Hal Royaltey (hal) Wed 29 Jun 05 12:37
We're pleased to welcome Jon Lebkowsy, co-author of _Extreme Democracy_. Jon is CEO of Polycot, an innovative team of Internet technology experts with broad experience creating and managing information systems for businesses and nonprofit organizations. He was cofounder and CEO of one of the first virtual corporations, FringeWare, Inc. He is currently President of EFF-Austin, a cofounder of the Open Source Business Alliance, the Austin Wireless City Project, and the national Social Software Alliance. A longtime proponent of online tools for civic engagement, Jon served on the organizing committee for O'Reilly's Digital Democracy Teach-In. He has written about technology for numerous publications, including Mondo 2000, Whole Earth Review, Fringe Ware Review and Wired Magazine. Our interviewer is Bruce Umbaugh. Bruce is a philosopher at Webster University, where he teaches courses such as Epistemology, Critical Thinking, and Ethics for Cyberspace at the main campus in St. Louis and on the Net. His presentations and papers have as a common thread the role of technology as potentially liberating and democratizing, on one hand, and as a tool of authority, on the other. The first of those, in 1991, defended anonymity in online communications and argued for non-authoritarian solutions to the apparent problems it posed. The most recent argued that only collective action (not technology) can preserve more democratic, fair use of copyrighted material. Bruce is also Associate Dean of Arts & Sciences at Webster, which gives him a new appreciation of how the lure of the efficiency of administrative fiat imperils more democratic tendencies.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Wed 29 Jun 05 15:15
Thanks loads, Hal. Jon, this book is quite a document, with an intriguing story all its own. We'll get to that, I'm sure, in good time, but I wanted to start with something else that struck me early on in perusing it. You and Mitch have done something a little funny here. You've assembled a book of essays more or less about "how the Internet changes everything about politics." It's a theme that lends itself automatically to breathless metaphors of tsunami and fire, to claims that this is all without precedent, and that everything we thought we knew is wrong. But you take the wind out of all that in the preface when you offer up some social and historical context. So (he lobbed softly), which is it: are these participatory technologies really new, or is this just another step on the long march to the future of democracy? What's really going on here, and what is this volume really about?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 29 Jun 05 21:37
I don't think the Internet changes *everything* about politics, but I think it gives us what Jock Gill and other refer to as a "post-broadcast" politics, which is an effect of the broadcast media era that evolved through the 20th century. Broadcast politics is about mass media pouring information (of whatever quality) into our heads, and when the time comes, we spit out a vote... after which we leave politics to the professionals 'til the next election season. Our book includes some visionary pieces, but there's also nuts and bolts discussions and practical assessments of computer-mediated politics. We know that the Internet's influence on traditional politics began to kick in during the 2000 election; during the 2004 election season, the Howard Dean campaign pushed that perceived influence to a new level - but not so much because we had more participation in the national conversation, which was also happening via blogs, email lists, etc. The Dean campaign got attention because it was so effective in raising money online. (Steven Johnson has a great analysis of the Dean campaign from an emergence perspective, where he says the campaign was effective at clustering - "conjuring up crowds" - but not so great at coping - "being able to respond quickly and effectively to new situations, to both opportunities and threats.") There were post-broadcasts components in Dean's campaign and others, especially where blogs were prominent and heavily commented, but if the measure of success is how much money you raised to run ads in broadcast media, you're still in the world of broadcast politics. I'm waiting to see a campaign succeed though low on money because it did a good job of building social network support, online and off, and participated in an ongoing discussion with participants. That might be doable in the not so distant future. Extreme Democracy, the concept, is about taking charge of the political process, making it transparent, emphasizing a deep confidence in the people and "opening the policy-making process to many centers of power through deeply networked coalitions that can be organized around local, national and international issues." When we say "extreme," we're thinking of extreme programming, small teams making rapid progress on complex projects. Is this new? I don't think so, though with computer mediated communication, we have sustained communication and a high degree of immediacy, and an ability to form meaningful but fairly loose connections with many people and groups over time.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Thu 30 Jun 05 07:08
Extreme democracy doesn't have to be direct democracy, I guess. Forty years ago, say, we began batting around the idea that new communications technologies would allow citizens to make all the decisions by voting directly, thereby skipping over elected representatives. But you're suggesting something different: that communications technology could allow elected representatives (and candidates for office) to *communicate mroe effectively* with citizens, thereby raising citizens' influence on outcomes indirectly. That's one thing. Another thing yhou're talking about is using technology to organize political movements more effectively. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 30 Jun 05 10:42
