Meet Santiago Siri, the man with a radical plan for voting the blockchain


In a café in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a videogame developer who had once become a political theorist named Santiago Siri is trying to explain to me how his non-profit startup, Democracy.Earth, aims to repair the broken world politics with the help of the blockchain

The conversation already covered a dizzying amount of land. We discussed the emergence of the Westphalian ordering of nation-states in the seventeenth century, of Russia's interference in the 2016 US elections, of the total collapse of Venezuelan society and of the same experience of Siri's political corruption in the his native Argentina. But eventually it comes down to a short sentence.

"We want tokenise as ", says Siri. At the heart of the project is the creation of what he calls "political cryptocurrency" – the tokens generated by blocks that users of Democracy. Earth's software can spend as votes.

Siri grew up in Argentina, where he saw the effects of corruption on first-hand democracy.

Sasha Arutyunova

The way Siri sees it, we have exchanged the original potential liberator of the Internet for sterile corporate servitude. Our time spent online for retweet and upvoting and clicking on emojis is mainly used to help non-responsible companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter to better target advertising. Siri dreams of a new type of social media platform on which we spend "voting tokens" that can do anything from electing politicians and passing referendums to the issuance of a social club regulation or the definition of business plan of a company. It is democracy per click.

The vision is a radical shift from a person's journey, a vote, once a year or two to the polls with which we are familiar and from which, according to Siri we are so badly served Users of Democracy. The one-size-fits-all-code-coded Sovereign governance platform-would have infinite flexibility to vote on any type of topic or person, every time they connect. In the future Democracy.Earth, every day will be election day, and the ballot will include all that enough of us think it should be there.

In this perfect world, says Siri, the seemingly untraceable and absolutely transparent blockchain will ensure that no centralized electoral authority is needed to establish a vote, and no corrupt politician or blocked legislator can interfere with the popular mandate. But inventing a superior form of voting technology is only the beginning; The broader and much more revolutionary goal is to devise a decentralized decision-making process that eliminates the need for any kind of central government.

"We do not deal with selling machines for electronic voting or modernizing governments by voting on the internet," says Siri. "We want to empower people individually without asking for governments' permission."

If the dream of bitcoin, the token generated by the blockchain of Satoshi Nakamoto, was to liberate money from the central bank control, then the dream of Sovereign is to liberate politics from control of the central government.

The complicated and multilayered solution of Siri to democratic dysfunction raises a series of questions and paradoxes. There is no shortage of experts in secure voting systems who believe that radical blockchain democracy could cause more problems than it solves, and is in fact an invitation to play and manipulation in contrast to the idea of a transparent and fraud-free vote. [19659003] Others still ask themselves how Democracy.Earth plans to solve the most difficult dilemmas faced by any voting system: how to guarantee transparency at the same time in the voting process while ensuring the anonymity of the voter? How can one deprive direct voting without running the risk of unscrupulous tyranny of the majority motivated by short-term passions that make terrible decisions?

But nothing raises the eyebrows of the jewel of Democracy. Crown of Earth: the voting sign. Because, like Bitcoin, like Ether, and like many of the cryptocurrency tokens sold by blockchain startups in the first coin offerings, known as ICOs, to fund their operations, the Democracy.Earth vote has financial value.

According to Siri, at the start of 2018 Democracy.Earth raised $ 1.5 million in a "presale" to vote. He plans to beat "a maximum" of 500 million tokens, at a provisional price of 12 cents each, for a corporate valuation of $ 60 million. Democracy. Earth employees will be rewarded for their work with tokens. The bottom line: there will be a financial market for the mechanism that Democracy.Earth users use to vote.

And this is a headscratcher.

"Ask yourself," says Joseph Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair, a company that provides secure electoral services, "whether combining the idea of ​​an ICO and democratic elections seems like a problem or not."

