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PDF: Rebooting the System

I’m in New York City today at the Personal Democracy Forum conference, the fifth iteration of a conference hosted by Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry on technology, democracy and innovations in both fields. It’s the sort of event that attracts an amazing audience – I’m sitting between Jay Rosen and Craig Newmark, two people who’ve got a lot to say about technology and democracy. Indeed, there’s a temptation just to talk with my neighbors and ignore the smart folks on stage.

The theme for this year’s conference is “rebooting democracy”. As Sifry explains, “reboot” implies restarting an operating system, perhaps because certain applications are “not responding well”: Congress, the White House, mainstream media. The rebooting has begun with innovation in the online world. “We’ve got blogs that are more truthful and responsive than big pundits.” We’ve got wikis that allow people to share policy ideas, and mashups that reveal otherwise hidden data. “The internet is already starting to reboot our political system.”

These changes, coming from the technology community, are “bubbling up from below” and changing government structures. Bureacrats are blogging, and there’s evidence that the TSA is actually listening to comments from readers on their blog. Within the intelligence community, people are using wikis to share information across silos. These early experiments in collaborative governance suggest that the geeks are starting to have an effect on the bureacrats, and that we’re having an influence on the political climate and culture.

Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Duke University and an online innovator in the Howard Dean campaign has a useful ammendment to Sifry’s hopes. She draws a distinction between two ways of talking about the internet and politics: the industrial way, and the democratic way.

The industrial way of talking about the internet and politics looks at the amazing, huge things that campaigns have been able to conduct online: Obama has registered a million contacts on Facebook, and has raised tens of millions of dollars from small donors online. We tend to talk about these sorts of models with “a certain awe, like looking at a steam engine.” These systems are very powerful, but they’re not very participatory.

“What if we build architectures where people actually have power?” Teachout asks. Here she looks to the long American tradition of voluntary associations. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that these associations were the great innovation in the American system of government, training people in the structures of democracy. Early in the last century, 5% of Aericans were presidents of voluntary associations. “They were able to change the rules of the road”, exerting political power.

Teachout wonders what we’d see voluntary associations focusing on today, if that tradition were not in decline in the US. We might see associations demanding innovation in transportation, organized efforts to reduce private car use, and creative solutions to petroleum dependency. Teachout challenges us to look at the conference by asking ourselves “Is what’s being offered an industrial innovation or a citizen one? Are we distributing power, or just tasks? Are these systems treating us as citizens or as useful volunteers?”


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