Consensus democracy with decentralized technologies

This is an article, based on a presentation I made at the meeting “Artificial Intelligence, Ethics, and the Future of Democracy”, March 10, 2018 at the Vatican Gardens, Casino Pio IV.

Thiago Rondon
Consultor em tecnologias cívicas

There is disbelief that humans can operate our democracies. In the age of sensors that collect data in public places, in our homes and in our intimate, we are building huge data silos with the feeling that there is a new confidence structure to respond to our needs in an individualized way, just as there is a collective intelligence being organized for our well-being.

We are also cyber citizens. However, for a variety of reasons this data structure is not being used as it should and has been a risk to democracies around the world with loss of privacy, misinformation, and software acting as humans with the aim of influencing decisions and debates of public interest.

Mental models provoked by decentralized architectures such as blockchain has inspired radical transparency projects in political parties, elections and bills.

The persuasion developed by digital applications based on psychology and behaviour must stimulate a consensus in our relationships.

There is a huge need to build an ecosystem of civic technologies so that our democracies do not become automated simply because of an exclusive need for cybersecurity or debate difficulty.

Difficult Consensus

Dave Clark, one of the Internet pioneers, made a presentation at the IETF in 1992 with the following statement:

We reject: Kings, Presidents and Voting.

We believe in: Difficult consensus and execution code.

To this day, I find no better vision than this for civic technologies. Rejecting that a single person makes decisions, or even a simple voting system determines the majority, obstructs definitely equity.

The learning process is more important than decision-making. The lack of disagreement is more important than the agreement.

Approximate (or difficult) consensus is when everyone is sufficiently satisfied with the chosen solution, so that they have no specific objections on the subject. Consensus should be the start or the beginning of the conversation, not the end or the destination.

Civic technology is any technology developed by approximated consensus to empower citizens or create governments more accessible, effective and efficient.

The digitization of democracies faces a major challenge, which is to prevent technologies from making decisions without building consensus with humans, and to lose a window of opportunity to update democracy so that it is more ethical and fair.

Democracy is always a work in progress, it’s never an absolute idea or it would otherwise be a totalitarian ideology just like all the rest of them.

— José Mujica, former Uruguay president

The start of decentralization

While scrutiny and criticism of government has been a tradition of human society, the notion of transparency and access to government information is a fairly modern idea that can be attributed to the Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, in the XVII and XVIII centuries. The explosion of the “printed culture” in Europe in that moment included newspapers, books and essays, and was linked to a revolution in thinking and finally to the American and French revolutions.

But today, there is the concept of open government, which is the opening of government processes, procedures, documents and data for scrutiny and public involvement, is also considered as a fundamental element of a democratic society. Both greater transparency and public participation can not only lead to better policies and services, but also promote the integrity of the public sector, which is essential to regaining the confidence of citizens in the neutrality and reliability of public administrations.

Governments as a platform will be developed in a decentralized, and inevitably increasingly automated way, and probably away from people.

But there are already those who think about it, the personal data protection law of Estonia, which already deals with the automation of decisions, says:

The taking of a decision by a data processing system without the participation of the person concerned (to follow automated decision) to assess the character, skills or other characteristics of the person concerned that results in legal consequences for the person concerned or significantly affects the person concerned is prohibited.

There are two exceptions in the law, but even in them, before making an automated decision, the person concerned must be comprehensively informed of the process and the data processing conditions on the basis of which the automatic decision will be taken.

It is the technology that we do not control that is used to control us.

— Emiliano Kargieman, space hacker

Lessons from financial decentralization in virtual currencies

In recent times, we have also seen the emergence of technologies as a financial alternative to paper currency: the crypto currencies, which have highlighted their blockchain technology that keeps records in a transparent and reliable way.

There is hope in using this framework as it is used in large projects surrounded by challenges of anonymous identity users, hackers, scammers, pirates, trolls, criminals and more. And yet, it proves itself reliable to achieve one thing: Prove that all the transactions carried out by this network in the past are true.

But they have proved weak in one requirement: Their development and future are vulnerable to the centralization of power of the so-called miners.

The architecture of the blockchain has just become an environment for oligarchies; it becomes necessary to build strategies to combat this failure.

In general, they are vulnerable to the “51% attack”, that is, the majority always wins over the consensus of the network. There are a number of strategies adopted to combat this, many of them linked to economic issues, in large virtual currencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.

