Liquid democracy, liquid courage
• By ARIEL DOMINIQUE HENDELMAN
Santiago Siri has a love/hate relationship with politics. More precisely, he hates politics and loves democracy. The 34-year-old Siri grew up in Buenos Aires, where he lived for 30 years. Raised in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, he encountered an Argentina obsessed with finance, politics and soccer (or football if you’re anything other than American).
Siri began his career by creating a video game that simulated the experience of coaching and managing a soccer team. It was the first PC game to be published internationally from Argentina. The game was about much more than sports. It dealt with a lot of ethical decisions. As coach, you could bribe the referee or send in the hooligans. It was really a game about corruption.
Fifteen years later, Siri finds himself working in the arena of politics, and the seeds of his early work – as well as his formative years growing up in Argentina, with the possibility of accessing the Internet and personal computers at an early age – fundamentally shaped him.
In California in 2015, Siri co-founded the non-profit organization Democracy Earth. Simply put, Democracy Earth aims to revolutionize democracy through blockchain and open-source technology. (Wikipedia defines blockchain as “a growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked using cryptography. Blockchains which are readable by the public and are widely used by cryptocurrencies.” Open source refers to software that utilizes an open, collaborative development process.)
Siri wants to give power back to the people by creating a peer-to-peer democracy. If that sounds like a lofty idea, that’s because it is. Although Siri still prefers to think of himself as a coder, the vision he co-founded is growing exponentially and becoming more influential each day.
“Ultimately, the idea boils down to ‘power in your hands,’” he explains. “You have this thing you use every day, a cell phone, that now you can use to make a lot of things happen. You can change how you connect with the global economy and politics – which is the part that we’re trying to solve – by using the technology that is already almost an appendage of your body. Everyone gets it.
“What I found is that the main job of politics is to fight against everyone’s suspicions, to disseminate gossip and win by any means. It’s a very nasty game. But I think the Internet and blockchains are neutralizing that ground. They provide very clear rules that no one can tamper with.
“First of all, there is the aspect of decentralization and the ethos of that which is expressed through digital technology. It didn’t start with cryptocurrency or with Bitcoin, it started with open source. It’s a long tradition. Right now, open-source projects are the largest funded projects in the world. Their economic impact and growth is simply undeniable.”
Essentially, Democracy Earth sits at the critical intersection between blockchain technology and politics. At its heart is Sovereign, Democracy Earth’s open-source platform. Sovereign promotes what has been termed “liquid democracy,” in which users can vote on issues or delegate their voting rights to others they trust through the use of tokens. The goal is for Sovereign to function as a decentralized governance platform that can be used by any organization, small or large.
“What we’re trying to do is drive this way of political signaling from society on blockchain-based technology and decentralized networks that provide a ground that no one can tamper with,” Siri says. “We are providing a simple way of voting through these networks and at the same time understanding what kind of sovereignty can be achieved through them. What we are doing with our technology is providing a democracy platform for the governance of any cryptocurrency.”
Time will tell whether this is the future of democracy, but Sovereign, still in the very early stages, has 1,165 registered “citizens,” all of whom have access to the software and can contribute to or modify it. Democracy Earth has more than 9,000 followers on Twitter and just shy of 4,000 on Facebook. Siri emphasizes that the organization has reached activists, hackers, developers and coders from all around the world who are at the intersection of politics and the Internet. These individuals are working out ideas with the Democracy Earth team, which is comprised of 14 people from 10 countries.
Last year, an ambassadors program was created to help spread the word about Democracy Earth’s ethos. “We now have 20 ambassadors in 20 cities around the world,” Siri exclaims. “From my point of view, this is incredible. The technology is becoming more tangible and easier to use every day. The possibilities of this
kind of change – using the Internet for political change – are very real. Bitcoin has proven that already and it’s going to keep on going.”
When asked if Russia’s interference with the 2016 American presidential election influenced the work that Democracy Earth is doing, Siri responds that it was in fact the impetus. According to Siri, nation-states are incompatible with the Internet age. Nation-states, which emerged in the 17th century, have always been about power.