People may have different things in mind when they say "direct democracy" - for some it's about abolishing the Electoral College, for instance. I can't imagine a system of direct voting on all issues and potential decisions. Representation makes sense - you have people who dedicate their time and thought to policy. However there's a real barrier between elected officials and their constituents, partly structural (access barriers) and partly conceptual (a sense of distance and powerlessness). In the broadcast era, communication was increasingly one-way and channeled by 'experts.' Scale is part of the problem. How many of his constituents can a candidate or elected official have a conversation with, realistically speaking? David Weinberger made a good point during the Dean campaign: of course Dean couldn't have conversations (online or off) with this thousands of supporters... but they could have conversations with one another, and those conversations would feed into the campaign ethos. Rather than saying we organize more effectively, I would say we can extend more effectively - reach more people faster. I'm actually less interested in how well we can build political movements, than in how well we can distribute, not just information, but understanding. If you send a million emails and get 200,000 signatures on a petition, that's cool - but it would be so much better if you knew that those 200K understood what they were signing.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Thu 30 Jun 05 10:55
Not only reach more people more quickly, but reach people who can make their own connections among themselves using the many-to-many medium, right? That is powerful. You're envisioning a political future of interconnected citizens conversing, such that their conversations feed into the decision making of representatives, without the mediation of "expert" gatekeepers on television. Is that "The Second Superpower" of Moore's piece? At the same time, you raise the issue of scale. Shirky discusses the "predicatable imbalance" of rank in his power laws essay. Doesn't that phenomenon have the effect of reintroducing gatekeepers among the citizen punditry? If not, why not? If so, how are we better off?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 30 Jun 05 16:07
Jim wrote "The beautiful but deeply agitated face of this second superpower is the worldwide peace campaign, but the body of the movement is made up of millions of people concerned with a broad agenda that includes social development, environmentalism, health, and human rights. This movement has a surprisingly agile and muscular body of citizen activists who identify their interests with world society as a whole and who recognize that at a fundamental level we are all one," and goes on to say how Internet technology enables this movement ... "The shared, collective mind of the second superpower is made up of many individual human mindsyour mind and my mindtogether we create the movement. In traditional democracy our minds dont matter much - what matters are the minds of those with power of position, and the minds of those that staff and lobby them. In the emergent democracy of the second superpower, each of our minds matters a lot." The power law distribution keeps coming up, but you have to consider that there's power in the long tail of the blogosphere - i.e. blogs that are not necessarily heavily linked individually, but have a kind of aggregate presence and a fairly large readership, not all at once, but over time. Besides which, we don't really know how people read blogs, so we can't be sure what the statistics mean. If I see a blog I like and add it to my blogroll, but never read it again, that link I've made is still a factor in that blog's statistical "popularity." If I like a blog and add it to my news aggregator, that generates ongoing hits, even if I lose interest and stop reading.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 30 Jun 05 17:46
Sorry, I was called away for a swim! I just nudged the power law/ how blogs are read subject without giving it a real push. I just can't see defining an "A-list" without more reliable metrics, and I don't think people read blogs the way they read newspaper columns. My gut tells me that people are surfing blogs the way they always surfed web sites, that they're more likely to read an item or two in a blog here and there than to read some set of blogs that they come back to on a daily basis. That's mainstream media thinking.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Fri 1 Jul 05 04:16
Hmmmm. It seems to me that it would be mainstream media thinking (you write that like there's something wrong with it :) ) to worry about *who* was the most popular (or influential). For that, yes, metrics would be required. But I was thinking that underneath the tentative empirical work, the power law discussion has at its base the hypothesis that there *will be* a power law distribution to popularity (or influence) in this sphere. If that's right, then it follows that there are going to be new gatekeepers of a sort. Whether it's as easy to identify them as when there were just three of them in our living rooms each evening and a few on doorsteps along the East Coast each morning is a different matter. Or am I missing something? On another note -- you guys published this book unconventially. For example, it's under a Creative Commons license. How did you come to publish as you have, and why?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 1 Jul 05 09:16