The Trojan horse which rolled through Buenos Aires in 2013, was designed, like its ancient Greek ancestor, to capture the unsuspecting eye. Trailed in the streets by a car, 20 feet tall and exquisitely carpeted, it caused an immediate sensation. The children ran alongside. An enthusiastic crowd gathered when it stopped in front of the National Congress Building of Argentina, the political heart of the South American country.

Argentina's Partido de la Red-Party used a flamboyant Trojan horse to symbolize its entry into the nation's politics.

The publicity stunt aimed at spreading awareness of a new nascent force in Argentine politics, the Partido de la Red. "Until then, we were just the guys on Twitter, the nerds, doing politics", says Siri, a co-founder of the party. "But then everyone was like," What the hell is it? "People started taking selfies.It became a symbol of the campaign."

Partido de la Red means "Network Party", as on the Internet. It was founded to represent the interests of an emerging generation of millenarian activists, always online, completely dissatisfied with decades of Argentine endemic political corruption and spectacular financial crises. His affiliation with the Internet was intended to signal faith in a new type of collaborative democracy. One of its main objectives was to elect politicians who would pledge to support the decisions made by party members in open online discussions. No more maneuvering behind closed doors. No more voting based on who got the most money.

"We had a rule", says Siri. "Obey on the internet."

The symbolism of the Trojan horse was profound. Like the original horse carrying the Greek warriors hidden in the city of Troy, it represented the idea that Partido de la Red would insinuate itself into the established order and lead the war from within. But it was also a comedy about the cooptation of the computer name. This party was a computer virus designed to violate the security of Argentine politics.

At the beginning things seemed to be fine. In his first attempt to challenge an election, the party captured 1.2% of the national vote, considerably better, says Siri, who 0.2-0.3% usually receives a new party . "We had a lot of online followers," says Siri. "It has become a movement, we have entered the game."

"And then," says Siri, "things began to be really strange."

The procacciatori began to present themselves at the party meetings. Siri's tires were cut off. A shady character told him that a "donation" of a million pesos to a federal judge would magically solve the registration problems of his party. He discovered that "changing the system from inside would not happen," says Siri. "The system was about to change you first."

So instead of trying to infiltrate the old system, Siri decided to build a completely new one. He started putting together his blockchain governance platform. In January 2015 he went to Mountain View, California, where he had 10 minutes to impress Sam Altman, president of the legendary startup incubator Y Combinator.

It was not going well. Siri remembers being "super-nervous". When Altman asked him how many users the company might eventually have, "I invented a number from scratch". The 10 minute window was closing fast.

Then he showed Altman the Instagram images of the Trojan horse.

"They were like," What! "What did you do !? & # 39 ;," Says Siri with a smile. "They loved us".

Democracy. Earth's White Paper, "The Social Smart Contract" is a treaty that is a cryptic-libertarian manifesto of equal parts and a technological road map for Sovereign. Once stripped of its rhetoric ("Internet is incompatible with the nation-state", "Representative democracies are an incident of eighteenth-century information technology"), it breaks down into half a dozen important pieces.

In addition to blockchains and voting tokens, there is also a set of flexible rules for voting called "liquid democracy", a complicated identity validation system involving video selfie and "mining" of attention, "and even a version of a universal basic income scheme that regularly" drip "new voting tokens into Sovereign user accounts.

Fully explaining the potential and the pitfalls of every single element of Democracy. Earth's technology requires a long journey into the mostly unmapped territory. Think, for beginners only, of the concept of "liquid democracy": an approach to voting radically different from Western democratic electoral systems. In Sovereign's scheme, users are assigned a reserve of votes that they can use (or spend) in various ways.

Siri approaches politics with the mindset of an engineer, meticulously following his ideas on the notebooks.

Sasha Arutyunova [19659006] Can vote more than once on a specific topic, to express a greater "weight" of intent. They can delegate their votes on a topic to trusted experts who should understand the problem in depth. They can also change their votes or withdraw their votes after the fact, if they change their mind about a topic or if they believe that an elected representative has not kept their promises.

