3 years ago Max Kaye was a software designer and consultant working on alternative uses for the blockchain platform, including education tools and insurance. Having studied science, mathematics and information systems at USyd but with a keen interest in politics and philosophy, he realised that the blockchain could be used for much more and maybe even provide a way for upgrading our democracy for the digital age. Now he is the deputy leader of the political party and startup company, Flux, which is looking to implement an “Issue Based Direct Democracy” for Australian parliament and maybe even overseas later down the track.
So what made you decide to take the plunge?
The first spark of an idea for Flux came about after the 2013 election. Watching the results roll in I was disappointed by all the wasted effort that went into an election, and I realised there could be a better way. The original idea was to introduce liquid democracy into the Senate, and from there the idea grew and developed, ultimately resulting in the creation of a new system of democracy – what we now call Issue Based Direct Democracy (IBDD).
During the same time I was learning more and more about epistemology and what actually goes into creating good ideas and good policy. I started thinking and developing ideas about how the exact system we use for democracy could pretty much guarantee societal progress regardless of what the majority sentiment was; exactly what we believe IBDD can deliver. When you think you have the holy grail of democracy it’s really hard not to do something about it, so we did.
(For those following along at home, The Beginning of Infinity [2011, David Deutsch] is the philosophical cornerstone of Flux. It’s a breathtakingly profound take on knowledge and creativity that unifies creativity, aesthetics, science, and morality. Recommended above all else.)
How does Flux work?
Flux operates pretty simply:
- We put up the candidates in elections and provide the software
- People vote for Flux in elections and get candidates elected
- Everyone has the opportunity to help control the elected member via an app on their smartphone
What do you want to achieve?
IBDD is a bit more subtle. Like all voting systems, the intricacies can get pretty deep, but the general concept is straight forward:
When it comes to work and education we all naturally specialise, so the distribution of knowledge in society is lumpy. If we want to get good ideas into law without having to educate everyone on everything, we need a system of reorganisation for political power to match that lumpiness. Like most democratic systems we start from the idea of one person one vote, but then we do something novel: let voters swap votes between themselves. There are a few ways we’ve come up with to do this, and all have slightly different consequences, but the main outcome is always the same; people will gravitate to areas that attract them. This might be because they know a lot about that area, or because it affects them locally, or maybe because they’re trying to stop (what they perceive to be) bad policy from passing.
The important thing here is that we can deliver a universal democratic system that allows people to have a meaningful impact in a way unique to them, no other system of democracy we know of can do that for everyone simultaneously. Achieving this is our main goal. We’re pretty confident we’re on the right track, not only because it’s backed up by explanations consistent through economics, philosophy, and science; but also because it embraces things that really motivate people: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
What a truly universal and progress-driven democracy looks like when it’s done is anyone’s guess, but we’re very confident that we’re taking the right first steps.
For our less tech-savvy readers, could you briefly explain what the blockchain is and how Flux is built from this?
What the blockchain really is is actually pretty simple: it’s a public log of messages that anyone can add to but nobody can take away from. That means that if you put a message on the blockchain nobody in the world could ever change that. Before Bitcoin began in 2009 there was no other way to do this digitally. It’s sort of like a really long public notice board with one section for each day. The rules are you can only add to it on today’s section, you can’t remove (or cover up) anyone else’s stuff, and whatever is put on there stays in its original form forever.
We use this public notice board as a basis for a voting system. Because everything is public and nothing can be changed it provides the perfect foundations, and the rest we can build with clever software and well thought out protocols.
What was the seed funding stage like? Did you have trouble getting investors on board with the idea initially?
We conducted a seed round mostly because of what we want to do in future, rather than what it gave us right away. I put in more than 60% of it myself, so we didn’t really talk to many investors, and the ones we did talk to we already knew, so we didn’t have much trouble there. That said, now that we’re out and public we’ve had a few VCs and potential angels contact us, some of whom were already members before the startup side of things was public.
We realised we could run Flux with a sort of hybrid-startup model in October or November of 2015, though we weren’t really certain that’s what we should do until February or so. It’s unconventional, but having the option of raising further rounds from investors gives us a funding avenue that no other competing movement has, and we couldn’t ignore that opportunity.
Could you elaborate on exactly how your hybrid-startup model works?
Well as a political party we’re not-for-profit by definition, but with overheads and software development, money has to come in somehow. The tech we’re working is incredibly valuable – not just for government and since the Flux software is flexible, we see the startup side as working by providing a voting platform for things like corporate governance and organisations, local community groups etc… Basically, this software allows people to form their own little democracies, much like a Facebook group. This has the additional benefit of giving current and future investors peace of mind that our tech has commercial uses too. We’ve already had a bit of interest on that side of things which is great.
Just in the past few weeks your membership and advocates have grown exponentially! How unexpected was this, and can you talk a bit about what you think Flux has which grabs people’s attention?
I guess we always knew the election would draw us more attention, though we didn’t really know what to expect. In many ways, we overestimated some numbers, and vastly underestimated others, often being totally wrong about exactly what would bring us new members.
