Santiago is the founder of Democracy Earth, an open source platform for governance and community participation.
A former video game developer turned activist-slash-founding member of Argentina's political party Partido de la Red, Santi takes us on a walk through NYC's central park to talk about the future of democracy. We explore the intersection between democracy and the internet to understand how technology can help make governance better - in the democratic systems of our future, as well as in any other community we’re building.
And because we like to keep our episodes unpredictable, this one features the lovely–yet sometimes distracting–chirping of birds on a spring day in New York City’s Central Park. Ladies and gents, here is episode 19 of the Community Podcast with Santiago Siri.
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We selected and transcripted a few key parts of our conversation with Santiago, so you can read and share them.
From mining big data to founding a political party
10 years ago I was managing my second startup, a company called Popego, where we did data mining, big data applied to social media, we worked for some large brands like Unilever, Pepsico, Mondelez, and I was probably watching how women talk about straightening their hair on Twitter and giving insights to Unilever about that. [...] one day I got a meeting with this guy that came from Mexico, that wanted to hire our services for the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party], which is one of the most important political parties in Mexico. There was a presidential campaign coming along, they wanted to do data analysis on all the candidates. I was very much aware of what the technology or the data really can tell about stuff, and that was a moral choice, I really wasn’t willing to, you know–it's one thing to sell this stuff to the Unilevers of this world, which at the end of the day are just trying to sell you shampoo. [...] but to sell a political candidate, which I had no idea about, and that came also from a very important party, which is well known for being extremely corrupt–that was a moral choice, it confronted me with the real power of what technology can achieve and what our data can say about society. I said no to that.
A couple of years later, I was invited for the first time as a young entrepreneur to an event of the World Economic Forum. And it was my first time in that kind of event. I was used to technology conferences, I was never in a conference of the scope of what the WEF can do. And I found myself suddenly surrounded by the King of Spain, or the president of Mexico, or very, very powerful people. My first thought being there was “what the hell am I doing here, and what can I do with this?” It was a transition, trying to figure it out–you know, I always liked politics, I grew up reading history and in love with great iconic heroes of Argentine politics, or figures like Che Guevara, and revolutionaries like that, so I always wanted to pursue something in politics but I never felt it was my place, because it's definitely a place with a rhetoric that belongs to another century; but when I found myself in that event in the WEF, I met other young leaders from different countries, from different places in Latin America, including my now friend Georgio Jackson, who’s now congressman of Chile. I was probably 27, he was probably 25, and it struck me as surprising because Giorgio was the leader of the student movement in Chile, coming from the left, but at the same time he was someone that spoke my language, he spoke about memes, about digital culture, about Twitter. To me it was a revelation to see someone being a very strong, very popular leader in Chilean politics at the same time speaking a language that really connects with my generation. So when I got back from that, is when, in 2012, I decided I should do something with politics, instead of selling my technology to politicians, I should try to do a whole new concept of a political party.
So 2012 is when we started the Partido de la Red, along with some colleagues and friends, and we knew that we had an election in 2013, things started getting crazy really fast. And I think it was a bit of that inspiration of growing as an entrepreneur, being connected to a community of leaders from my region, from my generation, being inspired by those leaders. [...] In 2012 I also got rid of my company, it was acquired by a larger Brazilian company, by 2014 I finalized everything related to the for-profit universe, and at the same time the party grew in influence and power. The story of the Partido de la Red connected me with the political class in many countries. I ended up meeting very interesting people from all around the world, because we were trying to innovate in a field where no one, absolutely no one innovates, and the fact that we were able to run for elections in 2013, I think was a huge achievement on our end, even though we didn't get the candidate elected–I think that's a good thing in hindsight–but yeah, we got to learn about how power and politics work in a country like mine, in a region like Latin America. And this was all contemporaneous to the rise of new protocols like Bitcoin, that were also an incredible opportunity to start thinking about the institutions and technology in our political and economical life like never before.
Reverse engineering politics
Young people are asking simple questions like “why can't we tell our congressmen how to vote over the Internet?”, stuff that I can now understand better why it might sound naive to the political class, but I still think these are simple goals worth pursuing. [...] There's a new wave of digital parties and new ways of trying to engage with politics, because we have better tools for transparency and for managing finances, for committing our vision to our promises.