Access the beta version of vote.democracy .earth for the first time, and start with 1,000 votes to do as you please. A series of questions, action items and ongoing discussions occupy the center of the screen. Should there be a second vote on Brexit? Should Venezuelan opposition leaders maintain dialogue with the repressive government of Maduro? Do you think that a universal basic income should be granted unconditionally ?

Liquid democracy is an uninterrupted mashup between direct democracy and representative democracy. Voters are at the same time constituents of several overlapping organizations: local, international, aspirational. In the imaginary of Siri, plunging into the never-ending flow of liquid democracy will naturally fit into the lives of smartphone generation like controlling Twitter or Instagram.

Moritz Ritter, managing director of the Berlin defense group Liquid Democracy, who is not affiliated with Democracy.Earth, but has pushed similar ideas on how the elections can be reinvented for years, states that the aim is "to take the 39, current system of representative democracy and make it more responsive and distribute power more equitably.From our point of view, this is necessary, because we see a growing disconnection between political actors and citizens manifested by an ever-decreasing number of members in the parties politicians, drastically reducing voter turnout and growing mistrust of political systems. "

" Democracy: The Earth, "says Ritter," is a very accurate approach to rethinking online voting and allocating political power without centralized institutions. "

As described by Ritter, it is easy to see the appeal of liquid democracy for an unqualified constituency. of politics as currently practiced. But it might be a mistake to try to map what Democracy.Earth is doing directly to our current status quo. Whenever I asked Siri how his technology would affect something like the emergence of Donald Trump in US politics or the authoritarianism of President Maduro in Venezuela or, perhaps in the most formidable scenario, the total power of the The Chinese Communist Party, Siri would change the reasons for the discussion outside the current political needs and towards the contemplation of more ethereal and long-range objectives.

Internet and the blockchain, he believes, have annihilated the old era of national states. In this new, deeply globalized universe, without borders and more and more decentralized, we are no longer defined by our geographical position in a particular territory. Instead, we are citizens of the world, and in the future we will require the evolution of new decentralized organizations in line with the constraints of our new reality. Democracy.Earth, little by little I realized, is an ongoing research laboratory and a thought experiment on how to design appropriate decision-making mechanisms for this new world.

"Our goal is to provide a reliable token for governance because of the legitimacy we can introduce regarding identity validation and the rules of liquid democracy," says Siri. "I think we are discovering the constituent elements of creating purely digital institutions – institutions that never need to go through a bureaucracy or a bank or a state to exist."

The proposition that new solutions are necessary for our strange new world is hard to discuss. The problem lies in showing that something as complex as Democracy.Earth corrects more than it breaks. Consider the most fundamental piece of Sovereign's infrastructure, the blockchain.

The case for the application of blockchain to voting systems is that blockchains should be perfectly transparent markers that can not be hacked by Russian robots or purchased by Super Collection of PAC funds or corrupt Argentine politicians. The immutability of a "distributed ledger" shared across multiple computers is an article of faith in the cryptic community. Using the Sovereign, says Siri, voters will be able to follow their votes on the blockchain; they will know without a doubt that their vote has been expressed and counted as expected.

Herb Stephens, a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur who acts as Democracy. Treasurer of Earth, states that the goal is a system in which "everyone has a copy and everyone can monitor the things that matter to the general public."

Or, as the white paper says, " with a blockchain-based democracy, the votes become resistant to censorship and every single voter can control an election without requiring any kind of access rights to the infrastructure. "

Experts in secure voting systems are not d & # 39; # 39; agreement.

"It's a terrible disagreement over electoral and electoral space," says Josh Benaloh, a senior cryptographer at Microsoft Research who has spent 30 years researching secure voting systems. "It looks appealing, until it scratches under the surface.There are so many ways in which blockchains do not solve real problems, they just make things worse."

Dan Wallach, a professor of computer security at Rice University, believes that the encrypted-infatuated generation is too optimistic about what their new toys can get.