There is definitely something 'wrong' with the mainstream media approach to news and information, which is mostly driven by show biz instincts rather than a sense of responsibility to give us the information we need in order to be effective citizens. This is related to the corporate focus on profit maximization at any cost. Consider that our media ecology determines what we think and perceive, it's our reality. News blows some stories out of proportions while ignoring others that are important, so our perception of the world is skewed. Is the Michael Jackson trial important? Is genocide in Darfur trivial? Blogs as citizen journalism may be about firing the gatekeepers and building our own sense of reality, peer to peer. *** We were originally working with a publisher who was cool with putting the book online and the Creative Commons license. We felt the book was an important resource, we wanted to publish it far and wide and stimulate conversation about the topics covered. We had an amiable parting with the original publisher, though, over what you might call creative differences. Our editor wanted revisions and cuts that were more aggressive than we were comfortable making. I understood his perspective; following his advice would have made for a tighter book, but we would've lost something that we thought was more important, the sense of many voices exploring the impact of social technology on politics. When we parted ways with the original publisher, we put all the chapters of the book online at http://extremedemocracy.com, making it accessible prior to the presidential election but nowhere near as early as we had hoped, and without marketing. We combined the chapters with a blog and invited comments, and continued looking for a publisher. I wanted to have copies of the book for a panel at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York in May, and someone told me that we should consider publishing on demand via Lulu.com. Lulu has a pretty good service (though there were glitches), but for a small investment we could be placed at various online retail sites, which is still in process. The print version's currently available at http://www.lulu.com/content/125298. The quality of the printing and binding is quite good, so you can publish a completely professional volume through Lulu, however you don't have the distribution and marketing channels of the large publishers. However we think _Extreme Democracy_ will have a "long tail."
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 1 Jul 05 12:23
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Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Fri 1 Jul 05 13:23
Jon, one of the hallmarks of Internet communities is the ability to create non-geographic affinities. People with complementary -- not necessarily identical -- beliefs and ideas can share with and build upon each other online, even if they live thousands of miles apart. This is not news to anyone here. But these non-geographic connections disappear politically, at least at the representative level. We're stuck with representatives who reflect the plurality of local residents who took the time to vote. Is there any possibility of non-geographic representation down the road?
J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Fri 1 Jul 05 13:32
Cool. I just ordered a copy. Since I'm working with Technorati now (blog search) I'll be thinking about what role we play in all this.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 1 Jul 05 14:39
Jamais: My own short-term focus would be on getting more participation by more people with better understanding of the process as it stands today. I'm not thinking we quite transcend our connection to place in the near term, it's hard for me to see a better way to organize representation. On the other hand borders are less relevant given our global infrastructure for communication and connection, so we might evolve a different approach longer term, I think. Matisse: Technologies like Technorati are important because they show us the blogosphere in aggregate, and I think that's where we find the real power of blogs. A Technorati search shows me two pages of posts about Sandra Day O'Connor - reading through those I can get random, diverse perspectives on her resignation, which is so much cooler than reading what the usual suspects have to say. (Technorati is at http://technorati.com, for those of you who aren't familiar. It's a search engine that focuses specifically on blog content.)
J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Fri 1 Jul 05 17:50
Jamais: Capital markets arealready a global form of voting, albeit capitalist, not humanist in design.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 1 Jul 05 20:16
Why should we want to read blogs written by campaign managers or supporters? What I'm really hoping for (but I'm not holding my breath) is that with the rise of blogging, we'll get politicians who can actually write something worth reading about what's going on in politics, while it's still happening.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 2 Jul 05 07:38
Definitely. I think that'll happen as we have more candidates who really get blogging, and will risk posting their thoughts... assuming they're elected. I have faith that voters will support candidates who speak their minds over those who operate behind a fog of expert handlers, and I wish I could point to an example, but I haven't seen one yet.