“As complexity increases, as more information is being processed and economic activity grows, the world order of the nation-state remains the equilibrium of power that keeps the world at peace until today, with the exception of a couple of world wars in between. With the Internet, you have this mode of communication that goes at the speed of light. Everything will end up being converted into the spectrum of transmission of information that by definition is global and is almost universal, as it’s going at the speed of the universe itself. Nation-states cannot sustain our world, where we have such contamination. The United States realizes that Russia interfered with their elections. I come from Latin America, where they don’t care to intervene in elections – they intervene in the government itself.”
Democracy Earth is, in essence, responding to a political crisis and the acute polarization of citizens, not only in America, but around the world. Sovereign’s borderless governance is reminiscent of the song “Imagine” by John Lennon. However mawkish the lyrics might be, it is safe to say the dreamers have taken control of the wheel. Sovereign is currently focused on the governance of existing crypto-networks, since these have tangible economic impact and large pools of token holders. But it will also work with political parties, students, unions and countless other organizations and entities. According to Siri, a roster or registered organizations will be made public soon.
“We’re seeing the rise of populism and the retreat of more democratic habits. When we saw the Berlin Wall fall, it was a dramatic image of the fall of the former Soviet Union. It may have been the first episode which had to do with the fall of the nation-state.
“The Internet is that new thing. Blockchains and Bitcoin are that new thing. We just need to make sure that everyone can participate in an equal way. As this change takes over how we connect the globe politically, it’s not going against the idea of nations. I love the World Cup. I love Argentina. I’m still heartbroken after the match with France where we lost.
“Connection to a nation is very real. But the nation-state having the final say needs to be questioned. It’s extremely centralized, extremely corrupt, and the world is smaller now. We need to include everyone and find technology that can help scale collaboration in unprecedented ways and break down these walls. It’s going to take fighting, but we have the Internet. We can start. It’s possible.”
THROUGH HIS tireless promotion of Democracy Earth and Sovereign’s liquid democracy, Siri recently found himself in Israel for the first time, at a conference sponsored by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation that invites entrepreneurs from around the world to spend a week in Israel.
“It was truly an incredible trip,” Siri states. “I’ve read a lot about the technology scene in Tel Aviv. I read Start-Up Nation. Every single investor and partner that I have is Jewish, so I wasn’t ready to be surprised by the scene in Tel Aviv. But I was.
“A big part of the trip was the geopolitical dimension. I emerged with a much better understanding of what has led to the conflict and how it has scaled to become a global conflict. It was deeply inspiring. The last part of the trip was the spiritual dimension. It was my first time in Jerusalem and it really felt like I traveled back in time. I was raised Catholic, but I always felt close to Jewish culture. Israel helped me understand why. It was a beautiful place and a great end of the trip for me.
“We went to the Old City and to the Western Wall. We also went to Mitzpe Ramon, where the whole group spent the night. I’ve done conferences all around the world in all types of locations and stages, but this was the best by far and I have no idea what I even said. I really fell in love with Israel.”
Siri hopes that Democracy Earth will influence everyone everywhere in the coming years. He notes that the defining feature of democracy is that it must take everyone into account, which is difficult with all the biases and ignorance people harbor. But Siri believes democracy can be achieved and that providing governance to real economic communities is the best way to begin.
“We are working right now with different crypto-economies that are very influential in the technology scene,” Siri adds. “But as an organization, we have a mandate to build technology that helps everyone participate in the benefits of these types of economies, in a way that it decentralizes every single kind of centralized authority, especially nation-states. We need to destroy any radar, not go under it. The radar simply cannot compute us because we replicate information like oxygen.”
Sovereign can be run on any computer, tablet or smartphone. No one is corrupting the choices or voting powers of its citizens. The key to voting on the Sovereign platform is that it is done through tokens, which provide an effective proof-of-identity system that runs on blockchains. Siri believes if they get it right, this system could become the backbone for providing universal, basic income to any service that wants to provide it.
“If we get this right, it could be very dangerous and we will do our best to get it right,” Siri says. As one Sovereign user put it, technology is not the problem but the answer. To vote is to use one’s voice, the strongest and most practical action that anyone can take as a citizen. Sovereign’s technology is raising the quiet voice of the voter until it becomes an undeniable roar on global issues that affect everyone, and providing a checkmate to the nation-state.
‘ESSENTIALLY, DEMOCRACY Earth sits at the critical intersection between blockchain technology and politics.’ SANTIAGO SIRI, in Berlin, wants to give power back to the people.
WITH DEMOCRACY Earth co-founder Herb Stephens in Tahoe, California.