But, and in democracy? It is clear that only the vote is not the way.

But there is an important currency to accompany its development, and that is managing to control the oligarchies of the blockchain functioning structure, which is Decred.

An open, progressive crypto-currency with a community-based governance system integrated in its blockchain, recently announced a system of proposals that allows users to participate in governance, a very important milestone to decentralize in practice the power of blockchain networks in the crypto-coins, thus making it possible for all stakeholders to vote on the protocol changes.

To create a sustainable governance system, we have created a Constitution project and broadened the notion of consensus “hybridization” to apply more generally as one of several layers in a stratified consensus system. This stratification allows several stakeholder groups to have representation across multiple layers of consensus.

— Jake Yocom-Piatt, decred developer

Silvio Micali, a professor at MIT, says incentives should be the last alternative to be used in blockchain networks, as they can create negative issues to deal with, such as infrastructure centralization, as is currently the case with Bitcoin.

Lessons of communication decentralization

Social networks have been shown, as the world’s largest organizations in numbers, such as Facebook and Twitter, various challenges on consensus building. Much is said about a decentralized information network. But in the case of Facebook the fight is with the algorithm, and on Twitter with the robots.

At a time when there is much talk about misinformation, cultural bubbles and the use of robots as an infrastructure to disseminate facts. It is important to highlight some points:

● We are currently experiencing a time of empowerment of language and communication by far more people. Before the Internet, few people were communicators or content replicators.

● In Brazil, a country currently experiencing political, ethical and economic crises, about 15% of the population are interested in and talk about politics on social networks. It’s an incredible number.

The great challenges we have to deal with the great social networks within democracy are:

● Segmented and polarized speech, which makes consensus impossible for politicians to perform.

● Knowledge of the individual population’s interest in private networks, which have developed a business model for advertising, but which is now impacting democratic decisions.

● Artificial stimuli to cultural wars, which is being used to move away from building consensus. Polemics, such as drugs and the population’s armament, have been used to position other subjects.

And all research in general, point out to several solutions, but what everyone seems to agree on is the need for education, whether in information consumption or in digital technologies.

What is happening today is that much more than replicating information, we are voting on which information is relevant.

The IETF, which uses consensus as a form of decision-making, on its methodology texts explains: “We do not try to reach consensus as an end in itself. We use consensus building as a tool to get the best technical (and sometimes procedural) expertise when we make decisions. Time has shown us that traditional voting leads to games of the system, “compromises” of the wrong type, that the opinions of minorities are ignored and, over time, we have worse results.

Lessons on violent games

Many researches, but important to emphasize a special one made by Greg Toppo in the book “The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter” affirms that children do not become violent by playing violent games, but they get violent by the human relations that it has out of the games.

Psychologist J. Ronald Gentile, found that children and adolescents who played more violent games were likelier to report “aggressive cognitions and behaviours.” They concluded that violent video games “appear to be exemplary teachers of aggression.” They also found that eighth and ninth graders who played violent games more frequently displayed greater “hostile attribution bias” (being vigilant for enemies) and got into more arguments with teachers.

Games are technologies that have taught and prepared us to deal with existing human behaviours.

Lessons about the use of robots

The cover of Science magazine for the month of March 2018 is about how the news are spread, and the best summary to understand the use of robots today would be this: “Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it. “

I believe that the window of opportunity is precisely the development of technologies that can help humans to behave in a way that is not binary, not a vote, a sharing, or a like.

For this reason, consensus is an important weapon to be developed as social and digital technology.


I believe we can use political power to build consensus with technology, with the goal of creating a society more just and objective with our real needs.

However, only decentralized technologies will not solve the problem of public debate or the construction of the public good.

I believe that inequality will only be a community problem if it becomes a moral issue.

If we do not put everyone to discuss together with their moral and spiritual convictions, we will continue without improvement. As several studies show, our boundary to form a united group is limited, for a number of issues, such as time, interest, and space. Are there technologies that increase this limit within the community we live in?

We have already used technology to approach and form communities based on our personal interests, and it has already been proven that it is possible to unite large groups of people. But democracy needs to go further, to create technologies that can guide us, teach and respect our local communities, which in fact impact our public space and sense of justice.

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