The sisyphean task of decentralizing democracy

5 minutes
Oct 04, 2019
The sisyphean task of decentralizing democracy

Are you a libertarian right-winger or an anarchist leftist? Do you spend your time in Silicon Valley or writing cryptography papers? Perhaps you are a fan of Mr. Robot - or Edward Snowden. Then you might have heard of decentralization, the term which became mainstream in the past decade. Bitcoin, "blockchain", and "cryptocurrency", reached almost everybody at some point. Even more so, after the economic collapse of 2008 people turned to the new technology for economic fairness and equality. Is decentralization compatible with democracy though?

What does decentralization mean though? In computer science, a decentralized computer system has no single point of failure. In other words, it is software which runs on many computers around the world. You can destroy some of them, but the others will keep running. In completely decentralized systems, like open blockchains, there is no limit to participation. From a supercomputer to your smartphone, every device can join the "blockchain system". There are various caveats in building such systems though. First, the software cannot change unless all computers, or at least a majority of them, agree so. Second, it should prevent a person from creating fake identities. In cryptography we call this "sybil resilience". Have ever used many emails to vote multiple times in online contests? Congratulations, you have successfully deployed a sybil attack.

On the other hand, democracy is a most used, and often brutalized, term. Usually it is used instead of freedom of speech, or to describe a simple badge of participation. In other words, everything other than its original meaning. For democracy, as we often tend to forget, is the system which assigns equal power to every citizen. For instance, representative democracy assigns 1 vote per person, as we experience so well. And herein lies the unsolvable conflict between decentralization and democracy.

Let's imagine a completely decentralized democracy. Here, every citizen of the Earth can freely participate and vote. That is, a decentralized democratic system needs to include everybody. Before looking for technical difficulties in tracking down all human beings on Earth, I can assure you, the root of the problem is much deeper. Decentralization means no single point of failure. It means that there is no single authority to enforce any policy - not even a registry. Instead, a decentralized system is built on unambiguous rules, written in crystal clear language. Only as long as someone is allowed by the rules, and follows them, they can take part. Thus, a decentralized democratic system needs to embed a definition as to who is a person.

Now, try to imagine a set of rules to define a human being - pretty hard, right? In fact, it is one of the most interesting open questions in Artificial Intelligence. Depending on your worldview, it is even a question that may never be answered. Is this it then? Is there no way to create a non-centralized system that accepts humanity on an equal basis? Some people beg to differ. Let's have a system, they say, where new members can join after invitation from existing ones. Such system could start with a few people and gradually spread. Relating to how many people should vouch for you (a few? a majority? everybody?), "well, this is up to whomever creates the system, but at least we have taken a good first step", they might say.

Alas, this argument forgoes the roots of democracy itself. The crucial point that it misses is that the human condition should not be up for interpretation by anybody. For democracy not only serves the will of the many, but also protects the basic human rights of the few. For instance, take a system where a majority of people can remove somebody from existence - is this democratic? And here lies the tragedy. Much like Sisyphus, we may work sleepless nights to produce secure, ever-lasting computing systems. Then, one inch before the top of the hill, we seem unable to infuse them with this old, but most important notion, democracy. Once again, we are reminded of technology's true nature, as a tool that serves, but never replaces, the ideas that philosophy has bequeathed to us.