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October 10, 2008

Permanent links for legislative documents

Thanks to prompting from the ever-more-amazing Sunlight Foundation, the US Congress’ site will provide legislative documents with permanent URLs. That means you can link to them and have some confidence that the links will work tomorrow, which means discussion can more easily more forward. Unique IDs accrete meaning.

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September 20, 2008

Democracy’s susceptibility to software

I want to propose an hypothesis.

Suppose our new president gets serious about using the Internet as a tool of governance. So, he takes his email list and uses it to kickstart a new e-gov social network. In fact, his opponent provides his email list, too. So, let’s say we have 5M on this network. Let’s say it prominently features blogs and forums. Let’s say after two years there are 30M registered users, and some good percentage of those are at least occasionally active. Of course, I’m making all of this up.

Now, the problem the Internet has faced almost from the beginning is how to scale conversations. We’ve solved it time after time, whether it’s threading and forking Usenet discussions or Amazon’s reviews of reviews. So, let’s imagine that this new social network solves the problem through a combination of forking (or recursive conversations … see orgware [Disclosure: I’m an adviser]) and reputation, more or less along the DailyKos lines.

So, 30M people are engaged in vital conversations. Some people gain prominence in discussions on particular issues. The administration notices this. The relevant government policy makers want to engage in these conversations, because otherwise the 30M citizens feel like they’re being ignored. The emergent discussion leaders become the online points of contact between the administration and the conversations, because that’s how those conversations scale.

For example, PolarKing111 gains an enormous reputation because he writes about polar warming so knowledgeably and passionately, because he engages with all sides in the discussion with respect, and because he’s so good at representing all the various opinions. Administration officials engage with him on the site, often in a spirited back-and-forth. He ably represents the concerns emerging from the many discussions on the site. It’s a public dialogue with just enough structure, one unlike any our democracy has seen.

Inevitably, one day in early 2011, the media will discover that PolarKing111 is a 15 year old girl, but that’s not my point. My point is that the emergent online discussion leaders play a role unprecedented in our democracy. They are not elected yet they represent us. They are not members of the government yet they directly affect government. They have some power but the power comes from an emergent process. We don’t even have a word for this role.

Of course, I’m making all of this up. It’s just an hypothesis. Yet, it’s easy to imagine something like this happening, while it simultaneously being impossible to predict exactly what will happen. Nevertheless, there’s a strong possibility that some form of e-gov social network will emerge, either from the government or from the people. This social network could create new roles or processes of democracy that could well turn out to be quite important. But, just as Facebook can alter the nature of privacy by deciding whether or not to set a checkbox on or off by default, the roles and processes of this new layer of democracy will depend to a large degree on small decisions about how the software happens to work.

Democracy is susceptible to software.

Personally, I think that’s likely to be a good thing. But, who knows?

No one, that’s who.

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August 23, 2008

McCain on Biden: Should have, didn’t

If McCain hadn’t become Karl Rove’s sockpuppet, this is what he might have said in response to the selection of Joe Biden as Obama’s running mate:

I congratulate my friend and colleague Joe Biden on his being selected as a vice presidential candidate. Joe and I have disagreed frequently over the years, and we disagree now on many of the important issues facing this country. But I’ve also worked with him, count him as a friend, and respect him as a capable man who loves the country he’s served for so many years.

That said, I remain convinced that the solutions Joe and his running mate are proposing are dangerous, and dangerously out of step with the American people. We’re going to keep on making that case up and down this great land, offering our own practical, down-to-earth solutions that will make a real difference in the lives of hard-working Americans.

McCain’s actual response, in full, from his Web site:

ARLINGTON, VA — Today, McCain spokesman Ben Porritt issued the following statement on Barack Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as his running mate:

“There has been no harsher critic of Barack Obama’s lack of experience than Joe Biden. Biden has denounced Barack Obama’s poor foreign policy judgment and has strongly argued in his own words what Americans are quickly realizing — that Barack Obama is not ready to be President.”

