How digital democracy works in a decentralized world
Santiago Siri is that rare sort of dreamer who can weave his ideas into reality. He founded Democracy.Earth as a means of addressing the problems rife within modern government – everything from corruption to logistics. Here, he details his optimistic vision of digital democracy, decentralized government and how we just might turn “the internet itself into a global, borderless jurisdiction.”
Santiago Siri: My name is Santiago Siri, and I’m the founder of Democracy.Earth. We’re trying to figure out democracy in the Internet age.
What are the challenges of creating digital democracy in the next 10 years?
The world is facing a broad range of challenges. When we look at the political reality of most of the Western democracies right now – which used to be the most progressive governments in the world – and now we find ourselves with the intervention of foreign powers using social media… the influence or the conflict between the cloud, where we store our information in [and the] very few corporations that provide us the infrastructure to store our private data… and the land where we have the governments that control our bodies and impose their law into our everyday lives.
And in this conflict between the land and the cloud, we are trapped. Our minds are trapped in the cloud, our bodies are trapped in the land. And the interesting thing about decentralization and blockchain-based technology and the ability to build censorship-resistant networks is that it gives us a way out that is neither of those two outcomes – and possibly extending the human capability towards a grid of sorts where we can start sharing information without the need of authority or single points of control. It won’t be easy to reach that outcome because there’s a lot of interests at play. But I think there is a whole new generation of hackers and developers – the online generation, really – and I think the “online generation” describes them better than the word “millennial” – that will try to figure out these challenges in the years to come.
How will governments interfere with decentralization?
Governments are certainly going to fight back, especially those governments that have little appetite for the rule of law, in very nasty ways. For example, the case of Venezuela right now that is fighting a war against anyone mining bitcoin and trying to impose their own cryptocurrency instead of the logical emergent technologies that come out of the Internet. And this is an episode that might even grow bigger because Venezuela is a small state, and clearly there could be larger states interested in pursuing a similar path. So this says a lot about the kinds of freedoms that we’re going to get in the future if these conflicts increase.
My personal philosophy after having tried starting up a political party – a digital political party – in Argentina is that changing the system from within is very hard. It’s much more likely that you will end up being changed by the system because it’s that powerful. But where I see a silver lining is in the ability of building a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. And that new reality can start being built by the generations of programmers and coders that see the potential of these new technologies and organically contribute to the rise of these new jurisdictions that are transnational, that are censorship resistant, that are decentralized, that provide a new sense of personal sovereignty to the participants of these networks that eventually will lead to the governments pretending they have the power. But in reality people can reclaim it by embracing these new technologies that are redefining every notion of how we create, design and build institutions.
What are the biggest risks in making the decentralized future a reality?
One of the biggest risks when thinking about democracy and digital democracies – what can lead to the rise of monopolies or very few players dominating the conversation as it happens in modern democracies today. At the end of the day, we end up voting for one out of two guys in a presidential election. So the rise of monopolies is a big risk in democracies because it incentivizes apathy. If there are only a few very powerful players, why would I end up going out to vote? In that respect what we’re trying to design in Democracy Earth is mechanisms of representation that are flexible, that help people to make free choices, but at the same time try to prevent the formation of monopolies or duopolies in the dynamic. So it keeps the incentive to have a legitimate participation high.
There are many ideas that we are untapping that have been written in academia but rarely tested in the real world. Some of those ideas are “liquid democracy”; the idea of Quadratic Voting, which is an interesting concept to generate much fairer delegation of votes in a liquid democracy. And these are some interesting ideas that have been researched by political economists. But they rarely found their chance to implement it in the real world because organizations – a very few of them are actually democratic. The Internet is giving us newcomers. Blockchains are giving us the opportunity to make institutions under this new canvas. We are eager to test out some of these ideas so we can engineer its commons in collaboration with many of the open source projects in this space that can really turn the Internet itself into a global, borderless jurisdiction.
How will decentralization change our lives in the next 10 years?
If I could dream 10 years from now… I used to sometimes finish my conferences with a quote from a very well-known song that says, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” And that song is like an anthem that describes this utopia that we cannot imagine of living life in peace in a place where there are no countries and no religions or no divisions among humans. And I think we all inhabiting these beautiful planet than we have in this solar system crave for that. Then it’s the weight of history, the resentments of the power struggles that happen everywhere that sadly tend to corrupt. We lose innocence as we grow up in this life, but nonetheless I think that not working for a utopia is really silly idea. It’s remaining cynical, and not believing in the future is pointless also. So I rather stick to the side of optimism and really figuring out how these technologies can help for the good of humanity. Of course technologies can be double-edged swords. But since we are in the early days of something very big and we all understand how big this revolution can be, let’s start now making sure that these technologies are used for something that helps push humanity in a better direction than the actions we had in the past.
How do we not screw it up?
When the web started, it started with the same level of optimism as the bitcoin/ blockchain revolution started. You know, if you talk to any early pioneer of the Internet they will tell you, “Well this is the public commons; this is a space where we can be free.” And that optimism fuels the early neutralization of these technologies and the fever during the dotcom years.
The interesting thing about that is that twenty-five years later, we end up with a world wide web dominated by two giant companies — one is Facebook, the other one is Google. Ninety-seven percent of the revenue of these companies is dependent on advertising, which has led to these companies in order to remain competitive become extremely Orwellian monsters. They have to target and profile users in the most precise possible way, otherwise they lose competitively with each other. So the dream of the web gave us these Orwellian nightmares. I think that’s a very important precedent to keep present as we are building these kinds of technologies. How we prevent these kinds of monopolies from shaping up. How we can guarantee that these resources remain in the public interest. How we can make sure that we generate economic incentives that reward inclusion rather than exclusion. I think that everything in technology is iterative at every scale, and we need to understand that in the case of democracy, it will always be a work in progress. If it’s an absolute idea it will be a totalitarian ideology just like any other ideology out there. Democracy is the one exception. And the reason it is like that is because it’s the mechanism about how we build mechanism. It always remains an open question. And I think the way to prevent fucking it up is running as far away as we can from certainty, and embracing doubt, and understanding that we have to keep on working on these ideas every day a little bit, contributing to the cause of a more open and democratic humanity.