"Blockchain people have not really paid attention to the threat-related models of voting, especially corruption and coercion," says Wallach. "They tend to make naive assumptions about voters' ability to control cryptographic keys and the software used to cast their votes." None of these systems is suitable for use in municipal real-world elections. "

Wallach and Benaloh have both reiterated the classic "rubbish in, trash" problem that has long plagued computer programming. Of course, once things are recorded on the blockchain it is very difficult to change them. (Like Harper Reed, Barack Obama's 2012 campaigner in charge of technology, he told me, "the blockchain is great to know if people are making jokes about your stuff.")

But Benaloh is worried about the vulnerabilities that occur before the data are encoded in the blockchain. There may be malware on your smartphone that alters your vote as soon as you try to spend your token. Even worse, there could be an agent of a repressive state with a gun to the head that dictates exactly how to vote.

Or your vote could be bought, something some researchers think will be even easier on blockchain than on the old school urn.

Although Democracy.Earth intends for Sovereign to eventually be "blockchain-agnostic" – that is, it should be compatible with a multitude of different public and private blockchains – right now it is designed to take advantage of the features of the "smart contract" "integrated into the Ethereum blockchain.

These contracts automatically perform transactions on the blockchain when certain conditions written in the blockchain code are met. Thus, the Sovereign voting tokens can automatically activate smart contracts. For example, an organization that discusses whether to spend money on a particular project holds a vote; if a majority spends their tokens by voting yes, the funds are immediately released.

But in a system where the decision-making entity – the voting token – is itself something that has financial value, the potential for the chaos of smart contracts is huge, says Ari Juels, a computer scientist of Cornell studying blockchain and smart contracts. In early July, Juels co-authored a blog post pointing out that smart contracts could be just as effective for "buying elections" as they will correctly execute the results of an election.

"The Democracy.Earth scheme provides a clear and simple illustration of the type of attack we are concerned with," Juels writes in an e-mail. "Quite simply, someone can anonymously launch an intelligent contract that buys people's votes by buying their own democracy." "Token voting token."

The broadest point is that transparency of blockchain can be a responsibility in elections, in how much electoral choices are exposed Smart contracts can automate voting, guarantee payment and otherwise compromise the integrity of the elections The white paper suggests that the connection between identity and expressed votes could be broken by using new techniques But breaking this connection when a voter wants on the spot to sell his vote is difficult. "

" I have the same opinion as the rest of the international experts in encryption and elections, "Juels continues. "There are almost only" versus "in using blockchain technology in the voting process."

The son of corporate lawyer and entrepreneur of the slipper, Siri grew up in Buenos Aires, idolizing both Steve Jobs and Che Guevara. Before becoming involved in Argentine politics, he carved out a successful niche as a videogame designer, launching two gaming companies and founding an association of game developers. He dreamed, he tells me, to build a game like SimCity "only with real citizens." He jumped on the blockchain wagon soon, even if he was known, only in a bit sadly: "I wish I had bought more."

"But I bought enough", he concludes.

Santiago Siri photographed in New York in August 2018.

Sasha Arutyunova

Regarding his policy, Siri says he was "introduced to different places in the world as a leftist revolutionary or a Davos businessman engaged in politics, both are flattering for me. "

There is no doubt that it is difficult to put a box. Every conversation I had with Siri was a roller coaster: game theory, the quantum nature of reality, the failure of the Bolshevik revolution, the responsibility of the Internet for the polarization of our current information ecology – in real time, you can hear Siri trying uneasily to understand how all the pieces fit together. He is a great thinker, who faces problems as big as they are.

But the more we enter the core of democracy. Earth's technology, the more difficult it was to evaluate its objective merits. When I pointed out to Siri Juel's blog post on buying smart-contract votes and I shared Benaloh's criticism of the blockchain applied to the real world elections, his answers took me beyond the maze.

