Pia Mancini: How to upgrade democracy for the Internet era
Pia Mancini and her colleagues want to upgrade democracy in Argentina and beyond. Through their open-source mobile platform they want to bring citizens inside the legislative process, and run candidates who will listen to what they say.
I have the feeling that we can all agree that we're moving towards a new model of the state and society.But, we're absolutely clueless as to what this is or what it should be. It seems like we need to have a conversation about democracy in our day and age. Let's think about it this way: We are 21st-century citizens, doing our very, very best to interact with 19th century-designed institutions that are based on an information technology of the 15th century. Let's have a look at some of the characteristics of this system.
First of all, it's designed for an information technology that's over 500 years old. And the best possible system that could be designed for it is one where the few make daily decisions in the name of the many. And the many get to vote once every couple of years. In the second place, the costs ofparticipating in this system are incredibly high. You either have to have a fair bit of money and influence, or you have to devote your entire life to politics.
You have to become a party member and slowly start working up the ranks until maybe, one day, you'll get to sit at a table where a decision is being made.And last but not least, the language of the system — it's incredibly cryptic. It's done for lawyers, by lawyers, and no one else can understand. So, it's a system where we can choose our authorities, but we are completely left out on how those authorities reach their decisions. So, in a day where a new information technology allows us to participate globally in any conversation, our barriers of information are completely lowered and we can, more than ever before, express our desires and our concerns. Our political system remains the same for the past 200 years and expects us to be contented with being simply passive recipients of a monologue. So, it's really not surprising that this kind of system is only able to produce two kinds of results: silence or noise. Silence, in terms of citizens not engaging, simply not wanting to participate.
There's this commonplace [idea] that I truly, truly dislike, and it's this idea that we citizens are naturally apathetic. That we shun commitment. But, can you really blame us for not jumping at the opportunity of going to the middle of the city in the middle of a working day to attend, physically, a public hearing that has no impact whatsoever? Conflict is bound to happen between a system that no longer represents, nor has any dialogue capacity, and citizens that are increasingly used to representing themselves. And, then we find noise: Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico Italy, France, Spain, the United States, they're all democracies. Their citizens have access to the ballot boxes. But they still feel the need,they need to take to the streets in order to be heard. To me, it seems like the 18th-century slogan that was the basis for the formation of our modern democracies, "No taxation without representation," can now be updated to "No representation without a conversation." We want our seat at the table. And rightly so.
But in order to be part of this conversation, we need to know what we want to do next, because political action is being able to move from agitation to construction. My generation has been incredibly good at using new networks and technologies to organize protests, protests that were able to successfully impose agendas, roll back extremely pernicious legislation, and even overthrow authoritarian governments. And we should be immensely proud of this. But, we also must admit that we haven't been good at using those same networks and technologies to successfully articulate an alternative to what we're seeing and find the consensus and build the alliances that are needed to make it happen. And so the risk that we face is that we can create these huge power vacuums that will very quickly get filled up by de facto powers, like the military or highly motivated and already organized groups that generally lie on the extremes. But our democracy is neither just a matter of voting once every couple of years.
But it's not either the ability to bring millions onto the streets. So the question I'd like to raise here, and I do believe it's the most important question we need to answer, is this one: If Internet is the new printing press, then what is democracy for the Internet era? What institutions do we want to build for the 21st-century society? I don't have the answer, just in case. I don't think anyone does. But I truly believe we can't afford to ignore this question anymore. So, I'd like to share our experience and what we've learned so far and hopefully contribute two cents to this conversation. Two years ago, with a group of friends from Argentina, we started thinking, "how can we get our representatives, our elected representatives, to represent us?" Marshall McLuhan once said that politics is solving today's problems with yesterday's tools. So the question that motivated us was, can we try and solve some of today's problems with the tools that we use every single day of our lives? Our first approach was to design and develop a piece of software called DemocracyOS. DemocracyOS is an open-source web application that is designed to become a bridge between citizens and their elected representatives to make it easier for us to participate from our everyday lives.
So first of all, you can get informed so every new project that gets introduced in Congress gets immediately translated and explained in plain language on this platform. But we all know that social change is not going to come from just knowing more information, but from doing something with it. So better access to information should lead to a conversation about what we're going to do next,and DemocracyOS allows for that. Because we believe that democracy is not just a matter of stacking uppreferences, one on top of each other, but that our healthy and robust public debate should be, once again, one of its fundamental values. So DemocracyOS is about persuading and being persuaded. It's about reaching a consensus as much as finding a proper way of channeling our disagreement. And finally, you can vote how you would like your elected representative to vote. And if you do not feel comfortable voting on a certain issue, you can always delegate your vote to someone else, allowing for a dynamic and emerging social leadership. It suddenly became very easy for us to simply compare these results with how our representatives were voting in Congress. But, it also became very evident thattechnology was not going to do the trick. What we needed to do to was to find actors that were able tograb this distributed knowledge in society and use it to make better and more fair decisions. So we reached out to traditional political parties and we offered them DemocracyOS. We said, "Look, here you have a platform that you can use to build a two-way conversation with your constituencies." And yes, we failed. We failed big time. We were sent to play outside like little kids. Amongst other things, we were called naive. And I must be honest: I think, in hindsight, we were. Because the challenges that we face, they're not technological, they're cultural. Political parties were never willing to change the way they make their decisions. So it suddenly became a bit obvious that if we wanted to move forward with this idea, we needed to do it ourselves. And so we took quite a leap of faith, and in August last year, we founded our own political party,
El Partido de la Red, or the Net Party, in the city of Buenos Aires. And taking an even bigger leap of faith, we ran for elections in October last year with this idea: if we want a seat in Congress, our candidate, our representatives were always going to vote according to what citizens decided on DemocracyOS. Every single project that got introduced in Congress, we were going vote according to what citizens decided on an online platform. It was our way of hacking the political system. We understood that if we wanted to become part of the conversation, to have a seat at the table,we needed to become valid stakeholders, and the only way of doing it is to play by the system rules. But we were hacking it in the sense that we were radically changing the way a political party makes its decisions.
For the first time, we were making our decisions together with those who we were affecting directly by those decisions. It was a very, very bold move for a two-month-old party in the city of Buenos Aires. But it got attention. We got 22,000 votes, that's 1.2 percent of the votes, and we came in second for the local options. So, even if that wasn't enough to win a seat in Congress, it was enough for us to become part of the conversation, to the extent that next month, Congress, as an institution, is launchingfor the first time in Argentina's history, a DemocracyOS to discuss, with the citizens, three pieces of legislation: two on urban transportation and one on the use of public space. Of course, our elected representatives are not saying, "Yes, we're going to vote according to what citizens decide," but they're willing to try. They're willing to open up a new space for citizen engagement and hopefully they'll be willing to listen as well. Our political system can be transformed, and not by subverting it, by destroying it, but by rewiring it with the tools that Internet affords us now. But a real challenge is to find, to design to create, to empower those connectors that are able to innovate, to transform noise and silence into signaland finally bring our democracies to the 21st century. I'm not saying it's easy. But in our experience, we actually stand a chance of making it work. And in my heart, it's most definitely worth trying.