Emergent Democracy Forum

O’Reilly has announced a day-long conference on emergent democracy that will happen the day before the Emerging Technology Conference in February. The event will be seminal, but then I was on the advisory board. Be there. Here’s the description:

Internet technologies are putting power back into the hands of the people. Using blogs, MeetUp, cell phones, websites, and plain old email, citizen activists have already altered the face of the next US presidential election. In a less-noticed but potentially seismic shift, concerned citizens are using the same tools to have more say in the day-to-day tasks of governing. Are we on the verge of a fundamental shift towards truer democracy, or will these new Internet-fueled tools be co-opted to maintain the status quo?

We’ll address that question and more at the Emergent Democracy Forum, a day that brings together the pioneers who are re-inventing democracy for our networked world. Hear from those who are defying conventional wisdom and changing the rules of the game–whether they’re supporting a political candidate, advocating for a cause, or pulling back the covers on the workings of their local government.

The Emergent Democracy Form will be co-located with the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference. The Forum is slated for Monday, February 9, 2004 from 9am – 5pm at the Westin Horton Plaza.

What’s new in democracy anyway?

Rebecca Blood’s recent essay in the Guardian, “The revolution should not be eulogised,” has stirred some debate about the newness and scope of the blogging phenomenon. Doc Searls said “blogs are just linky journals.” David Weinberger was concerned about the overstatement of the importance of blogging qua blogging to the political process. When you use the word revolution, it should mean something, I think. Anyway, here’s a brief rumination on the political significance of the Net….

Politics is changing. The sudden relevance of Howard Dean’s campaign for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, which broke all records for fund-raising by a Democratic candidate, has transformed political professionals and journalists’ perception of the Internet as a tool for organizing. Groups like MoveOn.org on the left and Grassfire.org on the right have pioneered issues-based activism, challenging older special interest operations for supremacy on their respective wings of the political spectrum. The rise of blogs and email discussions, to name just a couple applications of the Internet to discourse, have produced new pundits and centers of political influence in hyperspeed, as audiences and communities of interest form as quickly as headlines break. In every level of government, from cities accepting payments for traffic tickets or counties offering business and vehicle registration over the Net to state and federal agencies disclosing their activities through Web sites and email lists, the transformation to a digital government is underway. Public debate about the direction government should take has reached a critical mass that could transform the very notion of democratic systems, if citizens take the initiative and seize the reins of power from the professionals struggling to regain control of the process.

Indeed, politics is always changing as society incorporates new technology for disseminating information and connecting people. We have to be optimistic about the trend toward increasingly sophisticated use of technology in government and politics, since it is an inevitable aspect of history. From smoke signals to the press, local canvassing by candidates to nationally televised debates, the acceleration of political discourse through communications technology has been a faithful disruptor of accepted wisdom throughout human history.

Technology is disruptive in the way it is used not in and of itself, because if it is left unused it has no influence on the organization of society. Technology’s social and political meaning is discovered through its application, as humans experience the way a technical hack changes the flow of information and power in a system. Think about any new technology introduced in the workplace during the past 30 years and it is plain that, while the inventor may have had an inkling of the way a product could change an organization, the actual scope and impact of organizational change is the result of people arguing over, evangelizing about, and stumbling to new arrangements of people and resources in a company, an industry or an economy.

People change history and they use tools to do it. This is an important supposition when considering what will happen to politics because of the Internet. The adoption of application software and physical and logical protocols is deeply related to the availability of resources to bring these investments to fruition. Even as the Internet reshapes the communications universe a second and, probably, more powerful movement is preparing the ground for a new crop of tools. These tools are based on open source technology that can be shared at low cost and modified by any user to create new features or emphasize certain functionality. As the global economy becomes increasingly interconnected, the availability of low-cost information technology—for we are moving from the early adoption phase of the information economy, when every new feature came at a high price, to a time when hundreds of millions of people have the basic skills that allow them to piece together an information technology-based solution to myriad communications, logistical and organizational challenges. The mechanics are taking over, bringing computational wizardry to the masses and, as a result, the masses are poised to take over the public discourse for the first time since Walter Cronkite set the national water-cooler agenda with his comments after the Tet Offensive that turned the tide of American opinion about the Vietnam War:

To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.

Since February 27, 1968, television reigned supreme as the national forum for political debate. In the meantime, the concentration of ownership of television stations has continued unabated, so that today fewer than a half dozen corporations frame the political questions of the day, and mostly in terms of a horse race or a tabloid scandal.

Today, the television networks are struggling to stay in control of the political debate as hundreds of thousands of Web sites, weblogs and mailing lists recast what has been a relatively uniform view of events into a kaleidoscopic debate. And, as the number of visible hues of political information increases, the power of the television networks can be decreased exponentially; if bloggers and online pundits and debating societies in mailing lists decide not to follow the basic script from television that describes every political encounter as a winner and a loser, who’s up, who’s down and what the extremes of public opinion add up to at the end of each day.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who surveyed the young American democracy in the 1830s would understand quite clearly what is at stake today. It is far too convenient to believe that today’s technology is something utterly new or that it makes something utterly new possible for the first time. Consider this statement by author Rebecca Blood, an avid blogger:

A weblog is something fundamentally new. Something no one can quite put their finger on, not yet. And those who try to define the phenomenon in terms of current institutions are completely missing the point.