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August 19, 2008

Those lobbyists sure like to have a good time!

The Sunlight Foundation‘s new site, Political Party Time, tracks the hundreds of parties being thrown at the two political conventions by fun-loving groups who are merely interested in celebrating democracy, folks such as the RIAA, AT&T, USTelecom, and Bank of America. [Tags: ]

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July 7, 2008

Rebooting Democracy

Personal Democracy Forum has put together an anthology of essays on “rebooting democracy” in the age of the Net. It’s available in full on the Web (in tiny, gray type, as if they don’t want you to read it), or as PDFs, or you can pay for a printed copy.

There’s lots of good stuff in there, including a heavy representation from Berkman fellows, alumni, and friends. (Then there’s also a piece by me, defending echo chambers.) [Tags: ]

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July 6, 2008

My Fair Election

Archon Fung, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, is proposing that we crowd source the fairness of the upcoming presidential election at You can watch a 7 minute video presentation or read a brief paper.

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June 29, 2008

Government by these people

Matthew Burton on working with the people who are our government…

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May 15, 2008

[[email protected]] John Palfrey: Poilitics and the Future of Democracy

John begins by pointing to Publius, a set of essays and discussions about the Net’s many “constitutional moments.” But his overall topic is, as Yochai Benkler frames it, whether the networked sphere expands democracy. E.g., photos and videos of the monks’ protest in Burma were spread through the Internet. [Live blogging. Sloppy. Incomplete. Inaccurate. Wildly incomplete. ]

Argument 1: “The Internet allows more speech from more people than ever before.” JP hands it to Ethan Zuckerman to talk about Global Voices. There are probably more than 100M outside of the US creating content on line, says ethanz. Global Voices tries to surface those voices. International news has gone from a supply problem to a demand problem. How do you find those voices? How do you understand (= translate, contextualize) them? How is your attention held? Ethan says that although he was initially skeptical of blogging, Salam Pax convinced him. But, it’s not perfect. E.g., governments (and sometimes corporations) try to cut down access to the tools. More worrisome, people don’t pay attention to much outside of what the mainstream media tell them to. “We haven’t found the way to shape the news agenda through social media.”

JP puts up the map of the Farsi blogosphere. In response to question about Cass Sunstein’s hypothesis, John Kelly (who made the map) that even though blogs cluster by political stance, they are still densely interlinked.

Argument #2: Although the Net lets more people tell the story, “states are finding more and more ways to restrict online speech and to practice surveillance.” JP points to the OpenNet Initiative, which tracks state blockage of speech.

Esther Dyson: To get Internet to help democracy, we need to fix the people. The Net is just a tool. We need profiles of courage. Also, there’s virality of protest.

Audience: We cannot rely on people doing the right thing. Many think that control and censorship are good things.

Audience: It’s not just a digital divide, but a media literacy gap.

Argument 3: “The Internet facilitates the formation of online groups, which in turn has great impact on democracy and governance.” Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation talks about Public Markup, which enables people to comment on bills, etc. JP asks if there are downsides to this increased transparency. E.g., the star wars kids who didn’t want the exposure. Can people be harmed by transparency and the power of collective action without recourse? Ellen replies, “Not yet.”

JP calls on Yochai Benkler. What questions should we be asking in the next ten years? Benkler responds: “I’m sorry, prof., I didn’t do the reading.” His serious reply is that we are moving from imagining and fearing, to actually gathering data and doing detailed analysis.

David Reed: While the Net is great at group-forming, there is an upper limit. Each group demands attention. There’s an attention economy that limits this. In the political space, you can starve out attention. [Tags: ]


April 29, 2008

The most democratic work places

WorldBlu has put forward its 2008 list of the 25 world’s most democratic organizations

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March 24, 2008

So what

Cheney headstone - by davidw

[Info: Think Progress] [Tags: ]


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