Interview #16 – Pia Mancini

Pia Mancini is a political scientist, activist, and visionary working at the intersection of technology and politics.

Mancini spends her days creating tools for future institutions, leveraging the opportunities afforded by blockchain technology and rising smartphone access to give people a kind of personal sovereignty never before possible. Born in Argentina, her own trajectory of living and working in multiple countries with global teams illustrates her faith that borders will become less relevant as people and information flow more freely across them.

She began her work in traditional politics in Argentina, but was frustrated by the lack of responsiveness there. In response, she created her own political party called the “Net Party” which pledged to vote in accordance with an application they created, Democracy OS,  allowing constituents to show their opinions by voting on their smartphones. While Net candidates did not win an elected seat in the parliament, the open source software was adopted by parties in countries around the world. The idea behind Democracy OS —to make voting vastly more accessible and to empower citizens to participate more in their own governance — continued in Mancini’s next project.

In 2015, Mancini cofounded Democracy Earth with her husband Santiago Siri. The Democracy Earth Foundation is using the blockchain and smart contracts, in conjunction with their own software tool, called Sovereign, to put voting online. Sovereign is “a blockchain-based liquid democracy platform that enables direct voting on issues or the ability to delegate (and revoke) voting power on specific topics to peers over a secure network without central authority.”  The foundation tested its liquid democracy platform in a Hong Kong CEO vote, and ran a pilot as part of the famed Colombia peace referendum of 2016, enabling a symbolic plebiscite vote among the diaspora of six million expatriate Colombians.

In 2016, Mancini cofounded Open Collective, a non profit that allows for a community’s funds to be collected and distributed in a transparent and decentralized manner. As power in the world becomes more decentralized and access to technology improves, Mancini sees Democracy Earth as providing tools for governance, and Open Collective offering solutions for the financing of projects.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.

Avital Balwit (Virginia Review of Politics): Thank you for joining us. What factors made you realize that tools like Democracy OS, and later Sovereign, were necessary in our current world?

Pia Mancini: I have been working in politics for a while and I always tell this anecdote, but I don't want to frame it as an “Aha moment” because I don’t believe in “Aha moments.” Things build up, when you realize something is happening. One time I was campaigning – I was head of outreach for a Governor’s campaign for the province of Buenos Aires. We were campaigning in a relatively poor area in outer Buenos Aires. Normally when you do this thing people pull you around to show you around the place. They took us to this barn in the middle of the district. And there were these construction materials and mattresses and things to build houses for people who did not have houses. But they were all stacked there and it was the middle of July, which is freezing in Argentina. I asked why they were there, where they were coming from, and where they were going. And they told me, “We are waiting for next year, because the campaign is next year.”  Right? It wasn’t obviously an “Aha moment,” but it was a moment that really emphasized the realities of this system. It was the logical thing to do for them in the current system. To build houses just before the vote once every couple of years.

Charlie Thompson: It shows how bankrupt the system is.

PM: Right, exactly. To me it was so clear, all those things were here and they could be used to help people now, but they were waiting for the campaign because that’s the logical thing to do, that’s how the game operates. So all of that is to say that it was then that I started to think more seriously about this systemic problem. I helped put together this program to prepare leaders for democracy. I helped people from the private sector who were really active citizens transition to the public sector. I helped friends of mine who I really trust and admire to be mayors and governors. But I think that showed me that it didn’t really matter. That this was the way that the system was set up.

AB: It seemed like you noticed that you couldn’t just put good people into a broken system. I think a lot of people agree with that, they see the same sort of brokenness but it comes down to the willingness to try something new and perhaps radical. I think a lot of people who even agree with the mission of Democracy Earth are startled by how big of a shift it is. They say people won’t adopt this or that governments will even be hostile to it. What would you say to people who doubt it could work?

PM: I think they are right. I think they are right to doubt it. But in general, I think there are three avenues for systemic change. The first one is a revolutionary approach where you get rid of everything and you start over again. I think that that is not an efficient or even a desirable avenue for change. There is huge human cost, and when you start you don't really know where the process is going to end. You open the gate and it becomes a free-for-all kind of situation and you end up with often very bad outcomes.

The second avenue for systemic change is incremental change. It is getting change from within the current framework. That is a bit of what we tried to do with Democracy OS and the Net Party. It is a valid avenue, but I don’t think it is going to produce the sort of systemic change that we expect. That’s because it overlooks this basic element about power: that power is conservative. It is very hard for someone in power to devolve power. It is about the incentives. The nature of power is to stay. And a lot of progress has been done with incremental change, I am not saying that it hasn’t. I think about civil rights progress. A lot of that was incremental. But we are still waiting for real change. So while incremental change is a valid avenue, I think it still will not produce the systemic change we want.