DemocracyOS was the first version of our software, our philosophy was that, if we were to do software for democracy, it needs to be open source. So we started with a very simple version of Facebook where people just post content, debate and vote, and we saw very rapidly the software being implemented in many different contexts around the world. We saw Tunisian NGOs translating the software to Arabic and using it to debate the new Tunisian Constitution after the Arab spring, we saw Mexico using it, we saw a political party in Spain, so there was clearly a demand for these type of tools in politics. In 2014 we got invited to a global TED talk, which gave us a lot of international exposure, so we got to tell the story of our party to the world. We ended up applying to Y Combinator and we got accepted, which was an opportunity to start working with the best technologies in the world, and being connected to an extraordinary network of people that have been thinking about this for many years. So in 2015 we flew to Silicon Valley, lived in San Francisco for two years, and that's where we started the Democracy Earth foundation, by putting a much stronger emphasis on the technology, and exploring what blockchain-based networks allow in terms of creating systems of governance.
The politics of digital networks
Humans are hard. With our party, when we suddenly found ourselves under a lot of attention, a power struggle emerged, historical divisions in society that maybe were not present at the beginning because everyone was focusing on a common goal; after that goal is achieved, then those divisions–call them Democrats and Republicans, or call them left and right, or whatever–those divisions naturally emerge. So when dealing with politics, it's very much important to also understand the historical legacy and historical context that you're within. And I think crypto networks are facing that process as well. If you look into the politics of what's going on with Ethereum or Bitcoin or any such network, you will find very strong tribes with very strong positions competing for resources. So all this is down to a problem of governance, and how technology can help make governance better, more legitimate, more transparent, more efficient, with better decisions. And it's a huge challenge, it’s trying to answer the question of whether the Internet can improve or democracies, you know, that's where we started from. If you look at all crypto projects out there, the more stake you have on a network, the more influential you become in that network, so really every single network out there is pretty much plutocratic, and what we're trying to figure out is: how can you deploy democracies over the Internet that can be censorship resistant? We are providers of governance infrastructure to existing crypto networks, BlockStock and Decentraland, and we obviously understand the conflicts and the challenges that happen within their communities, but we hope to make the decisions emerging from these communities the best ones and the most legitimate ones. I think democracy has this ability to guarantee legitimacy, and when the disagreements are very strong, the more important democracy becomes.
Why democracy matters
Democracy is really a work in progress. It's never a complete or absolute idea, otherwise it would be a totalitarian ideology, just like every other ideology in the political spectrum. Democracy is the one exception, it’s the ideology of how we make decisions, not a strict agenda on how to move forward. It embraces asking questions, free speech, diversity. It’s a very powerful tool. It can be used with very dangerous outcomes, you know, Hitler was elected, but the nice thing about democracy is that it's able to include everyone's voices in the decision making process, and make sure that these decisions are taking into account the needs of the majority. [...]. The election of Donald Trump took the world by surprise, in Brazil we saw the election of Bolsanaro, who’s a former military guy. I would argue that democracy working well means it allows the emergence of outsiders of the establishment to take power. In that respect, Donald Trump was not a Washington guy, Bolsanaro was a fringe politician coming from the Brazilian right. So, you know, the fact that they were elected means that at least these democratic systems are allowing for novelty, for change. And that's where democracy is actually very dynamic. It is the one system that can cope with change. Otherwise we would have the Hillary Clintons of the world constantly being in power, the Clintons and the Bushes, the Clintons and the Bushes. That’s not really democracy, I don't think so. Of course, Trump is a product of the elite. The thing about all democratic systems is that they are really systems of legitimization where, you know, the elites choose the candidates and then these get legitimized with society, but society never really elects anyone. These systems are not really buttom-up, they’re pretty much top-down.
Today, with the rise of social media and the Internet, we are seeing more polarization, more and more people in social media follow only those who agree with them, or only those that share the same views, which leads to endogamy and echo chambers and fanatism. And this is a consequence of the emergence of new communication, new technology, and it's not dissimilar to other periods in history. The rise of the radio and telecommunication in the early 20th century eventually led to the rise of fascism and communism and radical agendas that took power and stayed in power for a very long time. But I think that democracy is a system that, when it has strong institutions, can allow for some of these experiments. You can have a fascist in power for four years–eight at the maximum–but then you have to change. And, you know, the virtue of alternation can work very well. [...] It's this alternation of power that allows keeping each side in check. We all have a little communist and a little fascist hidden inside our brain. So the best way to keep the communist and the fascist in check is certainly by allowing for some alternation in power. That puts risk to whoever is in power. So, in that sense, I think democracy is a very good tool.