Using software to inspire public debate and enable voter engagement, Pia Mancini hopes to upgrade modern democracy in Argentina and beyond.
Democracy as a system is rooted in thinking and constraints from 500 years ago. Every few years it represents a few to make decisions on behalf of everyone else. It has high thresholds of entry: you need either a lot of resources or to devote your life to politics. The language is also complicated, so we can choose the authorities but are left out of how the decisions are made. The political system is 200 years old, and expects us to be passive recipients of the monologue. This attitude itself alienates citizens – giving them no opportunities to intervene except by protest’. People want their seat at the table.
The current generation has been good at using technology to organise protests, that have overthrown totalitarian governments and changed unpopular laws. However we have not yet used the technology to change the system itself. If the internet is the new printing press, then what is democracy for the internet era? Pia asks what institutions we need to build for the 21st century, and doesn’t know the answer.
Pia and some friends in Argentina were left thinking about how we can use technology to solve current political problems, rather than relying on the tools of the past. She developed an open source app ‘DemocracyOS’, which translates issues into easy-to-understand language and allows people to informally vote on them. They could compare citizen’s votes with the votes of their representatives to see the discrepancies. When she tried to get politicians on board with the idea of a 2 way conversation with voters, she failed. Reflecting, she says she was naieve to expect the political elite to go along with this – the problems are cultural and not purely technical.
Pia took a leap of faith and ran a politcal party in Buenos Aires, with the idea that they would always vote along the same lines as the voters from DemocracyOS. To change the system, they needed a seat at the table, which meant playing by the political rules. While they did not win a seat, they did pick up 1.2% of the vote and have used their influence to have 3 bills to be voted on by DemocracyOS. Congress would not be bound by the vote, but they are at least showing willingness to consider the results.
It’s a brave product, but asking everyone to vote on a smartphone app has some issues of representation. It makes things expensive for the poor – effectively dealing them out of the issues. It also may not be trusted – security concerns could undermine the authority of the product. And a vote could still be hijacked by a small but committed group. It also may not be the best way to make complex, or unpopular but necessary decisions – eg reducing spending in some areas.
However, as time goes on and if such a product became ubiquitous, I think it could be a good system. Certainly on pure ‘conscience’ or social issues it could work. I still think for some more complicated issues it should be experts picking which way to go (which still isn’t done properly by the current system).