Some notes on emergent democracy

I’m working on an emergent democracy book outline with Jon Lebkowsky. Here are some notes on the introductory chapter about the meaning of, and criteria for, democracy. Any thoughts are welcome — please comment!

key points for e-demo discussion:

  • Access
  • Education
  • Goals (e.g., “What is the good?”)
  • Tools

Describe the features of tools in terms of their “democratic character.”

David Held, Models of Democracy, Second Edition:

  • Who are considered “the people”?
  • What kind of participation is envisaged for them?
  • What conditions are assumed to be conducive to participation?
  • Can the disincentives and incentives, or costs and benefits, of participation be equal?

  • How broadly or narrowly is the scope of rule to be construed? Or, what is the appropriate field of democratic activity?

  • If ‘rule’ is to cover ‘the political’ what is meant by this? Does it cover: (a) law and order? (b) relations between states? (c) the economy? (d) the domestic or private sphere?

  • Must the rule of the people be obeyed? What is the place of obligation and dissent?

  • What roles are permitted for those are are avowedly and actively ‘non-participants’?
  • What what circumstances, if any, are democracies entitled to resort to coercion against some of their own people or against those outside the sphere of legitimate rule?

The idea is a balance of representative efficiency, which frees people from day-to-day governing so that society can develop many competencies, and total accountability.

Greeks governors were paid to ensure there was no cost associated with participating in the democratic life of the state.

Held points to the fact that “free citizen” meant something new when compared to slaves, on whose back Athenian prosperity was created.

Democratic activity, like “new work” in Jane Jacobs’ “The Economy of Cities,” can be additive or conservative. Adding new work based on the recognition of complexity that can be resolved by specialized work is counter-emergent if the recognition of complexity comes only from the top, down. A working democracy pushes new policy upward, from many local solutions, to provide standards of conduct, but not a single solution.

There are many issues and many majorities in a plural society. It is a mistake to think of a monolithic majority in a democracy. If there is one, it is an oligarchy, timocracy, etc.

Is the point of constitution to ensure the best rule or that the worst cannot? The balance lies in education, as an uninformed people can only hope to keep the scoundrels out of office.

Temporary factions, rather than permanent parties, is a sign of a healthy pluralistic political environment.

Arguments about money in politics is not simply a matter of decrying the potential control exerted by the wealthy and corporations, it is a convenient rhetoric for the wealthy, who can claim that, having succeeded beyond the norm they “cannot be bought,” when in fact they’ve already been sold.

Amartya Sen, Development As Freedom, p. 81: “The real issue is whether we can use some criteria that would have greater public support, for evaluative purposes, than the crude indicators often recommended on allegedly technical grounds, such as real-income measures. This is central for the evaluative basis of public policy.” In other words, the point of establishing public policy is not to achieve perfect scientific objectivity, rather it is to find the goals society as a whole can share and support, in which individual citizens of all types and origins can feel they should rightfully invest in together.

Sen talks about social policy debates being inherently messy. Jane Jacobs, in The Economy of Cities, talks about the inefficiency that makes cities hotbeds of innovation — there is a lot of overlapping effort that results in the discovery of new solutions. It isn’t clean and scientific.

Democracy, even if it is highly dependent on tools, will always be best when it is messy.

All Family Values President and His Valueless Family

Got to wonder about the sanctimony of George W. Bush, who said he was going to bring honor back to the White House. His daughters have acted abysmally and now it turns out his brother is a sex tourist who thinks nothing of having women knock on his hotel door for free sexual encounters when he’s in Thailand. Not to mention his crony business deals with the son of Jiang Zemin, former president of China.

If it is okay for Neil Bush to sell influence–his price is $2 million or, in another case, $15,000 a quarter to answer the phone–and Bush pere can deal influence for the Carlysle Group, why should the people of the United States not suspect cronyism in President Bush’s dealings with Halliburton and Enron and that startlingly industry friendly energy bill, Medicare bill and “compromise” on media ownership? In the last case, the White House “compromised” with House Republicans who wanted more control over media ownership than the President without any consultation with Democrats or the public, who have voice outrage over the FCC’s decision to expand media ownership.

