the values, the processes, and the goals of both worlds are enhanced by this interaction.


The foundations of any given polity in the real world derive their utility from the nature of the world itself. The structure of society is defined by the varying degree of access to fundamentals. These fundamentals are those of property, resources and knowledge. Also, in a manner that is surprisingly implicit, a real-world societies must
accept, without exception, all laws of nature. This acceptance is necessary even when there is a total lack of understanding of the same laws. This is even part of a certain definition of reality, as that “which doesn’t stop existing if you stop believing in it”.

Democracy is often perceived as the best form of government. The history of the last century showed us several failed experiments of alternative organizations. Success here is in turn based on the happiness of the members of society. Their individual liberty to pursue their different goals. But the traditional definitions also include, for their practical implementation, a series of details that are not coherently applicable. We can easily define the meaning of territory in the virtual world, that of citizenship, and the actions through which the deliberations are implemented… Where do we put however the correspondent concept of a sovereign State? We can’t carry through our actions to their final conclusion without it. Or can we? Well, one possible outcome of the emerging importance of online worlds, and their increasing role in our lives is the fundamental change in the relationship to the traditional concept of nation-state. It is not very practical to be a citizen of multiple nations, but being a citizen of an online world, simultaneously with being a citizen of a real nation are not mutually exclusive. These two will complement each other as our multiple identities will play out their respective roles, and duties.

Second Life as a universe is the property of Linden Lab, which decides upon fundamental rules of behavior, based on a terms of service contract. Right from the start Linden Lab was sufficiently forward-looking to explicitly assign the property rights of all objects created by the users to the users themselves. The users lease land where they can create objects, or buildings, and use the local currency called Linden dollar, L$, which has a daily floating exchange rate with the US dollar. Actually there are players online that speculate on their variation of this exchange rate. All of this economic activity is encouraged by Linden Lab instead of being opposed. Since there is no fundamental reality in the virtual world, apart from a consensual one, the legal agreements constitute the entire scaffolding of what becomes reality. This is true not only for agreements between Linden Lab and the Second Life residents, but also for those that the residents form among themselves.

How should a theory of democracy take shape in the virtual world? We have a chance to abandon the artificial distinction adopted during the Renaissance between sciences and humanities. And recognize that our political theories have to be as formal as the ones we have for physics. As such, they have to have a formal mathematical framework, offer falsifiable hypotheses, predict expected results for experiments which can be carried through in a practical manner, and be non-trivial. The question that we can start with as a first step, in my opinion, is that of establishing the difference between the fundamental reasons democracy exists in the real world versus the
virtual world. What are the different rights and liberties that are protected in the two cases? The control of access to limited material resources is central in the real world for example, bringing us property rights,
while in the information age it is access to knowledge, and tools of knowledge creation and manipulation that become critical. The aggregations that we know of as cities and nations in the real world have had specific reasons to existence, and their equivalents in the online world will have to find their own, independent reasons,
otherwise the residents will not uphold them.

Any experiment in the real world, if it carries weight, is expensive, difficult, and potentially dangerous. The advantage of the virtual world, at least for the moment (and we must strive to preserve this for the future), is that we are freer to experiment. We have to design repeatable experiments with carefully chosen parameters, collect and analyze the resulting data in a numerical fashion. An example of such an experiment is that of identifying a new balance between direct and representative democracies. Another experiment, naturally enough, is that of the dependability of electronic voting While a final example could be, more provocatively, that of a voting system that expressed a weighing through a system of merit, based on a given utility function.
These, and many others, will have to be of course not only designed, but themselves decided upon. The entirely voluntary nature of participation in the online worlds is a great advantage here, since it will be certainly hard work to find all the right solutions to these detailed issues. The self-selecting mechanisms of online communities
should guarantee however an ever-present supply of enthusiastic volunteers, until the system is well formed enough to become self-sustaining.

We have to take advantage, and practice within these new much larger bounds, while still human. There are numerous advantages to be had, in properly managing our reputation systems, which regulate so many of
our interactions in the real world without receiving the proper formal analysis. Our actions in the real world shape our identities as perceived by others, but they are treated with the superficiality of the familiar. Their weight and value are not appreciated, as long as we don’t break some rule or regulation. Online is different already,
and the touchy issues of privacy, and identity show how much our actions need to be more carefully analysed. Our traces which we leave online, have to become a powerful individual asset, which we must be able and properly leverage. The management of these assets, and their protection could become a primary goal of the online Polity. The understanding that we will derive from this will show the exercise to be useful and applicable. The creativity of this political landscape will guide new bases of emancipation, mutual enhancement, and global
deep reach, as it will naturally lead to a transparent, tolerant, and diverse online society.