I think it’s certainly the case that as politics becomes more topical, especially how ineffectual it can be, people look for new options. The idea of personally impacting politics is the main motivation for some, for others it’s about getting rid of an elite class of decision makers in favour of something that empowers the people more generally, though for me the most exciting part is the dream of having a political system that just works without constant attention and ultimately fades into the background because it’s more like boring infrastructure than a dysfunctional circus.
What do you say to the people who consider Flux to just be another blockchain gimmick?
I guess the only thing I’d bother with is to point out that to get anything new (I.e.: a well functioning political system) we need to try things that haven’t been tried before, and then to ask if they’d rather a world where nobody tries new things. At the end of the day, I think it’s not going to do a whole lot of good to talk with people who dismiss ideas before learning about them, so I’d rather spend time building the movement and executing on the idea than wasting words on deaf ears.
Can you talk a bit about what merging the two mindsets of a startup and political party was like, and some of the challenges associated with that?
We made a huge mistake keeping the startup idea a secret for so long. Because it’s so unconventional it wasn’t something community members accepted without due scepticism and inevitably that meant some of our more active members felt they had to leave. Initially, we wanted a tight family of organisations, though we’re now finding that we’ll probably need to move the startup out of the core brand to better help manage expectations across the board. We definitely made more work for ourselves because of how we handled things and if we’d been upfront about it in February we probably would be in a much better position now.
With the election now come and gone, are you happy with how Flux has performed thus far breaking into the minor party scene? What are your plans moving forward?
This is a tricky question; we’ve made it further than most people ever do, but at the same time there’s still a vast gap between us and winning a federal seat. It became apparent to us (really quickly) how incredibly difficult what we’re trying to achieve actually is, and jumping straight into federal elections was maybe a little naive, though it has taught us a lot. After all was said and done we aren’t that happy with how we did, but everything at this stage is a learning experience, and we’ll keep moving forward.
The next steps are state and local elections. With NSW council elections in a few months we’re hoping to pick up some local seats to give us a good (and de-risked) platform to start developing from, with early iterations before the end of the year. State elections are another target but we’ll need to build far stronger communities before we can expect to win seats consistently.
What kind of things did you learn by jumping into the deep end with the Federal election?
On the startup side of things: don’t spend a lot of money for the sake of it! As for the political party side, time constraints were a big challenge. It forced is to stray away from our original software development goals and obtain a more traditional party structure, so we missed the mark on what we wanted to do there. We focussed too much on the election and not enough on the software development, so we’ll be moving more towards that in future.
How about international goals for Flux?
We’re definitely looking at making Flux available overseas. The nice thing is we don’t actually need as much structure as traditional parties in order to achieve that. Short term we’re looking at NSW election in a few months, and the WA one next year which we’d really like to be prepared for. In terms of an international wishlist, I’d say New Zealand is up there for me since it’s much easier to get elected. In more developed countries like the US and UK it’s extremely hard to break into since you need a huge part of the population backing you.
I noticed Flux has its own subreddit, can you comment on how community involvement will play a part in Flux in the future?
What we’re really aiming to achieve is a self-sufficient system as soon as possible. During the election it was chaotic trying to respond to all social media channels, so in the future, we’re looking to crowdsource things like Facebook messages, so people who’ve signed up for Flux and are passionate about it can get involved. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as making someone as an admin on the page, but it’s an idea we’re looking at. Community cultivation is one of the next big tasks for us.
Bitcoin has now become a major force in the world’s economy and continues to grow in popularity. Do you see Flux taking a similar route in world politics, and can you think of any other places blockchain-based tech might go next?
Absolutely. We see Flux taking a similar trajectory. There are so many democracy 2.0 movements out there that something has to succeed sooner or later, and Flux’s unfair advantage is a model for, and understanding of democracy that is far deeper and ergonomic than most others’. There is, of course, always the possibility that we’re wrong in our approach and something else will rise in popularity alongside cryptocurrencies and blockchains. I think we’re coming to a crux though, and sooner or later one of these projects will succeed. What we can predict is that movement will be exponential, will need to be well suited to the human condition, and has to be software based. Luckily Flux meets all three criteria, which is why we’re so optimistic.
It’s becoming more and more obvious that the impact of blockchains will go far beyond fintech, and that’s exciting because they’ll enable forms of community to arise that previously were impossible. Nobody can predict what the results of that will be because that entire process will be incredibly creative and knowledge-rich. Generally speaking, though, I think a lot of dreams in the 90s on what the internet could enable will be more fully realised when blockchains become integrated with everyday life. Hyperconnected, hyperintelligent communities will be able to build themselves around new models, mathematically distinct from every kind of community we’ve lived in before, but it’s up to us to create that. I have a feeling we’ll start seeing blockchains move into everyday places: like DRM of all kinds (be that gaming communities, or music streaming services), or integrating with industry supply lines streamlining automation, tracking, and insurance. It’s really up to us to be the creative engine behind all this, so what comes of all this is both unpredictable and infinite.