Check out Neil on the stand:

According to legal documents disclosed today, Sharon Bush’s lawyers questioned Neil Bush closely about the deals, especially a contract with Grace Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., a firm backed by Jiang Mianheng, the son of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, that would pay him $2 million in stock over five years.

Marshall Davis Brown, lawyer for Sharon Bush, expressed bewilderment at why Grace would want Bush and at such a high price since he knew little about the semiconductor business.

“You have absolutely no educational background in semiconductors do you?” asked Brown in the March 4 deposition, which was seen by Reuters.

“That’s correct,” Bush, 48, responded.

“And you have absolutely over the last 10, 15, 20 years not a lot of demonstrable business experience that would bring about a company investing $2 million in you?”

“I personally would object to the assumption that they’re investing $2 million in me,” said Bush, who went on to explain that he knew a lot about business and had been working in Asia for years.

Bush, who inked the Grace deal in August 2002, said he had not yet received any stock from the company, which built a plant in Shanghai that began production in September. He is supposed to consult for the company and be on the board of directors, he said.

He said he joined the Grace board at the request of Winston Wong, a co-founder of the company and the son of Wang Yung-ching, the chairman of Taiwan’s largest business group, Formosa Plastics Corp. Bush never mentioned Jiang Mianheng in the deposition.

Wong, he said, also is an investor in his latest venture, Ignite!, an Austin, Texas, educational software firm.

Brown questioned Bush about numerous other business ventures that paid him well to be a consultant and fundraiser, and, in at least one case, for little work.

Bush said he was co-chairman of Crest Investment Corporation, but worked only an average of three to four hours a week. For that, he received $15,000 every three months.

Bush said he provided Crest “miscellaneous consulting services.”

“Such as?” asked Brown.

“Such as answering phone calls when Jamail Daniel, the other co-chairman, called and asked for advice,” Bush said.

“Well, you’re not an economist are you?”

“Part of my degree is in international economics, but I wouldn’t consider myself an economist, no,” Bush told him.

Yes, the Bush family is an inspiration indeed.

Just plain frightening messages from the far right

I am starting to see the wisdom of the people of Georgia, who tossed out a president who claimed to have won a corrupt election.

President Bush is complaining in ads that he is being attacked for pursuing terrorists, when what he is being attacked for is destroying the civil liberties that make America a unique beacon of freedom in the world. Here’s a description of the ad’s content in full. Here’s the salient passage:

As dirgelike music plays in the background, Bush describes the war on terror as “a contest of will, in which perseverance is power.”

Flashed on the screen are phrases criticizing Bush’s opponents, who go unnamed. “Some are now attacking the president for attacking terrorists,” the ad states. “Some call for us to retreat” — that last word in red letters — “putting our national security in the hands of others.”

Retired General Tommy Franks is actually speculating that the Constitution may not survive the “War on Terror,” because the bad guys are so bad that their tactics would lead to calls for a form of military government. Here’s Franks:

Discussing the hypothetical dangers posed to the U.S. in the wake of Sept. 11, Franks said that “the worst thing that could happen” is if terrorists acquire and then use a biological, chemical or nuclear weapon that inflicts heavy casualties.

If that happens, Franks said, “… the Western world, the free world, loses what it cherishes most, and that is freedom and liberty we’ve seen for a couple of hundred years in this grand experiment that we call democracy.”

Franks then offered “in a practical sense” what he thinks would happen in the aftermath of such an attack.

“It means the potential of a weapon of mass destruction and a terrorist, massive, casualty-producing event somewhere in the Western world – it may be in the United States of America – that causes our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass, casualty-producing event. Which in fact, then begins to unravel the fabric of our Constitution. Two steps, very, very important.”

I don’t think it is patriotic to question the liberties we are afforded by the Constitution and we must struggle against any effort to unwind the great work of the founders, otherwise the terrorists will have won. Franks’ words, followed by the suggestion that President Bush will be regarded by history as “an American hero,” are a warning that we should heed by resisting the fear-mongers. It would be unheroic to follow through on Franks’ prediction.

