Most traditional democracies in the world share one basic system: every four years or so, citizens are offered a couple of candidates to choose from. After voting, the power to decide is frozen for the next four years and all they can do is watch events unfold from a spectator’s seat, hands tied. In between voting cycles, citizens are forced to rely on partisan and otherwise unreliable polls to gauge their contentment, positions and desires.
This system is what we call representative democracy. It was designed as an evolution of direct democracy, where in its origins in ancient Greece, “legitimate” citizens would gather in a public place — the agora — and raise their hands to vote in favor or against every decision that was made about the city. However, the direct model wasn’t scalable to larger territories. So in the 19th century, when democracy was to be applied to entire countries, the voting power of the citizen had to be delegated to a representative. Someone who would be solely occupied in making those decisions for them. And thus, politicians were born.
Most times when people complain about politics, they are actually complaining about representative democracy — that the system specifically designed to represent them no longer does. Over time, despite an individual politician’s best intentions, power becomes concentrated within the representative system itself.
Not having a say over the decisions that impact our lives is obviously problematic. But for a while, that model did work. Between the 70s and the 90s, dozens of authoritarian regimes became electoral democracies. Things moved forward in a positive, freedom-promoting direction.
It seems that growth is reaching its limits, with more and more people around the world are wondering if it is the beginning of the end for democracy. Mass protests are erupting globally and movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring are very clear examples of a widespread and generalized feeling of dissatisfaction. We have reached a point wheredemocracy itself is in recession, and populist and authoritarian leaders are filling the gap. It’s happening.
While specialists can point to a wide array of reasons, like corruption, inequality and fragile judicial systems, financial crisis and even climate change, it might be something much more simple:
The spread of the internet.
Technological connectivity breaks the main premise that once justified the creation of representative democracy in the first place — the necessity to scale the decision making process to a large territory. Now we can vote online. There are no technical impediments that could prevent a willing person to participate in a voting procedure. The main justification for representatives is no longer valid. No wonder citizens are revolted with the fact that they can’t have a say in politics. Voting every four years seems like an offensively small token of participation in face of what the technological possibilities now allow for.
The current ultra-polarized battles that we see on social media seem to stem from the mistaken assumption that one ideology or another could bring real solutions to the problems we face in this scenario. But after citizens take to the streets and depose or impeach an old leader, the representative system automatically reconfigures itself with the new leadership, posing the same challenges it did before.
The problem is a system that was built for a level of information technology — the print — that is now obsolete. We need new alternatives.
Making Democracy Work
Democracy is getting the best possible decision, with the greatest amount of legitimacy.
For us at Democracy Earth , it means that we focus on developing the core social technology that makes it all possible: voting.
In direct democracy, everyone votes — directly. But there is no way that everyone has the time, or interest, or expertise to vote on every single issue.
On the other hand, in representative democracy, we elect other people to vote for us.
By nature, democracy is more representative with greater participation.
Liquid democracy combines approaches to enable 100% voter turnout:
- we vote directly on the issues;
- we delegate our vote to individuals we know and trust; OR
- we do nothing and let our elected representatives represent ALL those that do not or cannot otherwise participate directly or delegate.
Therefore, if a citizen chooses to not participate directly or to delegate or is simply unwilling or unable to vote, such citizen’s vote would be determined by the standing elected representative.
Unfreezing democratic decision-making
Instead of having representatives based on territory, we utilize a digital, secure, blockchain-based application to start choosing representatives that we know and trust. They represent us for the specific topics that we assign them. For example, if you have a friend that knows a lot about the environment and is passionate about it, you can trust him or her to vote on bills about environment.
In this system, you start building the way you enact your citizenship from the bottom up. And delegation can be based on specialized knowledge. This has tremendous implications for democracy — because it is about peer review and peer review is a great way of arriving at legitimate decisions in any organization.
Democracy is always a work in progress. The greeks used the word “agora” for the public park where they gathered to make decisions. Etymologically, “agora” means speaking and thinking with others.
Now we have a public park right in the palm of our hands. At Democracy Earth Foundation we want to leverage this global park and build a decision making model designed with today’s technology.
It’s time to unfreeze democracy from its pre-technology ice age.
The peculiar events of 2016 in geopolitics, cryptography and transformations of sovereignty have impacted our vision and work in a way we can call “foundational”. A year to learn the importance of staying lucid in the face of filter-bubbles, gossip and prejudice, as technology and politics reshape each other transforming many power relations we grew used to for centuries.
In this review we want to give you a glimpse of what we saw happen in the world, what we did with it and who helped us along the way.
What we saw
During 2016 we can identify at least three major events signaling the current state of democracy in the world:
🇬🇧 A surprising Brexit referendum in the UK that led to Britain pivoting towards leaving the European Union.
