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Blockchain politics: where is technology taking democracy

In 1970, a Latin American country tried something truly revolutionary — Project Cybersyn.

In an approach that feels more like the current craze for “smarter cities”, Chile deployed cutting-edge technology to be able to run an entire country’s economy from just one room. In theory, it allowed the Chilean economy to be better served by the people, but also to better serve the people.

Cybersin Opsroom
Cybersin Opsroom – Gui Bonsiepe

Interesting and ambitious as it might sound, it ended in literal bloodshed. At the height of the Cold War, there was very little patience for experiments in creating modern (left-leaning) utopias. And so, on 11 September, 1973, Salvador Allende’s life and project were destroyed by a coup that led to the installation of Augusto Pinochet’s military junta until 1990.

Nowadays, Pinochet is now a hero of the Alt-right (Ed. note: literal Nazis), a movement that grew in 4chan and other web forums. You can read elsewhere about the knock-on effects of memes instead of manifestos and subreddits instead of rallies. Much of it shows the fascinating, terrifying effects of technology on politics. But, as William Gibson, the father of Cyberpunk, said about the internet in 1994:

“I think it’s a fascinating thing and in any case it’s not going to go away. I think that technologies are morally neutral until we apply them. It’s only when we use them for good or for evil that they become good or evil.”

When the Grassroots President went wireless

Obama knew this. Around 2014, he started poaching some of Sillicon Valley’s finest minds.

“This could be a recipe for something larger,” the president explained to Fast Company’s Jon Gertner. The goal was for a startup team of 500 to create a more user-friendly and responsive government. A better government, in plain English. In the words of 44:

“A government that can work with individuals on individual problems in a more tailored way, because the technology facilitates that the same way it increasingly does for private-sector companies.”

According to Gertner, this project could have changed more than the government’s functionality. “You might transform Americans’ attitudes about government too.

A year later, experience seemed to dim Obama’s earlier enthusiasm, when he told a room full of entrepreneurs: “government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy.

The digital republic begs to differ

Estonia is proving that it can out-innovate the USA, admittedly at a much smaller scale, with much less “legacy institutions” to deal with.

The government has gone paperless. You can vote online and do your taxes online with a super-efficient system that takes less than 5 minutes a year. In half a day, you can move to Estonia online – getting an e-residency license and having your business fully licensed and ready to run.

Wired calls it “the most advanced digital society in the world.” The New Yorker calls it the most ambitious project in technological statecraft today. Forbes: the digital leaders of Europe. By the sounds of all the positive press coverage, they missed a trick not rebranding to E-stonia/eStonia.

Everything governmental is connected to one platform: not just voting and taxes: education, health care, justice and much more. All your information is secure but online: so you don’t have to fill out forms at hospitals, banks or universities, the information needed is just pulled out of the system. It’s practical and efficient.

To avoid data breaches, the information is stored locally in different servers and transferred when needed, always encrypted end-to-end.

Estonia digital republic - the new yorker illustration
Illustration by Eiko Ojala for The New Yorker

Hey Siri, can blockchain fix my democracy?

Nearly 50 years after the technocrats came to power in Chile, another group from South America is experimenting and pushing the boundaries of technology and democracy.

A group of activists from Argentina, led by Santiago Siri, has founded the Democracy Earth foundation. Their goal? To develop Sovereign, a software that combines open source software and peer to peer networks, to make human political intermediation obsolete.

The first step is granting each citizen an incorruptible identity: i.e. bots and fake accounts don’t get a vote and nobody can hack your vote for you. They do this using blockchain: the hottest technology of the moment. Fast Company explains:

“Rather than recording votes in one place, everyone’s votes are recorded across a network of thousands of computers. The system can also validate identities in the same decentralized way.”

Sovereign would make direct democracy more practical than ever. Direct democracy’s main weakness has always been that you couldn’t stop a country constantly to referendum its opinion: people would spend their days queuing to vote.

But if you put secure polling booths in every person’s smartphone, tablet, computer, you can organise a referendum in minutes. All choices can be left for citizens to vote on. You wouldn’t even need a parliament: just a committee to choose what the public should vote on.

Anyone who’s spent even a few minutes scrolling through Twitter knows that that would be absolute, unmitigated insanity, and the collapse of human civilisation as we know it.

Holding your representatives Countable

Countable doesn’t go that far: it doesn’t want to replace parliaments. It just wants to make them accountable. This DC-based startup’s work is simple, but vital towards building a more transparent democracy: it summarises what members of Congress are voting on each bill so that a regular person can understand it, and facilitates contact between users and their representative.

While having your representative practically on speed dial is cool, the app does rely quite heavily on a human editorial team which means it’s hard to imagine it being scaleable if it’s not acquired by a bigger player.

Take a sip of liquid democracy

One model getting thrown about (a lot) by entrepreneurs and bloggers is Liquid Democracy. As one blogger wrote: it would be like applying Google’s algorithm, PageRank, to democracy. You can delegate part or all of your vote to somebody you trust (your peers, specialists, politicians) on any specific vote. And that person can delegate any or all parts of the votes they get on to somebody else. This is pretty much how websites use linkbuilding to confer authority or reliability on a subject.

Dominik Schiener, co-founder of IOTA, shares this view. He describes how Liquid Democracy would bring democracy to its purest form:

“People with domain-specific knowledge are able to better influence the outcome of decisions, which in turn leads to an overall better governance of the state. Because of this, Liquid Democracy naturally evolves into a Meritocracy.”

Liquid Democracy: True Democracy for the 21st Century

Giveth, “an Open-Source Platform for Building Decentralized Altruistic Communities”, propose to use blockchain to power Liquid Democracy. In their words: “We can start experimenting with this incredible model while making the world a better place at the same time! Much vast, many possibility, sooo future!

All choices would be better made, because you’d be trusting in the wisdom of the wisest individuals in our community.

But then many, many masses of people trust Alex Jones, Russel Brand and all sorts of other incendiary clowns. The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue rode many trends to his current home, including one of the most spectacular examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Are we sure that the majority of people recognise a specialist when they see one? Could this devolve into Influencer Politics, in which the bigger your audience, the more of a vote you get?

To use the Google example a few paragraphs ago, let’s not forget how PageRank also drowned out some smaller voices and independent publications.

And we need only see how a platform as popular and present in our zeitgeist as Instagram is being manipulated for a few bucks to see the dangers that might lie ahead.

“And it nearly broke my heart.”

That’s what blogger Hossein Derakhshan had to say after spending six years in an Iranian prison. That was enough for him to notice the tidal effect that echo-chambers and algorithms had on the web during his incarceration. The diversity of themes and opinions was greatly reduced.

Now what?

Nearly two decades into the 21st Century, we seem to live half of every day in the next one. Technology changes us and we change technology in an endless cycle that only gets faster. Will we make a blockchain of the people, by the people, for the people? Will we vote on the direction of our society on a daily or hourly basis?

Or will we find ourselves manipulated into powerless filter bubbles, stripped of our agency in a world where supercomputer intelligence is more valuable than mere flesh-and-blood consciousness?

Frankly, who knows?

We and our tools have the potential to save or destroy democracy. We can shirk away from this challenge and take my basement-dwelling friend’s advice to stock up on tins of tuna. Or we can (geddit?) seize the reigns and take ownership for how the world around us works. I know I’ve made my choice.

Mmmmm. Tuna.