Having previously worked for political think-tanks and in public policy, she is now intent on changing the way citizens engage with politics worldwide, one app at a time. Using technology to incite political change and reignite democracy is at the heart of Mancini’s work, with a string of non-profit collaborative projects including DemocracyOS and now OpenCollective. Mancini is not a hopeless idealist but far more pragmatic. She is certain that technology will bring about huge changes to our political system. The only question now is not if, but when.
52 Insights: It seems that many people are experiencing fatigue with regards to the political system, especially with everything that’s going on in America right now. Can you briefly describe the political atmosphere we’re experiencing at the moment?
Pia Mancini: I think that what you can perceive in this environment is an out-of-syncness. By this I mean, there’s a disconnection between the internet generation, the type of associations, ideas, movements, political organisations that the internet has enabled, and the legacy institutions that we’re forced to live under. So if I had to summarize it in one word, it would be disconnection. I think a lot of the new political movements that we’re seeing around the world are very much a reaction to that disconnect. Everyone is saying the millennial generation is very apathetic but I think that’s mistaken. They’re not apathetic, they just don’t want to engage with the current political systems.
52: I’m reminded of the quote by Mark Twain, “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” I don’t want to sound cynical but I do find myself agreeing with that. It seems as if people are unwilling to engage, that they want to leave it to the politicians. They just want to pay their tax and ignore everything else.
PM: I think that it is a consequence of our history. There was Greek democracy and I know it existed with many imperfections, discrimination against women, slavery and so on, but it was democracy as a concept at least. At that point all of those that were considered citizens could not only participate but could be selected to be in government, and from then on we’ve convinced ourselves that we the citizens cannot participate or make those decisions. For a chunk of our history, we lived under dictatorial regimes and monarchism and so when the modern nation state came around, we weren’t educated enough. We were asked to outsource our citizenship onto a group of professional politicians.
We’ve spent all this time in history internalising the notion that we can’t participate, that we can’t decide. So now we are saying, everyone can decide, we can all participate, but this notion that we can’t is still deeply ingrained. When I started talking about DemocracyOS and the Net Party and all of that, one of the first reactions I got was, “What? Everyone would be able to decide?” We are fundamentally scared of ourselves, scared of our peers making decisions that could affect our lives. I think that’s a consequence of the type of institutions that we have.
There’s this Aesop fable, the fable of the sour grapes. There’s a fox that tries to jump and grab some grapes that are hanging from a tree. He keeps jumping and jumping but he can’t get to them. So afterwards he goes away and says like, “I don’t mind, they are sour anyway.” He internalises the notion that even without trying those grapes, they are sour. Even if he could get there in the future he won’t want to jump. I think as citizens we’ve done the same thing. When at last we have the tools to make our own decisions, we hold onto the idea that we can’t. Undoing that process is going to take a long time.
52: There seem to be systemic cracks within our institutions, only made more apparent by the technological revolution. Can we be as radical as to ask, why do we still need politics?
PM: I think there’s a difference between parties and politics. I think we should question whether we still need political parties and if we still need institutions that are based on territory instead of on ideas. So that’s one conversation I’m happy to have, but politics is a different thing. Politics relates to the distribution of power among human beings and that’s impossible to decouple from our human nature.
52: What will the platform that you’re trying to create provide?
PM: Well I think it will enable movements in time to become sustainable on the internet. Obviously a lot of the movements that are born on the internet are non-territorial because the nature of the internet, but there is no way for non-territorial organisations to sustain themselves because they have no access to funding as a movement. And this happens not only in global movements but also in pan-European movements. Pan-European political parties are only an aggregation of national political parties, but if you have one big European movement then where is it based? Today we still think in terms of territories. But it’s not based out of anywhere but the internet. So okay great, it’s based out of the internet, but how do we use money to carry out our activities? Everyone draws a blank.
Then the issue of funding comes into it, you need to start using funds, from membership fees or donations, in order for your movement to make progress. What do you do if you’re a movement on the internet? At the moment you can only use bitcoin, and bitcoin still has a very high barrier for entry. So that’s the problem we’re trying to solve.
52: What inspired you to create DemocracyOS?
PM: Well the first thing I want to say is that it’s not my project only. It’s a group of amazing people and we’ve been working together for years. I was just lucky enough to explain it publically many times. Argentina is a very funny place. It’s a place where we have a lot of crisis all the time, political and economic, so the level of risk that we can take is way higher than in stable countries. In stable countries if you take risks you have a lot to lose. In a country that is in constant turmoil you have less to lose by making a mistake. So new ideas have the tendency to flourish quite easily in a country in crisis, and I think Argentina is an example of that. We started in 2012 with this idea of the Net Party and DemocracyOS, and I think that we had a big learning curve. When we started I was convinced that we could actually hack the political system. Rewire it and change the way decisions were made.
52: Right, you were idealistic.
PM: Well yes, but also I think I’ve become even more idealistic because now I think what we need to do is change the game, not the pieces in the game. We need to find ways for new institutions to be born and find ways for new and larger groups of people to define the kinds of government institutions they would like. Not necessarily fighting the current system but we need to render the current system obsolete.
52: You talk about decentralising traditional politics by changing the system. Are people ready to take on this level of change?
PM: I think what is more interesting is to find a way of building a new system, and of course it will take time for people to move from one thing to the other. Maybe a comparison you could use is Creative Commons. Instead of saying, “we’re going to bring down the copyright system and fight it”, they just built a new licensing system. They just opened it and people who were interested started using it. The comparison sort of ends there because when you’re talking about politics you’re talking about power, and governments still have the monopoly on force. But that’s how we’re thinking about things now. How can we build the scaffolding to enable institutions to arise?
52: That’s a very interesting point. So, how do we integrate more accountability into the system, for example, the richest 400 Americans have accounted for over a third of all campaign contributions in the U.S. elections. That’s a lot of vested interests.
PM: Well as I said, my focus is now Open Democracy and Democracy Earth. I think they are like the second generation of Democracy OS. What we’re doing with Democracy Earth is creating that democracy system on the blockchain. The reason for using technology like the blockchain is exactly for accountability purposes. Every decision, vote and transaction gets recorded on the blockchain and that’s available to anyone at any time. You don’t have to have permission to access those decisions.
52: What would you say is the biggest thing you’ve learnt while working in this area?
PM: If you can’t beat them, change the system. I think that we were too intent on changing the existing political institutions and what we have to do in the future is change the way these institutions are built. That’s what I’ve learnt if anything.
To continue reading the interview, go to 52-Insights Pia Mancini