The pattern found on this referendum has been consistent along with every other large-scale election of this kind: the elder go out to vote while the young do not engage. Urban areas tend to support open borders, while rural areas want protection. “There is an intergenerational tyranny going on” I’ve heard whisper during the World Economic Forum meeting held in Dubai last November. We firmly believe that the gap between generations is due to fundamentally one thing: the internet. The so-called millenials are not defined by the year 2000 but by the digital technology that is shaping their worldview every single day. Statistics prove that the digital gap, even within developing nations, is no longer due to socio-economical factors but purely driven by age since the introduction of the smartphone.
🇨🇴 An unexpected No to peace in the Colombian referendum risking years of negotiation between the government & the marxist narco-guerrillas.
We did our first public pilot of our new tech for this referendum. We got lobbied by think tanks to specifically avoid asking many questions in our pilot and keep the process using the same single question being asked by the government. We didn’t pay attention to that and did the referendum we would’ve liked to see happen: asking 7 questions, one for each aspect of the peace treaty being signed. Surprisingly, we where able to identify the deal breaker that led to a winning No in the official poll. “You got to prove what happens when you can seat the people at the negotiation table” Ernesto Dal Bo, head of the political economy faculty of UC Berkeley told us.
🇺🇸 A shocking US presidential election that had as a decisive factor hacked e-mails from the democrat party leadership.
Every US election is a milestone that helps understand the impact of media: Roosevelt & the radio; Kennedy & TV; Obama & social media. This year has proven to be a time where crypto and information security mattered more than ever before. A Russian-led task force hacked into the DNC database & Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta. The release of such e-mails from Wikileaks was perfectly timed to negatively impact Hillary’s campaignconsidering Julian Assange’s personal war with her. While the Clinton campaign relied on leaking scandalous material about Trump hoping for mainstream media repeated broadcast (and the media did respond to it); the Trump campaign kept doing constant, non-stop, softer but consistent blows throughout the whole campaign: e-mail revelations have proven to be a stronger kind of power display.
Right after the US election, Bitcoin’s price went from USD 710 per unit to a 3 year high of USD 920. An episode worth remembering is when Wikileaks released the US Embassy cables in 2011. Back then, such event led to credit card companies cutting ties with Assange’s organization in the hope to choke its funding but one line kept on working for them: Bitcoin. In 2014, we had the privilege of visiting US Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, and during this meeting we specifically warned: Bitcoin will globalize politics.
What we did & who helped us
- Mecate — in Mexico 🇲🇽 we worked on one possible way to integrate with the Bitcoin Blockchain through 21.co. A major challenge many passionate programmers are helping us figure out in the best possible way.
- FastForward — in San Francisco 🇺🇸 we had the amazing opportunity of being part of a batch of social entrepreneurs who taught us many important lessons on focus, simplicity and scale. We met great mentors and allies, amazing organizations working on the big challenges every city faces (housing, energy, health, pluralism and education). We are extremely grateful for our time with them and looking forward to grow with the equipment they’d provided us.
- Medialab-Prado — in Madrid 🇪🇸 we joined a large group of makers and researchers to work on Collective Intelligence for Democracy. Our time there made our team grow in maturity of thinking and make a humble approach to the huge question of sovereignty today and sovereignty in a post nation-state world. As part of this event we discussed Monarchy in Spain and did research on the state of the art in Liquid Democracy with impressive results we’ll be sharing very soon.
So.. where do we go from here? — 2017
During 🇺🇸 election day, we released the source code of Sovereign. We have been working on it in stealth-mode during 2016 figuring how we can connect democratic governance to the security & accountability that is guaranteed by blockchains. Since then:
Our Github Repository managing the code got support from 350+ developers and new projects got started like Self, specifically focused on sovereign authentication.
We are aiming for a 0.1.0 release of Sovereign in Q1 2017.
Our 🇫🇷 Paris Conference we gave in May introducing the tech got 100,000+ views.
We have now a clear understanding on what are the technical & political requirements to enable governance for institutions in a digital context. Looking ahead for 2017 we’ll be increasing our efforts developing Sovereign and releasing new instances in critical contexts as we look at the electoral calendar of the globe.
We want to deeply thank everyone that has been accompanying our mission and hope we can keep exchanging ideas in order to create a democracy that can connect humanity and help it solve the planetary challenges we face.
In a context where genuine fears of cyberwar & increasing distrust for established media keeps making headlines, we believe that the Internet can provide the means for the voices of the many — not only to be heard, but also ruled by their own will. By maturing the development of blockchains so they can be fit for governance, organizing and democratic decision-making at all scales, that power can be untapped. 🌎🕊
After all, democracy is too good to fail.