The last one, which I think is what we are trying to do, is to build another, an external system. And then to build bridges with existing systems until the new system renders the existing one obsolete, to a certain point, because I do not think the existing system will entirely disappear. We are going to need to have a conversation about the minimum amount of capabilities and monopolies we want the state to have, and what are the new jurisdictions and the new political actors – what will they look like, what sort of technology can they use. That is the sort of conversation that I think is more interesting to have. When people doubt this, I think they have reason for that because what we are doing is very experimental. And I think that is fine. I think we should be experimenting. We need to build and try and experiment and fail and learn again. The beauty of being in the extreme is that we can experiment. The center cannot afford to fail. But for us, at the border, we can fail because to fail is just learning.

AB: You are an experiment in democracy in the same way that I think this country was. And this country has not made it yet, but yours is an experiment that could possibly be even more successful.

PM: Yes, exactly. It is fine that there are doubts, I think doubts are healthy. I also think it is very difficult to think outside the current framework of the nation state. The question that I get the most is “How are politicians going to implement this?” And I go, “No, I am not talking about that, that is not the point.” The question is, “What new jurisdiction is going to use this, who are going to become the new policy makers?” That is the core. It isn’t like Congress is going to adopt this, that wouldn’t be the point.

AB: I wanted to ask about these new decision makers. While I was reading through one of your older interviews you spoke about how you believe local issues should be voted on more directly, and that bigger more complex issues should be delegated. I wonder how, with these new decision makers, will the distinction be made about what should be voted on directly and what shouldn’t.

PM: I think it will be up to the person. I think that my point is more that in certain issues – like hyper-local issues – there is more connection to their daily lives and their own knowledge. There is something about these issues being graspable. These are the issues that I think it is more likely that people will vote directly on. I think information flows more easily in those contexts. Complex or more global issues are more difficult, and I do expect to see more delegation for them.

AB: What my concern was is that when you look at this country, we have such an issue with racial prejudice. There are issues throughout our history that if they had gone to a direct vote we would have seen some sort of prejudice play out in the population. Perhaps that is an issue with every political system, but I do not know if there is a way here to protect against a majority abusing some minority’s rights.

PM: Yes, absolutely. This is all part of building the type of institutions we want. There are some issues that need to be voted on widely, and maybe some that should be more protected. That is also why I think that there will be some capabilities that nation states need to preserve. The way I see it is that we are sort of building the new institutions for the next 200-300 years. The way we do that, it is part of a larger conversation we need to have – and experimentation is crucial for that. Also, on that note, there is a lot of fear about how citizens will react. That fear is driven by a couple of things. The first thing is fear that is driven by citizens ourselves. We have not been participating in these processes in this way ever before, so we don’t know how to do it. I think it is crucial that we start doing small pilots or implementations, so that people have that exercise and that consistency.

CT: So that people learn to research and participate every day instead of doing so only every few years.

PM: Yes, yes. I am also seeing a bit of this in the fake news debate.  This idea of disliking platforms because they push fake news but then wanting the platforms to ban fake news. Instead of us taking stock with who we are and taking some responsibility. I am not saying it is all our responsibility, but it cannot only be on the businesses. It is the type of institutions we currently have that generate that sort of citizen. When the American type of democracy was created, the whole system here was built around the game amongst professional citizens, the politicians. Everyone else was sort of expected to retreat into the private sphere, go generate wealth, and leave the governing to this select group of people. If instead of having that, if we had just had a randomly selected group of citizens for our Congress – 500 randomly selected people each year – the whole system would be pointed towards creating a very different kind of citizen.

AB: So you're saying there is this sort of interplay between the institutions and the citizenry, that if you change the institutions it could create a more engaged or educated citizenry.

PM: Exactly. On the one hand, it is us who are panicking about this new amount of responsibility because we don’t know what to do, but at the same time it is this system that always told us that we couldn’t participate because we weren’t ready, we didn’t know enough. It was a system that is only concerned with a small group of people, and does not try to make the information flow into society.