Now, here is Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal, who has the gall to say that the information available in the world is too darn dangerous for our security. It’s hard to believe a member of the press can actually write this:

With this speech we have reached a juncture, I think, where people have to agree with the president about the nature of the threat, or disagree. The threat is the proliferation of the technical knowledge beneath weapons of mass destruction, and the existence of people willing to use these technologies against large civilian populations or whole nations. That, in sum, is terrorism.

For those of us who agree about the nature of the threat, I think the time has come to recognize, in a formal way, that we have entered a period of history analogous to the Cold War–and that we now need Cold War institutions to win the war on terror.

Scott Rosenberg sums up the jagged edges of Hennignger’s reasoning quite succinctly. But, to be blunt: Henninger is saying it is time to shut the libraries and filter the Internet for anything that might be a threat to the placidity of a Bushian ascendancy. Look, I don’t want to see people die, but I’d rather die fighting tyranny than live in a world in which any minority that claims to “know better” decides what we can read, watch, learn and think.

We’re teetering right on the brink of complete tyranny.

More on the idea for RSS 3.0

Robert Scoble describes more of the conversation we had over lunch last week, adding a good deal of detail about his ideas. Good stuff, to which I’d add:

Scoble: have a vision of a day when every single Microsoft employee will have a weblog. Now, what happens when you have 55,000 people weblogging inside of a corporation? Well, for one, I want to see weblogs in different ways? Why shouldn’t it be possible to see results from a search engine in order of where you are on the org chart, for instance? So, how can you match RSS data up with your domain data that’s stored in Exchange and/or other corporate data stores?

How about seeing data from corporate webloggers based on revenues? Or other metrics?

I have a vision of a day when we won’t think of Weblogs as things at all, but that the ease-of-use of the blog, especially syndication and ease of discovery are integrated into the application environments we use. This means that there won’t be 55,000 blogs in Microsoft, but that the most interesting information available is highlighted for all to see, given the requirements of confidentiality that may exist. So, a manager with a high revenue level, as Robert says, may enable a “blog and syndicate my email thread ratings” which would create a weighted list of people they communicate with and aggregate those people’s public data (blog postings, non-confidential documents, schedule, etc.) in a “view” of that manager’s world. This would allow someone trying to figure out where the important activity in the company is taking place. It could even be extended in certain ways to the public and shareholders, so that people could assess the performance of the company more effectively.

The point is not to have blogs, but to have a roadmap to the information that matters.

Scoble: Also, one thing I miss is being able to tell readers what I think are my most important items. Look at the function of a newspaper designer. That guy plays a huge amount of value. Look at your average newspaper. You know that the biggest and top-most headline is what the newspaper has decided is the most important story. But, in weblogging we don’t have that ability. You get my 60 posts and you have no idea which ones of those 60 that I think are most important.

In fact, you not only don’t have any idea which ones I find are most important, but you have no idea which ones my readers think are most important. The only clue you have is how many comments, or how many links a certain article has (and discovering how many links a certain article has is very tough unless I enable trackback which I haven’t done cause it slowed down my page loads and had other problems).

Here’s where the page placement and other factors, such as the number of hits or comments or trackbacks a posting gets, are important to the dynamic display of information. There are a variety of ways to handle this, including page placement data so that you could have two “top stories,” one a banner headline and the other a tombstone at the top of the page that attracts attention without distracting from the other story. One could argue that Michael Jackson buried the protests against Bush last week because on most Web sites Michael got top billing even though his fate is hardly important in the geopolitical landscape.

The first section of Scoble’s comments are very easy to automate, especially behind the firewall. The second requires some heuristic processing to create the weighted values that elevate a story, that deal with notions of timeliness and enduring importance (Michael vs. Anti-Bush demonstrations), and significant thought on the author’s part.

We all have a press available to us today, but that doesn’t make us all Ben Franklin, who knew how to use his press to get the most mileage for his ideas.

