One of the stranger things that Y Combinator has supported — among the many more interesting things they’ve started to back like prosthetic legs, macrobiotic research and Uber-for-marijuana startups — is a non-profit that built an entire political party in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
What’s different is that DemocracyOS’ founders including Pia Mancini and Santiago Siri, actually built their own political party that pledged to vote according to whatever their user base decided in the city of Buenos Aires, the 3 million-person capital of Argentina. They acquired a little over 1 percent of the vote in the city — not enough to elect a candidate — but enough to influence the legislative process and have city policymakers adopt the platform.
It may be hard to remember in the U.S., but a generation ago, Argentina had a brutally oppressive government that caused thousands of young people and political opponents to disappear in a Dirty War in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even to this day, their mothers march plazas looking for answers.
So the country’s democratic institutions are relatively young as the economy faces rapid inflation, instability and political cover-up scandal embroiling its president Cristina Kirchner.
After finishing in the last Y Combinator batch, DemocracyOS is now in the process of setting up a non-profit in the U.S. that is entirely separate from its test case of a political party in Buenos Aires.
The edited Q-and-A below is with Siri:
How did you start DemocracyOS?
Part of Latin America has a more populist strand of politics in countries like Argentina, Venezuela and Cuba. The other half is more integrated into the Western economy with countries like Chile. When we started three years ago, there was a rising polarization felt within our society.
We had an idea of how we could hack the vote of the political system — that is take advantage of all the connected devices and Internet.
In Argentina, we created our own political party called Partido de la Red — or the Net Party. Its simple promise was to allow candidates to vote according to the collective intelligence of its members on DemocracyOS.
We got 1.2 percent of the vote. It wasn’t enough to get a candidate elected, but we were able to get 400 bills debated on the platform and 16 of those bills were taken into consideration and were able to push real legislation into the City of Buenos Aires. It’s one of the first cases for digital democracy in Latin America.
Basically we think this is the largest open source effort toward online voting. It’s a very simple application. It lets you get informed, then debate and vote.
Where do you want to take it?
What we’re trying to do with DemocracyOS as a foundation is to build this open source software. It must be free. We cannot put a price on the right to participate. We are a non-profit and our software is open source so that helps guarantee accountability and transparency.
We’re seeing it used to debate data policy in Mexico while the Spanish political party Podemos has used it for internal decisions.
We believe that the Internet will transform governance. It feels far away, but really our software has been seeing traction in many places. What we’ve found is that civic technology sees faster adoption where there is an urgency to use something that’s an alternative to the state of what the government offers.
The development of DemocracyOS has been most interesting like places like Ukraine, Spain, Argentina and Venezuela. You’re seeing a rise of new political movements and that’s where you’re seeing civic technology get adopted.
You see this even outside of civic tech. Bitcoin has been more widely adopted in Argentina because of the country’s high inflation rate and capital controls that make it difficult to buy foreign currency. Bitcoin became very relevant in this context. It became an efficient way to send money around the world. In Argentina, they are different local places and bars that accept Bitcoin as payment and there’s a very interesting ecosystem evolving around remittances.
How did you personally involved in civic tech?
I used to be a game developer and I used to come to GDC [the big Game Developers Conference every March in San Francisco]. Video games and software can be a very powerful political medium. I remember that there were always U.S. soldiers and Marines at GDC. That was because America’s Army, for example, which is financed by the U.S. army, is a powerful recruitment tool for the military. These games are literally sending people to war.
As I was growing up, I realized that our generation is waking up and trying to question the fundamental order. There was the Arab Spring and then the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong. You’re seeing a rising generation that is questioning what kind of democracy we really have.
But those arguably aren’t successful movements. Egypt is under yet another non-democratic government and then there’s ISIL in Syria. Beijing is still going to forward its own candidate for the 2017 Hong Kong elections.
There are two trends you’re seeing in society. You have apathy and polarization. If you have an apathetic society, then only the most extreme ideological positions will compete for power.
When you look at Argentina, it’s a country that has become entrapped in its own political drama.
Yeah, I remember living there a decade ago. It wasn’t uncommon for me to meet new people, and within the first 20 minutes of conversation, they’d make some reference to how Argentina was once one of the wealthiest countries in the world at the turn of the century.
But we are the first generation that has been born and raised in democracy like other countries across Latin America. We are the first one that has been educated at large scale by the Internet.
We think of democracy as the software and the Internet as the hardware. For us, it was interesting when we started the Net Party to see if we could use it to have input into the political system. In the old system, you had to risk your career and your life for politics. It made participating in politics impossible.
[Laughs] That’s a mess.
But when we put a party on Democracy OS, we wanted to make sure that whatever input you gave was used. That’s why we created a political party, to lessen the digital divide between you and the government. We’ve had 400 bills debated on the platform.
How do you think about direct and representative democracy?
You’d think we’d be about doing direct democracy. But the way I think about it, I think about it the way the Greeks spoke about agora. It was what they called the park where they would gather together to discuss matters.