CT: The system is also designed to be very opaque. The language is very hard to grasp. A lot of these issues could be spoken in simpler language – 

PM: I do that in my Spanish talks a lot. I go on stage and I read a very convoluted piece of legislation and I ask for a show of hands who has understood it. No one has usually, because it is written for lawyers by lawyers. It is designed to exclude.  

AB: That was one of the things I loved most about Democracy OS, the idea that even just translating the legislation into simple language. That is such a big step. Even before people can vote on it they have to be able to understand what they are voting on.

PM: Yeah, I think that we should still do that at Democracy Earth.

AB: A lot of people think that this that Democracy Earth is sort of explicitly political, that politics is the only use case for it. Are there other use cases you could see for Sovereign style voting?

PM: No, I think organizations of any kind can use Sovereign as a decision making mechanism.   I think there is a huge space in open source, especially crypto governance and blockchain governance. To me, Democracy Earth is both blockchain for governance and governance for blockchain. That is an area in the space that we can help with. In the cryptocurrency world there is a lot of software that needs to be developed that could benefit everyone. We are trying to get companies to do this endowment for this development.

CT: It’s like public goods for crypto.

PM: Yeah, put money all together to develop this software that is strategic. We would manage the money through Open Collective. We were discussing what the governance would be for that, and using Sovereign would be the perfect tool for governing new open source projects in specific areas of technology that are emerging. As we are moving towards a world that is going to be more distributed, the future of work will likely be distributed.

AB: That’s what I wanted to ask you about –  with Democracy Earth and Open Collective, it seems like you aren’t just forming two new organizations, but that you are forming the new structures for a new kind of world. It seems like you want to create a decentralized power structure.

PM: For me they are part of the same sort of quest to build new institutions outside the nation state. Democracy OS and Sovereign are looking at it from a governance or political perspective, whereas Open Collective is trying to do it from an economic perspective. What are the new structures that our generation needs? Open Collective is how will we fund them, and then Sovereign is the governance mechanism for these organizations. They really are part of the same vision.

CT: It might be a way to get people to adopt these to a greater degree if they start using them in their daily lives for things like votes in their school or their small town and then they work up to larger decisions.

PM: That’s why there is this push within the Democracy Earth team to have more pilots. We have a lot of work done on the philosophical vision, and now we need to craft that into applications. There is an amazing project that I cannot talk much about, but it is the idea that one billion dollars could be a budget that is executed by young people around the world. 200-300 million young people from around the world, executing this budget for humanitarian projects around the world. I find this project fascinating, and if we can contribute to this a bit with Sovereign I think that is the sort of project that we should do.

AB: People see your project and read the white paper and they are so passionate about it. I think that is the natural response when you see something so new and so bold and so idealistic about the world. You want to help it. What are the ways that people can help you? What do you need most right now?

PM: So obviously, developers can join the open source work for either project – that is, for Open Collective or Democracy Earth – on Github. Open Collective is hiring at the moment, we are looking for engineers to join our team. What we need more than anything are use cases, so create a collective or let us know if there is a pilot we can do with Sovereign. If there is a vote that we can shadow. Shadowing voting is very interesting when there is only a territorial mechanism for voting and we can do this on Sovereign at the same time. We need to learn – we need to break things and learn. Shadow voting is going to give us a lot of information. Mainly projects, and engineers, and of course our ambassadors. They are all doing amazing things. We have someone running with this in Sri Lanka, in Birmingham, in Mexican elections in July.

AB: The final question I have for you is, on top of all the work you have done with Open Collective and Democracy Earth, you are also known as the mother of the first blockchain registered citizen.

PM: [Laughs] That video is going to haunt me for the rest of my days!

AB: Does Roma change the way you view the new generation? Is there more hope or more urgency? Do you think there is something special about this newer generation?

PM: I don’t think Roma gave me that sense of urgency. I think that sense of urgency was already there. What Roma gave me was a sense of no bullshit. I don’t have time for bullshit anymore in that I improved in how I can say no to things. The time I give – to be honest – she gave me that. What has given me a sense of renewed hope for the world is the #Neveragain and the Parkland movement. I think that that is incredible. I’ve been empathizing with them so much that my skin is breaking out. I have seen so much organizing. I respect them immensely. The generation above them, I think we need to take ownership that we weren’t able to do that. We need to think about how we can help. I have seen a lot of “These kids are going to save the world.” But they are not, not unless we all do it together. There is also again that outsourcing of responsibility. I don’t want that to happen. At the same time, I can’t help but feel very impressed and inspired by this generation, chasing trolls in their own game.

AB: Thank you so much for your time!

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