The nature of the Legislative Power in virtual worlds is different than in the real world. With laws shaping reality, its responsibility is higher, even more so since the individuals subject themselves to the laws voluntarily. On
the other hand, even more so initially when so much of unexplored political territory must be discovered, the rules and regulations must be part of bold experiments, without too much regard to negative consequences.
These will be temporary, and their damage will be limited. But the advantage of the discovery of new tools will be unmatchable. The change in perspective from local to global issues, for example, is something that seldom is afforded by real world legislators, even when necessary.

The traditional role of the judiciary has been that of putting the law in practice through its actions. This has been a cumbersome and sometimes very inefficient and impractical task. If we can reach the goal of a more formal description of the rules that govern our online world, than a new role will emerge for the judiciary, with a much more powerful toolset, resembling that of programmers using modern paradigms and languages. This new role will be fundamental in making sure that the the practical experiments correspond to the implementation of the models, and the theories behind them. As the law is the scaffolding of reality in the virtual world, the judiciary will be the ones upholding it. The old excuse “This is a bad law, but it is still my job to enforce it” will become
weaker and weaker, as quick revision cycles will improve the system. Just as legislators are the software architects of the online political reality, the judiciary is its quality assurance tester.

Evolution is often and wrongly equated with progress, while it is adaptation to a changing environment, without regard to its direction. However, if in interconnected systems a new complex emerges, that enables a given part to work at a higher level of efficiency, then the rest of of the entire group of systems must either evolve a similar
efficiency, or succumb. These give us a perfect recipe for making sure that online democracies matter. First we must show that the experiments we implement have concrete advantages above their real counterparts. Second, we must select issues that touch upon the real world as well, and where the greater efficiency expressed can have an impact. My favourite example of this is the planetary environment, where the decisions we will soon have to make are of breathtaking risk, just as the risk of not taking them. How can either real-world science, or real-world politics decide, with insufficient powers of visualization, and analysis? It could very well be the case, that the tools we have in the online worlds for policy shaping are necessary to inform better decisions about the real world environment.

Here is a caveat that is worth facing right away, even more so given that it is an opportunity to enrich all of the online experience. If we choose issues that are relevant to the real world, it will be more and more difficult to keep the online and offline identities separate. For some people this is not a problem, but for others it definitely
is, at least as the online worlds work today, where the suspension of disbelief in enacting the roles of ones avatar is so important. We will have to achieve greater flexibility in managing multiple identities, with a finer grained control over their interactions with what we are and how they shape us. At the same way we will have to be able and distinguish the various roles others assume. There is a clear opportunity here for Linden Lab to intervene, and tweak the rules regulating Second Life to proactively recognize this need once it presents itself.

We live in a software world, where not only it is taken for granted, that better and better algorithms will serve us, but even ourselves are represented by our avatars. How soon will we grow comfortable delegating decisions to the software agents that incessantly follow us around? We already do so in the case of anti-spam filters!
Our will is itself express by this cloud within which we fly exploring the virtual landscape. Let me give you a simple example: If we have an election every week, I can understand the issues, and participate. If we have one every day, or every hour, this becomes much less plausible. But if the issue to be decided is the style of music to be streamed in this Auditorium, and my likes are programmatically accessible, then I can without doubt delegate my vote to an agent representing my will, with the full knowledge that it will correspond to what I really want.
How soon will we see groupings of clouds of will at the center of which autonomous agents express their own free choices? The complexity of our systems will dictate that we use as much help as possible managing them. As soon as one system will start employing a higher efficiency formation of such kind, as the previous reasoning shows, it will be adopted by all. We must start now understanding its meaning!

Through interconnected, interoperable, multiple virtual worlds, the degrees of freedom through which we express our opportunities will grow. Our challenges will match, but hopefully not exceed the power of these new tools of organization, analysis, and action. There is no guarantee, and our only choice is that of carefully but forcefully pursue the understanding of the power we have. Where the worlds collide, be they real or virtual, as long as the distinction makes sense, our new formal methods will propose newer levels of organization, and complexity. We cannot afford to forget the real world: no virtual world today can exist without it! Our activities in the virtual worlds, interconnected as they are, must benefit from and provide benefit to the real world we still live in.

Thank you!

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