Scobleluncher

I had a very entertaining conversation over Microsoft cafeteria grub with Robert Scoble today. We were talking about what the leading edge of blog technology will look like when most folks have figured out the significant reasons that blogging is so popular today. He spends time explaining blogging to people at Microsoft and eventually people will get it — the same is true of most people in most companies, not just Microsoft. So, what’s next?

Robert is very articulate — one has to be inside Microsoft, the institutional equivalent of a Darwinian pool — about how the ability to discover what content is new is one of the key features of blogging. It doesn’t exist in other Web page layouts or within corporate applications where many people may be performing the same queries and need to know about similar interests/concerns visually; this is the heart of all the talk about the semantic Web. It’s simple in blogging to find what is new and, through trackback, what’s capturing attention, either the new content is at the top of the page or it is in the most recent RSS feed. That’s probably the most important benefit of what blogs have done, making it easy to author, share and debate information; it will obviously migrate into other applications, which is where the leading edge will be when everyone “gets” blogging as it is today.

In a page layout, which is how most people and organizations demonstrate what information is most important, there are structural, design and semantic elements we understand: “Important information ss placed at the top of the page, yet a story may stay “important” longer after its initial publication, a characteristic lost in blogging, which replaces the last “top story” with another based on chronological posting; the size and word choice in headlines convey a great deal of information, which is lost in an RSS feed.

So, we were speculating about the need for an RSS 3.0 that adds those features, including page placement metadata, so that the simplicity of blogging can be combined with the cues we’re used to in page layout. Imagine a page layout where a new or changed story blinked or glowed momentarily after a page loaded to indicate that it is new, yet the page still looked like a newspaper, report or other standard page.

RSS 3.0 would need to include an interpreter that processed changes, like a wiki page does diffs; a page would, essentially, need to read its own RSS feed. The result would be a dramatically richer Web, not better blogging or a better browser in and of itself. Since desktop publishing has gone through this kind of evolution, not to mention the management of versioning in code, so that groups can share information in context, this seems like a natural direction to go. The simplicity and discoverability of blogs should migrate into harder to use applications.

It could also include trackback analysis to display what is being linked to most. Positive and negative sentiment could be recorded, too.

So, recognizing that it is opening a can of worms (and kind of enjoying the idea), we decided it might be a good idea to call for RSS 3.0 — acknowledging that much of it being discussed elsewhere, but the idea here is to break out of blogging as blogging and extend the simplicity to all forms of knowledge sharing…. That is not to say that blogging solves all problems, only that these features can be helpful. The rest is up to people doing smart stuff with the information, which is where the real challenge begins.

Everyone a candidate

I was talking with Jon Lebkowsky and Britt Blaser last night and here’s what I think the most promising feature of today’s Dean-led activism: With the tools being built today and that will certainly be improved every election cycle to come, anyone can run for any office.

The focus on electing a president is a distraction from the normal operation of a democracy. When you aren’t living in a tyranny, yes, changing the regime in Washington becomes more consuming, but when you’ve got a normally functioning democracy, the president doesn’t matter as much on a day-to-day basis as the actions of millions of local and state elected officials who make the decisions that affect us palpably.

David Weinberger wrote on the Corante Many2Many blog that “the [Dean campaign] has been creating an infrastructure that allows groups of supporters to meet and stay in touch…a social network.” David continues: “… it seems quite possible that we’ll see some topical mailing lists emerge, and perhaps Pilots for Dean (via DeanSpace) will stay together for a couple of decades because it’s a good place to ask for advice from like-minded flyboys and flygals. But I suspect (based on almost nothing) that it’s the friendships made through MeetUp and the access to local people in DeanLinks and GetLocal that will survive the longest with the richest connections.”

Agreed, completely, though these rich connections need to be applied locally rather than waiting for the next national campaign to come along. It would be ideal if we could deploy a Web-based system that anyone could use to start a campaign for any office, to find people which complementary interests so that, if I am interested in running for school board I can find the people interested in schools or in running for city council so that I can contact them and start trading my work for them for their work for me — so we can knit far-reaching social networks into active local political networks. If we are simply going to replicate the nationally-focused politics of the mass media, we’re missing the lesson of the seething community-forming going on in Netspace.