"Of course there are all kinds of concerns as we expand our understanding of how to design systems built with information only," he wrote via email. "We are aware of the different set of attacks that may occur, but voting is not a one-dimensional problem, it's just the name we give to the transactions that take place within the broader realm of governance. traditional sense of the way in which they were held by the nation-state, they are probably not the most appropriate form of government to be delivered digitally … That's why understanding how blockchain can scale social consensus is definitely the way to go. "

What Siri seemed to say is that the Sovereign is not really meant as a replacement for how the United States elects a president or California passes an initiative. Instead, it's really an exercise to understand how to use blockchain to make group decisions in the crypto-digital domain. Sovereign, in other words, represents the government of the crypto-people, of the crypto-people and of the crypto-people.

Ultimately, perhaps, the crypto-people will soon be the people . But we have not yet arrived. Underlying everything in the Democracy.Earth platform, and more generally in the entire crypto-libertarian project of redoing society into a decentralized utopia devoid of coercion and exploitation, there is an almost evangelical faith in the premise that the computer code can solve the disordered realities of human life.

"The interesting thing about crypto," says Siri, "is that you can start creating institutional models that no longer rely on the fallibility of human authority but are strictly based on code, mathematics and cryptography. building an institutional reality where controls and balances are protected by hard promises, by fundamental mathematical constructs that are simply impossible to break because of the intrinsic properties of how information works. "

This is a difficult subject to challenge to grasp the potential vulnerabilities of the intelligent contract or any other objective criticism of the blockchain as it is now, because the answer to every problem is a new technological solution that has not yet been discovered. And it's an impossible topic to put into question by emphasizing things like the possibility that a centralized database with really strong security provisions is probably a more efficient way to execute an election than to use the blockchain, when the whole point of the project is to avoid having a central authority in the first place.

A primitive version by Sovereign was put to the test during the Colombian referendum of 2016, required to approve a peace treaty between the government and the FARC rebels. A thousand expatriate Colombians who were unable to register to vote for the actual elections took part. In a preliminary attempt to implement the flexibility of liquid democracy, the test group was given the opportunity to express a symbolic vote on seven different proposals related to the peace agreement, rather than a yes / no track on the made to pass the agreement. [19659003] Siri states that the approach helped explain the surprise of the defeat in the real world of the deal, because voters using the Sovereign approved six of the peace proposals, overwhelmingly rejecting a proposal to allow FARC to participate in the government.

As an experiment on how the vote could be conducted with more nuances than conventional models, the FARC referendum is interesting. But it is not yet proof of how a real sovereign exercise of liquid democracy powered by the vote could work, because too many pieces of the puzzle are still in development. More specifically, until today there has been no real world test of the use of voting tokens generated by Sovereign's blockchain. And this is precisely the point where all of Democracy. The experiment on Earth is more provocative.

The main reason why researchers of voting technology have a careful look at the fusion of cryptocurrency and electoral stems directly from the bitcoin example, which has evolved from the means of exchange to speculative merchandise. Instead of being used to actually buying things, bitcoin has become the digital equivalent of gold: a way to get rich simply by buying and selling when the price is right.

So what is stopping the "owners" of voting tokens from buying and selling them as raw materials instead of using them to vote?

Siri and Stephens both recognize that the potential for vote-based speculation is a real concern. The moment I was asking them the question at the beginning of July, the whole Democracy. The Terra team held a one-week retreat to figure out how to defend themselves from this scenario. After the withdrawal was over, Siri sent me a preliminary draft of their new "token economics" white paper. Along with another dose of rhetoric – "we consider token-based liquid democracies as the most flexible form of democratic governance that can be built with digital technology" – the newspaper promised that Sovereign's voting tokens would be built with incentives designed to maintain stable token prices.

Like many elements of the Democracy.Earth technology roadmap (and this is a common aspect of ICO's white papers), the goal seemed more ambitious than rooted in executable code. But two different academic cryptocurrency researchers with whom I discussed the plan said they were hard to understand why a voting token had to have a monetary value in the first place. One suggested that the primary motivation was probably "business reasons" – that is to finance operations in progress or, more simply, profit .

