Imagine if democratic participation were as simple as a Facebook like – an everyday expression with real political weight. In times of strong anti-immigration and anti-welfare sentiment this is risky for some but to others it’s inevitable. Digital technology, they argue, is undermining political and corporate power in favour of citizens empowered by smartphones.
At the forefront of this are technology-driven activists working with some of the most prominent internet entrepreneurs to prepare for digital democracy. Democracia En Red (Net Democracy) was founded in 2012 by politically-disillusioned Argentinians who saw digital technology as key to revitalising politics. Co-founder Pia Mancini summarises the challenge simply: ‘We are 21st century citizens doing our very, very best to interact with 19th century-designed institutions that are based on information technology of the 15th century.’ They created DemocracyOS, an online platform that allows citizens to debate and vote ideas, with the goal of legislatures and parties using it to crowdsource policy proposals. Finding little enthusiasm, they started Partito De La Red (Net Party) to run in the Buenos Aires legislative elections in 2013 on a platform of elected representatives being bound by DemocracyOS user decisions. After a colourful campaign, it achieved 1% of the vote yet convinced the city legislature to adopt DemocracyOS, soon passing crowdsourced legislation guaranteeing better conditions for nurses. DemocracyOS then gained funding from Silicon Valley venture capitalists Y-Combinator and was adopted by the Mexican Government for an online information law, American city councillors, and Latin American NGOs.
For their next project, last year co-founders Mancini and Santiago Siri teamed up with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Google News founder Krishna Bharat, and Bitcoin creator ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ to start Democracy Earth Foundation to make the internet the primary means of political and economic transaction.
A former teenage Marxist turned Wall St tech entrepreneur, Siri returned to politics when he realised the potential of digital technology as an inseparable part of daily life – especially for young people. He notes in his native Argentina, ‘If you actually go to the poorest slums in Buenos Aires, you will see teenagers and young people being connected with their smartphones. They do not have access to potable water, they do not have access to electricity sometimes, but they do have a cellphone that connects them to the world.’ Rather than apathetic Millennials, Siri see a ‘Digital Generation’ who use non-electoral means to engage. ‘They take action on Reddit, they take action on Twitter, they do petitions on change. Let’s say voter turnout on the internet is higher among the young.’
Revolutionary technological innovations have historically undermined ruling interests. Siri cites the printing press, before which ‘only certain priests in certain monasteries were able to read and write and even the scribes of the church were human photocopiers who didn’t understand the symbols that they were drawing in books.’ Now, media conglomerate and political collusion to control information is being undermined by new media. As television revealed Vietnam War horrors, Youtube, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden expose political gaffes, mass surveillance and alleged war crimes. Siri says ‘the internet is able to expose multiple points of view, it’s able to start getting people to realise that there is no objective truth to reality and I think that the internet is more than just a way of communicating.’
Recent innovations like Uber and AirBnb that undermine whole industries will happen to politics, argues Siri. ‘Government, big banks will start looking like the way we see the Catholic church: fascinating rituals but interesting like reality shows with fascinating characters. Yet more and more real power will be put on the internet and traditional institutions will look like an inheritance in our civilisations past rather than our civilisations future.’ This, he believes, relies on prioritising coding in schools. As individual blocks of information expressed through numerical values, code can build digital structures with multiple functions like Facebook or mobile banking. People would become their own politicians, debating and voting on workplace decisions to government spending.
Political establishments are fighting back through attempts to control online data such as NSA data storage and recent FBI attempt to unlock the San Bernadino shooter’s iPhone. However, Siri believes decentralisation will win. ‘Historically we rely on centralised, monopolistic organisations like government and banks to mediate trust for us in society, but certainly now with the rise of this new generation of technologies, having trust being mediated in a decentralised way opens a lot of interesting debates about how institutions can get built and what leadership and authority means.’
Simultaneously, Siri disagrees with corporate ownership of identity. ‘Facebook manages more identities than many of the governments I know. Today we give away our identities so we can get these services for free and we get advertising.’ Democracy Earth’s solutions is Blockchain: a personally-owned digital identity for all transactions that allows anonymity. ‘You sometimes want to do things showing your public image and sometimes you want to remain anonymous. To engage or interact with a corporation or large company without exposing the private information that you do not want to expose’
Reclaiming democracy relies on realising our technological power. Siri sees us like the monastic scribes, unaware what the printing press would bring. ‘They were like human photocopiers unaware that the symbols that they were able to copy they were able to read, then they became aware of their power. We are all using our cellphones right now unaware of the power we have in our hands.’
Originally published in Disclaimer Magazine