Sovereign: Democracy.Earth's attempt at a new tech platform for a new democracy (and maybe UBI too)

By  Ryan Snook,  from Wired magazine

By Ryan Snook, from Wired magazine

Our radar is always on for new combinations of community, technology and democracy. We have already covered the preparatory work of Democracy.Earth. They are an operation that’s trying to be inspired by the horizontal possibilities of blockchain, as a way to secure not just financial transactions but political citizenship, on a global, post-nation-state level.

We hear that they are about to launch their fully developed operating system, Sovereign, on Thursday, November 15th. We’ve also found two excellent pieces which open out what they’re trying to do - and some of the potential pitfalls.

Some extracts from a piece in the Jerusalem Post, interviewing their founder, Santiago Siri:

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.”

…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.”

…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. 

That’s a supportive account. But we were interested to find this Wired magazine piece from a month ago, which asks some interesting critical questions about Sovereign and Democracy.Earth’s ambitions. There’s a good opening question about how it fits with the old saw that “all politics is local”:

Harper Reed, Obama’s former CTO, professed himself a bit befuddled by how blockchain dreams intersect with the kind of door-knocking and phone-banking that modern American election campaigns are built on. “Winning an election is all about committing to a space, committing to a locale, and actually organizing,” Reed says. “I have a hard time understanding how, as a borderless crypto person, you can effect change. By definition, you are standing outside of a space instead of committing to it.”

Siri agrees that politics work best on the ground. “That’s how politics works everywhere,” he says. But he thinks he is as committed to grassroots organizing as any clipboard-wielding pavement pounder. It’s just that his precincts are all online.

“We are on a mission to create a ‘new space’ and breed a sense of global citizenship within it,” Siri says. “In essence, we want to help you migrate from your political system without needing to change countries. Think of the people in Venezuela: They’re under a tyrannical regime that has a hyper-inflationary currency, and the majority is unable to leave their families and loved ones. Our aim is precisely to work with those communities to provide them a set of tools able to empower them in a way that gives them an exit.”

What he means by “exit,” however, is not a chance to physically leave the country but a chance to “leave” oppressive financial and political systems of authority. H

He sketches out a scenario: Imagine there’s an organization that aims to represent Venezuelan dissidents. Some have left the county, some are still inside the country, but all of them have identities validated on Democracy.Earth’s blockchain. The members take a vote (with their anonymity protected) on whether to digitally “airdrop” some cryptocurrency assets on a group of dissidents within the country. A “yes” vote executes a smart contract that releases the funds.

Now the dissidents are no longer trapped by the hyperinflating insanity of the bolivar or state controls on currency exchanges. In theory they will enjoy financial security backed up by the blockchain. (Provided, of course, that there are ways to actually spend that cryptocurrency on food or shelter or whatever, which does not seem to be an insignificant quibble.)

It is precisely in a place like Venezuela, Siri argues—where the politics are irremediably broken and civil society is in such shambles—that people will be most likely to experiment with new ways to exercise their sovereignty. But the goal isn’t necessarily to replace President Maduro with someone else.

It’s far more radical than that—the goal is to make the president, any president, irrelevant to the needs and desires of a self-organizing population taking advantage of blockchain-generated tools to transcend primitive electoral democracy.

“If we can effectively build a new model that makes the existing one obsolete, maybe we are worthy of not needing governments anymore,” Siri says. “I know it’s ambitious. But either we build tools that help us adapt to our new weird reality or we go back to the dark ages.”

More from Wired here. At A/UK we are trying to track this “new weird [networked] reality” (in Siri’s words), and help our readers and communities make some degree of informed decisions about how they might deal with, or even deploy themselves, these technologies. Please explore our blockchain tag.

And we invite our existing co-creators who operate in this space to respond to the Democracy.Earth proposal - please mail us here, and we will compile a blog of your reactions.