Agora is about speaking to one another. It’s a concept that you can relate to the idea of collective intelligence. In many Greek verses, you find that agora is the opposite of war.
What we’re trying to do with DemocracyOS is to understand what democracy what means in the 21st century, and to build the technology that helps us answer that question.
What are the best rules for tapping into collective intelligence? What do you need to have about proper identity validation? What do you need to have about accountability? Should you have decentralized ledgers like the blockchain to guarantee votes and counts?
The blockchain sounds like it could be an appealing tool for keeping a ledger of something like a vote. However, it isn’t truly anonymous in many ways. And if it isn’t truly anonymous, that would raise risks for vote coercion, where a powerful person or entity could pay someone to vote a certain way and then later verify that on the blockchain.
You could write entire technical chapters on how to keep anonymity anonymous. That’s probably for another conversation. There are different blockchain implementations one could use. It’s a new technology and it’s not mature yet.
But the way I think about the blockchain is that it’s a universal bureaucracy. It can certify events in time. In a bureaucracy today, you would go to a scribe, a lawyer, a notary or another person to certify an event.
The blockchain can do that by proof of work and through its decentralized nature. If you were to trace back what politics is at its core, it’s about what somebody says in a moment in time. If you look into the next 10 to 20 years, the way we build human institutions is probably going to be programmed into protocol in a different way.
The Internet is a geopolitical force that doesn’t recognize any national boundaries. The Internet is an emergent superstructure that is disruptive of existing political structures and it is of a global scale. It runs on digital code, not printed legal code.
I’ve been in the poorest neighborhoods in Argentina and every single 15, 16 and 17-year-old has an Android telephone. There might be a digital gap on between my parents and grandparents. But in Buenos Aires, 93 percent of people under 29 are connected to social media at least once a week.
You attribute polarization to an apathetic society. But you could argue that the Internet actually facilitates this polarization. People are just consuming the news or content that already matches their viewpoints in filter bubbles.
That’s why we’re open source. Anybody of any political background can use DemocracyOS. From the ground up, we try to provide basic accountability through our software.
Let us not forget how government works. You have about 500 representatives for a population of more than 300 million here. But that concentration of power does not scale. It’s absurd to think it would.
Even in Buenos Aires, with 60 representatives for a city of 4 million, if you think about the amount of information that cities generate per day, it’s impossible that these 60 people are really aware of everything that’s happening to their constituents.
Software as a medium provides a degree of interaction and complexity that is way greater than whatever you can achieve by traditional means like sending in an envelope or a ballot. Traditional voting technologies from the last 200 years might measure opinion every few years.
We do a lot of thinking about the right way to develop the participation mechanisms that can enable anyone to be involved in the highest and best way. What’s interesting to us is an idea of liquid democracy or proxy voting where you can dynamically delegate your vote to someone who may not be a representative by territory, but may represent your views by their knowledge.
How are you planning to expand in the United States and abroad?
We’re very cautious. We know from our experience that what we do works better at the local city level. We are still not very sure about how we would work at a federal level. There are issues about political minorities and what the proper checks and balances are to protect those minorities. We still haven’t reached that place.
But you’re not forming a political party in the United States?
We have to be cautious to separate the DemocracyOS Foundation as a non-profit and our efforts in Argentina.
How do you attract users?
There’s still a bottleneck today. Setting up a DemocracyOS right now would require a technical member since you’d need to set it up on your own server. We’re working on a software-as-a-service version so anyone can set up their own DemocracyOS.
Why do you need to set it up on your own server?
If you go to different countries, you’ll find different needs. If you go to Venezuela, the single most important feature is anonymity. If you have identity, you’re building a hit list for the government.
But in Spain, they need good identity validation. Many super small, long-tail organizations can set up their own DemocracyOS’ quickly. The software itself has been translated into 16 languages and there are implementations all across the world. We’re learning from all of them.
Democracy is always a work in progress. If it was an absolute idea, it would become totalitarian. If you don’t push society for a better democracy, consequences happen. When you look at places across Europe, where the young are not able to find answers anywhere, they may start to go to Messianic leaders as they did in Latin America with the Kirchners, Chavez and Castro.
In the 1980s, many Latin American countries were able re-establish democracy. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The reaction of the Western World was that maybe we should all go in a liberal market-friendly society. The running joke in Argentina in the 1990s was that we had carnal relations with the U.S.
Yeah. And then in 2001, the whole system collapsed. Then our government, and then the Kirchners went down this very protectionist route. We closed ourselves to foreign influence. Now that model is also reaching an end. We have very high inflation. Our money is basically monopoly money. Our society is super polarized. House of Cards is a children’s show in Argentina.
When the crash happened in 2001, Argentines went out into the streets with a tool. That tool was pan. We banged on pans to make noise and protest against the government.
So our question is how we can turn that noise into signal. Today we have that tool, it’s digital technology. The entire political capital of our party is on the premise that our candidates will vote accordingly to whatever our users decide.