J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Sat 2 Jul 05 09:55
> I have faith that voters will support candidates who > speak their minds over those who operate behind a fog of expert > handlers That's a really tricky one. Candidates and politicians often represent far more people than they could ever conceivably have real relationships with, and so communicating about complex, charged issues is something that might truly be beyond the acpability of any one human to do on their own. It may be that we the voters, as a aggragate group are rarely if ever going to vote for peoiple who expose their personal, idosyncratic thoughts of deeply divisive issues.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 2 Jul 05 12:17
I think any high-profile blogger has to exercise judgement, and I think speaking your mind is different from saying everything that comes to mind.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sat 2 Jul 05 13:13
That's an important distinction. What are the threats to these new technologies as democratizing? With a rudimentary threat model, we could go about sketching responses and preventive measures.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 2 Jul 05 15:31
Here's three issues I thought of right away: Freedom to connect: net-based democratic technologies depend on open and accessible networks. Corporations and/or governments that operate networks might restrict access and use, constraining speech and stifling innovation. Digital divide: when civic engagement and participation in the political process require access to technology, those without access are potentially excluded. We're talking about people who don't want to fiddle with a dang computer, can't buy one, can't get an Internet connection, etc. Echo chamber: if we're just forming cliques where we talk to folks we agree with and ignore other ways of thinking, we're missing the debate that's an important element of democracy (IMO). Some are trying to address this problem, e.g. Let's Talk America (http://www.letstalkamerica.org/).
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Mon 4 Jul 05 07:27
Some of the technology you're talking about could help address the first, to a limited extent. With the right organization among us, technology can help on all three. Happy Independence Day! (What does the flag of Extreme Democracy look like?)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 4 Jul 05 08:10
The "freedom to connect" issue relates more to infrastructure than applications. Might be helpful if we imposed a massive tax when a phone company buys a legislator! Funny you should mention the flag... I just got an interesting comment on my 4th of July post at WorldChanging.com, which is at http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/003027.html. I suppose an Extreme Democracy map would have a network map on it... something like this: http://research.lumeta.com/ches/map/gallery/wired.gif.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Tue 5 Jul 05 12:23
Aldon writes, from off-Well: I am not a member of The Well, but Jon Lebkowsky let me know about a discussion going on about 'Extreme Democracy', a book he and Mitch Ratcliffe wrote and which I contributed a chapter to. I wanted to add a few comments of my own to the discussion. Brian Slesinsky wrote about his hope that someday, politicians will write good content for blogs. I am the BlogMaster for John DeStefano's Gubernatorial campaign ( http://www.destefanoforct.com ). I write a lot of the content, as do other staffers. We try to get Mayor DeStefano to write his own material, but it is difficult. Candidates have extremely busy schedules and finding time for them to write good blog entries is a major challenge. I suspect that we will see more of this further down the ticket as candidates for state legislature and municipal offices campaign and perhaps have more time to write about their campaigns and what is important to them.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 5 Jul 05 15:09
Aldon is among the best of the campaign bloggers; I think we're seeing the emergence of a new kind of political consultant. Good campaign bloggers have to be especially clueful about their political environment, and they have to be excellent communicators.
<http://www.sito.org/cgi-bin/news/flash> (silly) Tue 5 Jul 05 15:09
There's a big difference between "perceived influence" and reality, Jon. Howard Dean did not win in Iowa or New Hampshire. Ultimately, he was brushed aside. The online subculture is an elite. It's a minority, a fraction of the population. Mass news media outlets still run the show. Techniques implemented by Joe Trippi during the Dean campaign will be used in future elections. The net and other new technologies will be used to raise funds at the grassroots level and rally mobs of supporters--and also for unidealistic purposes such as to end-run around campaign finance laws. Multinational corporations own a big chunk of the net and the other new technologies. Their mass news media outlets have co-opted blogs and webspace.
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