My head is still spinning pleasantly as I come down off the last few days spent up in Camden, Maine at the 10th annual PopTech conference. This was my first time at this seminal gathering of technologists, creatives, visionaries and analysts, but it won’t be the last. I’ve been to a lot of conferences over the last few years, and while I am still searching for my personal sweet spot amid the scenes at ETech, Web 2.0, PC Forum, Politics Online, Wikimania, and of course Personal Democracy Forum. there were many moments where PopTech definitely hit the spot for me.
The theme of the conference was “Dangerous Ideas.” Sometimes I think that came out more as “Dangerous Questions,” but since so many powerful ideas start out, by definition, as challenges to the status quo, this made sense.
One big idea that came up again and again in different forms was “the power of many,” or how simple actions by large numbers of actors can create beautifully complex and influential structures. Some ways this came up:
-Brian Eno‘s discussion of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” that complexity and intelligence arise from simplicity, from below and not from above.
-Will Wright, the designer of the Sims games, who talked about how his next game Spore is designed to give its players tremendous design capabilities that will, as they play the game and design new creatures, feed back into the main game server and thus collectively improve the experience of everyone else playing the game.
-Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired and author of the book The Long Tail, who talked about what happens when things that were formerly scarce become free.
[If you want more details on what each of these guys, as well as the many other wonderful speakers, had to say, I highly recommend Ethan Zuckerman, who blogged the hell out of them.]
Anderson’s comments in particular resonated with the work I’ve been doing, looking at how technology can open up politics. The critical change that is happening in media today, Anderson argued, is the death of a model based on scarcity. Because paper and ink are scarce, and the cost of distributing newspapers or magazines is high, editors have always been incredibly picky about what they publish. That model gets turned upside down by online media, he said. You can publish everything and let readers do the filtering for you (a la Digg), instead of pre-filtering information for them. And this has all kinds of positive effects: the old paternalist system of editorial control can move to a new egalitarian system of editorial collaboration; top-down moves to bottom-up where participation is valued; and command-and-control systems can become out-of-control systems where creativity is rewarded.
I think there are lots of places in our political process where the same can happen.
Instead of thinking of political resources (money, information, people) as scarce and vital to control from the top down, what happens if we think about using the internet to open politics to much larger networks of involved citizens, either when we participate in our interactions with government representatives or when we participate in campaigns for issues or candidates? How can we use the abundance of people who want to contribute something to making government work better, or getting a person elected or an issue moved, in better ways?
About a month ago, Jeff Jarvis wrote a great blog post explaining how networked news differs from top-down broadcast news. It got me thinking that we can do the same thing for networked government or activism. First, here’s what Jeff wrote:
I was asked to define networked news. Good question. Here’;s my answer. What’s yours?
Journalism must become collaborative at many levels. News organizations should come to rely on citizens to help report stories on a large-scale level (e.g., some of the projects we’;re considering at NewAssignment.net), at an individual level (citizens contributing reports to news organizations’ efforts), and as a network (news organizations supporting citizens’ own efforts with content, promotion, education, and revenue).
Journalism will become collaborative not only on this pro-am level but also pro-to-pro (we need not and cannot afford to send our own reporters to some stories just for the sake of byline ego but we can link to and bring our readers–and help support–the best reporting from other outlets).
The net results include:
* A change of the role of journalists–and their relationship with the public–from owners of the story to moderators, editors, enablers, and educators.
* A vast broadening of the scope of journalism and news: together, we can gather and share more news than ever. The definition of news will also expand.
* Improved quality of journalism, as, with the help of the public, we have more means to get stories and get them right.
* A new architecture for news: one outlet does not own it all but becomes a gateway to much more (not just current news but also background and perspective).
* A new efficiency in the news industry, which it must find as revenue declines.
* New opportunities to act entrepreneurially, to develop new products and means to serve the public on a smaller scale with new partners.
Now, borrowing heavily from good Professor Jarvis, imagine applying that same way of thinking to representative government and political activism. First to government:
Representative government must become collaborative at many levels. Our elected representatives and government agencies should come to rely on citizens to help report problems that need solving and ideas for solving them on a large-scale level (e.g., a wiki for government action), at an individual level (citizens contributing reports to inform their own representatives efforts and as feedback on the job they are doing), and as a network (government offices supporting citizens’ own efforts with by giving them a way to connect to each other, offering informed content, promoting the ideas that bubble up, etc.).
Representative government will become collaborative not only on this representative-citizen pro-am level but also representative to representative (i.e. pro-to-pro). That is, politicians and government bureaucrats need not and cannot afford to send their own staffers to amass expertise on some subject just for the sake of political ego but they can link to and bring their constituents–and help support –the best ideas bubbling up from other citizen-representative collaborations.
The net results include:
* A change of the role of representatives and government officials–and their relationship with the public–from holders of all power and information to community convenors, moderators, enablers, and educators.
* A vast broadening of how government representatives interact with their constituents: together, we can gather and share more ideas about what problems need to be addressed and how to address them than ever. The definition of public space will also expand.
* Improved quality of representative government, as, with the help of the public, our elected officials will have more means to get feedback on what they”re doing and whether they are responsive enough.
* A new architecture for government: where instead of expecting one person to solve our problems, government acts to enable large numbers of people to connect to each other as problem-identifiers and problem-solvers.
* A new level of public engagement, which it must find as trust in government declines.
* New opportunities to act civicly, to develop new ways of connecting citizens to citizens and government and new means to serve the public on a smaller scale with new partners.
Now, apply that same approach to how we organize around issues and political campaigns. Here’s my first stab at an answer:
Activism must become collaborative at many levels. Advocacy organizations and campaigns should come to rely on citizens to help organize on a large-scale level, at an individual level (citizens contributing money/ideas/time/information to their efforts), and as a network (advocacy organizations and campaigns supporting citizens; own efforts with content, promotion, education, and revenue).
Activism will become collaborative not only on this pro-am level but also pro-to-pro (we need not and cannot afford to deploy our own organizers to some issues just for the sake of being seen by foundations and the public as doing something, but we can link to and bring our members–and help support–the best activism from other organizations).
The net results include:
* A change of the role of organizers–and their relationship with the public–from owners of the campaign to moderators, prioritizers, enablers, and educators.
* A vast broadening of the scope of activism and campaigns: together, we can initiate and sustain more campaigns than ever. The definition of political campaigns will also expand.
* Improved quality of campaigns, as, with the help of the public, we have more means to plan and execute campaigns and get them right.
* A new architecture for political activity: one campaign/candidate/organization does not own it all but becomes a gateway to much more (not just current efforts but also background and perspective).
* A new level of participation in politics, which it must find as civic engagement stagnates.
* New opportunities to act politically, to develop new demands on the political system and means to serve the public on a smaller scale with new partners.
Like any good blog post, this is half-baked but if I waited til it was done cooking, it would never get posted. (Cross-posted from my blog at PDF.)