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Panel: Emerging democracy

Filed in: politics, SXSW2004, Web, Mon, Mar 15 2004 00:05 PT

Here’s what I captured about the emerging democracy panel from yesterday. It’s interspersed with some commentary, which I think I’m going to have to break out into a larger entry on its own. Anyway, on to the story.

Jon Lebkowsky of Polycot: Held up the election of Schwarzenegger in California as an example of direct democracy. Activism, he says, is an application. He talks about “post-broadcast politics.”

Finally, I hear Joi Ito actually speaking. The printing press created the “public”, which created polling, etc. Ito says the “vote button” on the TV, like what you found in California, is not emerging democracy. “Chaotic systems can function, as long as you have the right feedback systems and the right kind of rules.”

Adina Levin said that’s a nice 1000-year view. But the view from the grassroots is a little different. There have to be strategies for activism. The failure of the Dean campaign was a “failure of the API“: failing to convert things into actual votes. (Yes! That’s what I’ve been saying for months.) “We need to learn something about how government works… right now, it’s not about emergence, it’s about showing up…”

The democratic system is based on 18th-century technology. Applying new tech like Technorati and Daypop to politics could help politicians listen better. (Hrm. Not so sure about that. That sounds like the loudest voice wins.)

Wilcox: “The Dean campaign gambled enormously” by using blogs. Campaigns that have done the most with the Internet had the least to lose. He decided in 2002 to run a decentralized campaign because he couldn’t afford to run a centralized one. Trippi got it because of his work in Silicon Valley. Reagan and Clinton were the only successful modern presidents because they could repeat themselves over and over again when they were at the mic. People often check in once or twice a month. The Dean campaign was off message too often, or moved around too fast. In the political system, you have entrenched people who don’t want to lose power. They see it like the record company sees peer-to-peer. “The counterrevolution is coming. It crushed Dean.”

Zach Rosen: This idea of emergent democracy “is too far ahead for me… it’s just science fiction (right now).” The transformation in emergent democracy is cultural. The big problem was that “people weren’t making decisions” at all.” Only 40% voter turnout, and not a strong awareness of the issues they were voting on. He says, while he has the mic, he has authority, and the audience doesn’t. The TV has authority, and we don’t. Emergent behavior is happening in places, like the Dean campaign, or open-source culture. IMC is about 10 years ahead of everyone else. They’re setting up civic centers around the world. They are an emergent system, organized all over the world. (I had to mention to the person sitting next to me that I was involved in the Seattle IMC, and gave up because it was completely frustrating to participate in the political process as they had established it. People took an affinity group and created a shadow politics behind it. Oh, plus I got a job that kept me too busy to volunteer meaningfully for anything.)

Ito: In emergent systems, the position of authority is not the position of control. It’s one of custodianship.

Levin suggested that an example of emergence was getting people who were good and angry about not being able to plug in to the walls here to organize and complain about it. (The fine they threatened has gone away for the duration of the conference as a result of Joi, Cory Doctorow, and to a much lesser extent, me squealing.)

Joi said there are a lot of problems with direct democracy, that could cause things to swing toward the extremes.

Lebkowsky: “Everybody can be Tom Paine now. But everybody can respond to Tom Paine.”

Question: How about getting the poorest and least-educated wired. Wilcox says there’s a “fundamental obligation” to get people a decent education. Low literacy isn’t the digital divide, it’s a functional problem.

I had to ask: how can you ensure that the system can’t be gamed? Ito responded that it’s because the system is so open. And that’s where I have to stop before I launch into a tirade about how this, like so many new systems (see: libertarianism), appears to depend on a unit-wide consensus in order to function. That is, it’d be a great system if there weren’t so damned many humans involved. Stay tuned.

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