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Thoughts before the Digital Democracy Workshop

Joi Ito and I are leading a discussion at the upcoming O’Reilly Digital Democracy Teach-In (San Diego, February 9th). In preparation, I’m trying to get my head around two essays, Jim Moore’s “The Second Superpower Rears It’s Beautiful Head” and Joi’s “Emergent Democracy”. At the risk of scaring readers off with an unusually long post, I’m sharing some of those thoughts in the hopes of getting useful comments and input from my readers, especially my African readers, before this session next week.

I find Joi and Jim’s documents very useful. Jointly, they paint a hopeful, if sometimes vague, picture of how Internet communities can show us techniques and tactics that could radically change real-world politics. Where I’m uncomfortable with both essays is the fact that they extrapolate from the behavior of the people currently using the Internet to make generalizations about how a larger world might use these tools. I think it’s worth taking a close look at what happens when we try to include the developing world in the models Joi and Jim put forward – in other words, is there room for the third world in the second superpower?

“Second Superpower” suggests that a group of people are changing democracy by using a three-part model for social engagement – collect information, comment and debate, then act. These three steps are all being transformed by new technologies. While we continue to be informed by mass media, we’re also getting information from alternative media, published cheaply on the net, from weblogs, etc. We’re debating and commenting in entirely new ways, enabled by weblogs, discussion groups, instant messaging and mailing lists. And we’re discovering that these tools also make some forms of action more efficient: fundraising, protesting, and meet-ups, to name a few.

“Emergent Democracy” focuses on the third, “action” phase, and suggests that forms of decisionmaking emerging from the world of weblogs might lead to a viable form of direct democracy. In the way that ideas percolate from personal networks, to social networks, to large, political networks, reinforced by positive feedback loops, Joi sees a possible path for decisionmaking to move from individual thinking to group action.

While Jim and Joi have justifiable enthusiasm about the phenomena we’re seeing emerge from interconnected communities – the growth of blogs as an alternative to “mainstream” media, the success of grassroots campaigning in the US – this enthusiasm needs to be tempered by some skepticism about who is currently using them, and who has potential to use them. While these tools, in theory, have the potential to increase citizen involvement in collection, debate and action, in practice, they’re being used by a small, elite group.

That’s okay – all new technologies get used first by a band of early adopters before reaching the mainstream. If these early adopters realize they’re not representative of the wider world and work to bring others into the fray, there’s a chance these technologies will evolve in a way that’s inclusive. If that group forgets that they’re outliers in terms of larger society and fails to include others in the shaping of these technologies, it’s unlikely that these tools will be useful to the wider world and that the larger transformations Joi and Jim envision will take hold.

My hope, in the session Joi and I are putting together, is to try to address Jim’s three phases from a developing world perspective. (The absurdity of a geeky white boy from Massachusetts giving the “developing world perspective” is not lost on me…)

As Joi notes, for a citizen to function in a democracy, a free, engaged and critical press is essential. But from a developing world perspective, the mass media in the US and Europe is badly broken. Corporate consolidation of media, the blurring of the line between media and entertainment and the unspoken bias towards US government interests have combined to create a mass media that pays almost no attention to most of the developing world. Alternative media is of limited help in this situation – there aren’t enough bloggers in eastern Congo to give us a sense for what’s really going on, and none but the largest news agencies are able to pay the travel costs and insurance for reporters to cover these stories. The net result – we simply don’t have information about parts of the globe relevant to world debate.

Even when we do have some information about undercovered parts of the world, we have another problem, what Joi has termed “the caring problem”. People pay attention to subjects they care about. They tend to ignore subjects they know little about. Media, trying to serve its customers in a free market, responds by giving them more information on subjects they’ve demonstrated an interest in and ignoring other subjects. As a result, consumers don’t get interested in new topics as they’re not exposed to them. So even if folks blog or report about situations in the Congo, folks don’t pay attention to these reports and the noosphere remains weak in those areas.

To make the first phase of Jim’s model work for discussions of global issues, we need a media capable of covering the entire globe. That media will look a great deal different than CNN – it’s going to be built of citizen reporters reporting local events and travellers with sharp eyes and interesting perspectives reporting on more closed societies.

Rebecca MacKinnon is doing some great thinking on this front, looking for journalists, businesspeople and tourists to write about current affairs in North Korea. Dave Winer and the Berkman center Thursday Night crew are aggregating citizen journalist reports especially about the 2004 elections. But the really amazing work is being done by the folks at OhmyNews in South Korea, where citizen journalists are building an influential news site and a weekly paper magazine.

To address the caring problem, a citizen news network will need to go beyond reporting breaking news. It will also need give readers insights into the daily lives of people in other nations, much as Salam Pax gave readers of his blog an insight into Iraq preparing for, and under, attack.

Both Jim and Joi point out the value of internet-based community tools for enabling intelligent dialogue, even dialogue between people with radically opposing viewpoints. It’s worth asking who this dialogue is open to. My sense is that these discussions are open only to people with the access to the Internet (which cuts out people in countries who censor, people in unserved rural areas, as well as people who don’t have money to spend time online); primarily open to people who speak and write English well; primarily open to people who can afford to spend time online engaging in these dialogues (cutting out many people whose jobs don’t afford them the luxury of working in front of a CRT.)

What happens to a blog discussion when the participants are interacting with the medium in radically different ways? When one has always-on broadband access and the ability to Google for arguments, while the other is writing entries offline and typing them in during a limited window at a cybercafe? When one is writing in English as a third or fourth language, debating a native speaker? Does Clay Shirky’s “fair” power law favor the better argument, or just the more articulate speaker? Or perhaps just the speaker who has more cultural commonality with his or her audience?

(I’m interested in seeing what happens to communities like the Iranian weblog community. Will these communities produce their own A-list of bloggers? And will these bloggers interact with the technorati of the “mainstream” (i.e., American and European) world? Or will they not bother, as they’re writing for a different audience?)

When Joi and Jim talk about action emerging from online community organizing, I get the most skeptical. In many developed nations, especially the United States, the greatest enemy of activism is apathy. Grassroots activism may turn out to be a powerful weapon to fight apathy and encourage engagement. But apathy may not be the problem in other nations. In nations with a high deal of political repression, the enemy of activism may be threats to personal safety. In these situations, transparent public debate leading to action is likely an unwise path to political change. Can we expect democracy to emerge from Internet communities in countries where political activity is constrained and the Internet is censored? Or are we assuming that these democratizing technologies are only applicable in places where democracy and accompanying rights of free expression are already well protected?

I don’t expect anyone to have all the answers to these questions at this early stage, but I’d like to be reassured that the people creating this brave new world have these questions in mind. In designing the tools to enable communities, are we thinking about the full spectrum of people we’d like to use these tools? Are we helping people join our dialogues, or are we content to keep them out? Are we kidding ourselves when we think a set of tools used by less than 5% of the world’s population can lead to behaviors that change the whole world? Or are we committing to the long, hard project of ensuring that the whole world has a chance to participate in our conversation?