Even worse, to participate in this form of voting, you must be able to afford the voting token in the first place. Someone has to cover the cost of the calculation on a public blockchain. In the world of the old political school, "pay to play" is generally disapproved. Perhaps in theory Democrazia. The scheme of a universal system of basic income could solve this problem, but this is also another example of adding complexity to an existing Goldbergiano contraption.

Siri's rejoinder is that there must be some real skin in the game making the online vote meaningful. "The purpose of the use of a blockchain is for decisions that aim to be immutable and therefore able to activate cryptocurrency transactions or execute smart contracts," says Siri. "Our goal is to evolve the experience using social media in something that is effectively able to push institutional change with transactions supported by economic drivers brought by the users themselves." In other words, paying to play is a good thing. [19659017] Harper Reed, former CTO of Obama declared himself a bit confused by the way blockchain dreams intersect with the kind of knocking on doors and the phone banking on which modern election campaigns are based American. "Vincere un'elezione significa impegnarsi in uno spazio, impegnarsi in un contesto e realmente organizzarsi", afferma Reed. "Ho difficoltà a capire come, in quanto persona criptata senza confini, puoi apportare cambiamenti. Per definizione, ti trovi fuori da uno spazio invece di impegnarti in esso. "

Siri concorda sul fatto che la politica funzioni meglio sul terreno. "È così che la politica funziona ovunque", dice. Ma pensa di essere impegnato a organizzare il terreno come un matto che brandisce il marciapiede. È solo che le sue recinzioni sono tutte online.

"Siamo in missione per creare un 'nuovo spazio' e generare un senso di cittadinanza globale al suo interno", dice Siri. "In sostanza, vogliamo aiutarti a migrare dal tuo sistema politico senza dover cambiare Paese. Pensa alle persone in Venezuela: sono sotto un regime tirannico che ha una valuta iperinflazionistica, e la maggioranza non è in grado di lasciare le loro famiglie e i propri cari. Il nostro obiettivo è proprio quello di lavorare con quelle comunità per fornire loro una serie di strumenti in grado di potenziarli in modo da dare loro un'uscita. "

Ciò che intende con" uscita ", tuttavia, non è un'opportunità per andarsene fisicamente il Paese, ma la possibilità di "lasciare" oppressivi sistemi di autorità finanziaria e politica. Descrive uno scenario: immagina ci sia un'organizzazione che mira a rappresentare i dissidenti venezuelani. Alcuni hanno lasciato la contea, alcuni sono ancora all'interno del paese, ma tutti hanno identità convalidate su Democrazia. La blockchain di Terra. I membri prendono un voto (con il loro anonimato protetto) sull'opportunità di "far cadere" digitalmente alcune risorse di criptovaluta su un gruppo di dissidenti all'interno del paese. Un voto "sì" esegue un contratto intelligente che libera i fondi. Ora i dissidenti non sono più intrappolati dalla follia iperinflazionistica dei controlli bolivar o statali sui cambi di valuta. In teoria godranno della sicurezza finanziaria sostenuta dalla blockchain. (Purché, naturalmente, ci siano modi per spendere quella criptovaluta su cibo o riparo o altro, che non sembra essere un cavillo insignificante.)

È proprio in un posto come il Venezuela, sostiene Siri, dove la politica è irrimediabilmente spezzata e la società civile è così in balia di gente che sarà più propensa a sperimentare nuovi modi di esercitare la propria sovranità. Ma l'obiettivo non è necessariamente quello di sostituire il presidente Maduro con qualcun altro. È molto più radicale di quello – l'obiettivo è quello di rendere presidente un qualsiasi presidente irrilevante ai bisogni e ai desideri di una popolazione auto-organizzante che sfrutta gli strumenti generati dalla blockchain per trascendere la democrazia elettorale primitiva [19659003]“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 than once, listening to Siri, I found myself inwardly gaping at what seemed like windmill-tilting to the nth degree. Getting rid of government altogether? Come on! But every time I emerged from my daze and took a hard look at the world around me, the prospect that a new dark age was looming on the horizon seemed less fanciful.

And the notion that our weird times might call for weird measures seemed less quixotic.

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