A little-understood innovation in the mysterious world of cryptocurrencies has been hailed as revolutionary, drawing comparisons with the invention of the Internet itself and of Gutenberg’s printing press.
The appeal of the technology, known as blockchain, comes largely from its combination of anonymity — it uses the unbreakable mathematics of cryptographic algorithms — and transparency. In the case of the online currency Bitcoin, every transaction is recorded in a “block” within an ever-growing ledger that’s shared between all the computers in a network. The circumstances of its invention — in 2008 by a pseudonymous figure who may or may not have recently revealed himself — remain obscure. But, crucially, the technology itself engenders a high level of trust by consensus, without the need for central authorities.
But what if blockchain was also the basis for a new kind of politics? Where Bitcoin’s proponents see a future without financial intermediaries — banks — a small group of Australians believes that the same basic idea could make the role of the politician, as we know it, obsolete.
The vehicle for this insurrection is a political party called Flux, which promises to “upgrade democracy.” It’s putting up 13 candidates for election to Australia’s Senate in federal elections July 2. Using a cellphone app, the idea goes, Australians who can prove they are registered voters will be able to tell elected proxy senators how to vote in parliament.
Online direct democracy has been proposed before — even in previous Australian elections, where a similar idea failed to win seats — but that’s where blockchain comes in. The Flux app, built on the blockchain platform, enables the trading of votes, meaning you can have a bigger say in issues you care about, and let an expert decide for you on the rest. “By letting our communities self organize, we’ll naturally end up with specialists making decisions,” a promotional video says. It is claimed that the blockchain technology also solves online voting’s problems relating to ballot secrecy, incorruptibility and verification.
Co-founder Nathan Spataro tells TIME the party’s idea chimes with voters sick of Australia’s two dominant parties, Labour and the Liberals. “People are crying out for it,” he says. In Spataro’s view, these unwieldy, unaccountable parties have hijacked representative democracy, forcing voters to compromise their views and side with the best of a bad bunch. “In 2016, when we have the ability to express ourselves so uniquely, why should we have to sacrifice our political beliefs” for a party line? he asks. Flux wants to take return power to the people.
At this stage, Flux is just running for a few senatorial positions, but its backers envision a future where such a system could replace our current politics. They are launching a startup and inviting political parties elsewhere in the world to take up the app themselves. “Flux doesn’t stop with these elections,” Spataro says, “regardless of the outcome.”
If this sounds like the kind of utopian idea one might dream up after a few too many herbal cigarettes, well, it was. “Like all ideas, I came upon it smoking a whole lot of weed,” the technical mind behind Flux, Max Kaye, discloses in the first episode of the party’s podcast (of course, Flux has its own podcast).
But Flux could be a serious proposition in an age when trust in mainstream politicians and parties is at crisis-levels, in Australia as elsewhere (see Donald Trump, the U.K.’s Brexit referendum and the rise of far-right parties in Europe). A 2014 poll by the Australian National University found that only 56% of the population believes their vote makes any difference at all, compared with 70% in 1996. Anika Gauja, an assistant professor at Sydney University’s department of government and international relations, may be understating it when she says the repeated leadership challenges — known as “spills” — within Australia’s two major parties “haven’t done much to create a positive image of how parties operate.”
If Flux does take off, there may be other dangers. Many oppose direct democracy on the grounds it doesn’t provide sufficient representation or protection for minorities. Australia’s opposition is currently warning that a plebiscite on same-sex marriage — proposed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull if his Liberal-led coalition is re-elected — could unleash homophobia.
“[The Flux idea] doesn’t really put politics to the side,” Gauja says, also warning of the danger of highly motivated pressure groups. “If you have a group who’s very passionate about an issue, they can mobilize their members to go online and vote for it. It won’t stop that aspect of politics.” Spataro says the app will tap into fringe ideas that are popularly considered to be good policy; the moderate majority would quickly nix bad ideas, he insists.
Chris Hinnant of Florida State University, a board member at the Digital Government Society, warns that those who put their faith in tech to advance society are often disappointed. Many a brainy tech entrepreneur has run aground in messy human reality. “It doesn’t happen as quickly as they think most times,” he tells TIME. Of Flux, Hinnant adds, “I don’t know if it would actually fix the problems they think it would solve. This is not just a technical problem, but a political problem.”
Spataro, for his part, is impatient to see change: “It’s 2016” is a favored refrain. Along with his Flux co-founder Kaye, he says he was motivated to get into politics after seeing politicians off all stripes launch into increasingly intrusive surveillance programs without consulting their populations (Australia is one of the “Five Eyes,” an intelligence-sharing alliance led by the United States). “All good change comes from people wanting to make the world more like they want it to be,” Spataro says. “Both of us have felt for a long time that politics is not the way we want it to be.”