According to the World Bank’s 2018 global assessment, one billion people worldwide can’t prove their identity. They lack the necessary documentation to do so. As a result, they are unable to access basic services — most can’t use banking systems, receive an education, or even own a phone. Virtually none are able to participate in political processes, like voting.
These are Earth’s “invisible people,” the individuals that society is leaving behind.
In order to secure a sustainable future, the United Nations notes that we must bring these individuals into society and give them access to official identities — that we must “provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.” Consequently, solving this identity crisis is more than just a question of fairness and equality. It is a critical part of maintaining society and creating a robust world.
At the Boma France Campfire, Primavera De Filippi, a researcher at CERSA and an associate researcher at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, noted that a revolutionary event recently took place that brought us closer to solving this identity crisis. “A European country has opened its borders by offering its services to any person wishing to become a digital resident,” she said.
The country? Estonia. For just 100 euros, anyone can now obtain an electronic identity card and access the country’s administrative services. And although the nation only launched this service in 2014, they have more than 50,000 e-residents and about 5,000 companies registered.
De Filippi continued by noting that, while this move opened a number of doors for individuals without official identities, it also created a new market for state administrative services. Already, a number of actors are working to secure their position within this market, and many of them aren’t traditional state agencies. Rather, they come from the private sector.
To offer an example, De Filippi turned to blockchain. “The Bitnation initiative aims to create a new, completely virtual state that relies on the blockchain to provide administrative services to any person wishing to become a citizen,” she said. This will allow people who currently lack legal identities to access notarization services, register birth certificates, sign contracts, and participate in the global economy. And it could, De Filippi noted, one day transform into an entirely new system of government — one that will exist in parallel with current systems.
In other words, the Bitnation initiative will compete with traditional forms of governance. Yet, De Filippi is quick to note that Bitnation isn’t the only actor trying to supplant systems typically managed by the state.
There is the The Seasteading Institute, which was founded in 2008 and received more than $1.7 million in funding from Peter Thiel. It aims to create a series of autonomous, mobile communities on top of seaborne platforms that operate in international waters. Since the ocean isn’t subject to the laws of any sovereign state, the founders argue that each individual platform will be able to operate according to its own system of governance.
Then there is Liberland, a micro-nation that was founded in 2015 on unclaimed territory between Serbia and Croatia. De Filippi noted that the ultimate goal of this micro-nation is to establish a country where “you can prosper without binding laws and taxes using a cryptocurrency-like official currency. It’s similar to Bitnation, but with a real territory.”
There’s also Burning Man, Ephemerisle, and a multitude of other temporary spaces that aim to allow people to participate in social, economic, or political experimentation. De Filippi noted that these experiments are multiplying and cropping up in nearly every region of the world; “You can go to Nowhere in Spain, MidBurn in Israel, AfrikaBurn in South Africa, or to Crème Brulée in France. Each event has its own particularities, inspired by the experiments it uses to model new systems.” And these experiments are transforming individuals and leading to what De Filippi calls “an invisible revolution.”
This revolution is defined by a collective awareness regarding new and better forms of government, an awareness that comes from “the people who go [to these experimental places], who experienced, firsthand, a different social system — who have tasted the experience of a new world and felt the contours of it.”
De Filippi acknowledged that most people are unable to attend Burning Man or travel to other locations to participate in these experiments, as they lack the financial resources to get there. She also acknowledged that most people don’t have access to electricity, say nothing about the internet or digital societies. As a result, the voices of the poorest and most marginalized are excluded from these experiments, and so there is some risk that the same inequalities and injustices will be replicated in these new forms of governance.
To prevent this, and ensure that marginalized voices are included, De Filippi emphasized the importance of focusing on the local and allowing experimentation to happen naturally. “We should not promote any one idea, but foster many experiments that are as local as possible and as close as possible to answering the needs to the individual community experimenting with it,” she said.
De Filippi also noted that individuals who travel to the larger experiments have started bringing the things that resonate with them back to their communities. “We are actually starting to see smaller and smaller events. There are many little seeds that are starting to emerge,” she said.
When it comes to responding to these new models and the social awareness that they generate, De Filippi noted that governments have two options. “Either they ignore the problem, encouraging the emergence of new, autonomous territories that arise as potential replacements for existing systems, or they take hold of this desire for change, creating these new spaces, these autonomous temporary zones, to encourage the experimentation of new governance models, which can then be smoothly re-integrated into existing models, potentially for the good of all.”