GUY RAZ, HOST:
So as you've been hearing from Tim Berners-Lee and Clay Shirky, the open-source movement came from the tech world, and it's still largely a tech-based concept. But what if you could take the principles of open-source and push them out beyond technology?
PIA MANCINI: What really appeals to me about the philosophy of open-source is it's allowing for answers to appear in places that you could have never imagined.
RAZ: This is Pia Mancini. She's a democracy activist from Argentina.
MANCINI: I think it's the potential of open-source - the ability of working in a way that you'll run into untapped potential all the time.
RAZ: And Pia wants to tap that potential in our democracies to bring the open-source revolution to government because the whole system, she says, is due for an upgrade. Here's Pia on the Ted stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
MANCINI: Let's have a look at some of the characteristics of the system. First of all, the few make daily decisions in name of the many, and the many get to vote once every couple of years. On the second place, the costs of participating in the system are incredibly high. You either have to have a fair bit of money and influence, or you have to devote your entire life to politics. You have to become a party member and slowly start working up the ranks until maybe one day you'll get to sit at a table where the decision is being made. And last but not least, the language of the system - it's incredibly cryptic. It's done for lawyers by lawyers, and no one else can understand. So it's a system where we can choose our authorities, but we are completely left out on how those authorities reach their decisions. Our political system remains the same for the past 200 years and expects us to be contented with being simply passive recipients of a monologue.
RAZ: So a few years ago, Pia and some of her activist friends came up with an idea to solve this problem - the problem that democracy is really hard to participate in. And they got this idea while they were on a train in Buenos Aires.
MANCINI: I remember we were in the subway in the tube, and everyone is looking at their phones and playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds or something like that.
RAZ: Pia and her friends wondered, what if instead of playing iPhone games when we have a free moment - what if we could use those moments to contribute to our democracy? And they answered that question by inventing an app. They called it Democracy OS.
MANCINI: So what we did was start with one idea asking citizens to participate in voting and having someone inside Congress voting according to what citizens decided on this online platform. But what we wanted to do with that was to push the boundaries of what was perceived as possible and doable.
RAZ: OK, so right now you've got a beta of this, but can you explain how it works? Like I would just pull up on my iPhone, and I would scroll through, and...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...Alaska, new wilderness protection and arctic refuge...
RAZ: ...And, like, look at all the different issues being debated?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Detroit water affordability bill.
RAZ: By the way, this is an actual bill that's been debated on Pia's app.
MANCINI: In this issue in particular, I'd like to vote for it myself because I'm very informed about all the complexities of this issue. There is a space for reading exactly the bill that's going to be enacted or that it's been put forward.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The plan caps your utility payment at 2.5 percent...
MANCINI: And then there's a space to debate.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Detroit is in urgent need of water affordability measures.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thousands have already been shut off. It's time to act.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Water should be paid for through general taxation and made available to all citizens.
MANCINI: And then you vote.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: No.
MANCINI: Or you want to abstain. And so at the end of that process, you'll have a decision being made.
RAZ: So in theory, you could stay engaged with issues on your way to work. You could weigh in on the construction of a local park while waiting for coffee. You could talk about a proposed taxing increase while you're at the grocery store. Ideally, Pia wants elected officials to vote the way their constituents vote on the app. So she reached out to some politicians in Buenos Aires where she lived.
MANCINI: We said, look, here you have a platform that you can use to build a two-way conversation with your constituencies, and yes, we failed. We failed big-time. We were, you know, sent to play outside like little kids. Amongst other things, we were called naive. And I must be honest. I think, in hindsight, we were because the challenges that we face - they're not technological. They're cultural. So it suddenly became obvious that if we wanted to move forward with this idea, we needed to do it ourselves. And so we took quite a leap of faith, and in August last year, we funded our own political party, el Partido de la Red, or the Net Party, in the city of Buenos Aires. And taking an even bigger leap of faith, we run for elections on October last year, with this idea. If we want to sit in Congress, our candidate - our representatives were always going to vote according to what citizens decided on Democracy OS. It was a very, very bold move for a 2-month-old party in the city of Buenos Aires. But it got attention. We got 22,000 votes. That's 1.2 percent of the votes. And we came in second for the local options. So even if that wasn't enough to win a seat in Congress, it was enough for us to become part of the conversation.
RAZ: Now, of course, Democracy OS is not a perfect idea. If you don't have a critical mass of people using the app, you basically hand over power to the small group that does use it. And then the other problem is that every little vote becomes like a referendum, which, in some ways, makes democracy less functional. And then there's the issue of secrecy. Like, an article of faith in most democracies is the secret ballot - the right to go into a closed booth and secretly make your decision and then walk out. And I wonder if, in a sort of paradoxical way, by being so open, you actually create a slightly less free space - that, you know, the less likely it is that we will say or do what we really want.
MANCINI: Yeah - look, it's an extremely valid point, and I think it's worth iterating and prototyping every possible scenario and trying out different arrangements. There is a Korean philosopher, and he wrote this little book called "The Transparent Society." And what he says is that we are so in love with transparency and the idea of, you know, everything being out in the open that we forgot how to trust because in order to trust, you need to have something undercover - right? - because if everything is out there, what's there to trust? But I must say that in our experience, also, the anonymity of certain spaces - even more online - produce a fair amount of trolling and hate speech that hides behind those avatars or those fake names. So I think it's finding a way of striking a balance.
RAZ: Do you see open-source democracy as fundamentally changing the nature of democracy or just improving it?
MANCINI: I think fundamentally changing it, and the reason is because of the existence of the Internet. And I'm not saying it's going to happen overnight, obviously, but the impact that I think the Internet has is comparable to the impact that the printing press had. And those changes happen when certain barriers are put in place or are lowered. And what the Internet did for us was it lowered a barrier extremely quickly for us. That was the access to information and the access to being able to express ourselves on a regular basis.
RAZ: Pia Mancini is the cofounder of the Net Party and one of the developers behind the Democracy OS app. You can see her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, open-source - how sharing ideas is changing the way we live.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.