Consider the average weblog. Maintained by an unpaid enthusiast, this site will be updated perhaps a dozen times a day with links to interesting news stories and entries on other weblogs, accompanied by a few lines – or paragraphs – of commentary. A blogger interested in current events may include links to several accounts of one event, noting differences in tone or detail, another may post the occasional recipe or pictures from a recent trip. A blogger may have a thousand readers, but more likely a few hundred or a couple of dozen, some of whom will offer comments of their own, right on the site. The weblog is at once a scrapbook, news filter, chapbook, newsletter, and community.

This is not passive news consumption. Neither is it broadcasting. The average blogger has time to surf the web, but no resources to report stories. Some bloggers will follow a news story to the end, some may lose interest after a few days. Commentary will range from the fully-formed to the random blurt and can freely mix the public and the personal.

All this represents something new: participatory media. And it matters. Not because of its resemblance to familiar institutions, but because of its differences from them.

Participatory media is something significant and important, an opportunity society should not pass by, that should not be missed after the 30 year pause in individual thinking represented by television’s ascendancy. However participatory media is nothing new, we are merely being given another shot at assuming the challenge of participating in the public debate about what events of the day mean to the individual, the state and society. Tocqueville describes exactly the same phenomena in the United States during the 1830s:

In the United States printers need no licenses, and newspapers no stamps or registration; moreover, the system of giving securities is unknown.

For these reasons it is a simple and easy matter to start a paper; a few subscribers are enough to cover expenses, so the number of periodical or semiperiodical productions in the United States surpasses all belief. The most enlightened Americans attribute the slightness of the power of the press to this incredible dispersion; it is an axiom of political science that there the only way to neutralize the effect of newspapers is to multiply their numbers. I cannot imagine why such a self-evident truth has not been more commonly accepted among us. I can easily see why those bent on revolution through the press try to see that it should have only a few powerful organs; but the official partisans of the established order and the natural supporters of existing laws should think that they are reducing the effectiveness of the press by concentrating it—that is something I just cannot understand. Faced by the press, the governments of Europe seem to me to behave as did the knights of old toward their enemies; they observed from their own experience that centralization was a powerful weapon, and they want to provide their enemy herewith, no doubt to win greater glory by resisting him.

Rebecca Blood’s “something new” is Tocqueville’s “axiom of political science,” that the proliferation of sources of news and analysis decreases the power of a dominant source of information. A bit later in Democracy in America, Tocqueville describes the blogging writing style unmistakably as characteristic of democratic media:

Then there comes the long catalog of political pamphlets, for in America the parties do no publish books to refute each other, but pamphlets which circulate at an incredible rate, last a day, and die…. By and large the literature of a democracy will never exhibit the order, regularity, skill, and art characteristic of aristocratic literature; formal qualities will be neglected or actually despised. The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened, and loose, and almost always strong and bold. Writers will be more anxious to work quickly than to perfect details. Short works will be commoner than long books, wit than erudition, imagination than depth. There will be a rude and untutored vigor of thought with great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste.

This isn’t to say that the potential for the Internet to change the political landscape is diminished in any way, rather it suggests that we could very well make something extraordinary happen to political discourse globally now that we are presented an opportunity to use a medium that can be accessed from any home, office or café, which supports a wide range of publishing and communications channels, and transcends the one-way media of the past 100 years with a truly interpersonal venue for debate and the discovery of common interests and compromise.

The whole history of democracy and technology has set the stage for what happens next. Our humanity compels us to be optimistic about the growing dependence of governments, governance and political debate on new technologies of communication.

I freely admit….

My wife and I were up all night at the first showing of The Return of the King. Great. Like finishing a great book, full of flaws but sublime nonetheless. I never read the books until the movie came out (we saw the first LOTR in German the first time, which was a great way to have an original experience of the story, since I was guessing about the dialogue about half the time). Now, I’ve read the books to my kids twice, yet I still don’t touch Kiera’s LOTR geek quotient.

A hundred or so years into the history of cinema and we’re starting to see what a visual literature might look like. If a $450 million investment is required, we’ll see precious few of these kinds of cinematic cultural events. But, with a box office headed north of $2 billion and maybe a billion more in merchandise, this is a watershed event in investment in artistic vision.

Social Networking Deconstructed

Kevin Werbach made a veiled reference to a Spoke connection request I sent him, asking for an introduction to Paul Krugman, whom I’d like to recruit for an O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference panel. I tried Spoke after meeting the CEO, Ben Smith, at the Red Herring Conference last week.

I have another much more direct route to Krugman that I am working on, since it would be good to get him to come speak on at the event sans his usual speaking fees, but since I’m experimenting with social networking technology all the time, why not give Spoke a shot, since it told me that Kevin and two other people I know are somehow connected to Krugman.

Interestingly, the two Spoke connections I’ve tried to mine so far, including CEO Ben Smith, have resulted in the request being sent “outside the Spoke network,” which was mildly irritating, since I have Ben’s business card. Both Krugman links have turned out to be dead ends, since they involved people who had merely sent email to Paul Krugman about his column.

Yet, it is clear that understanding and analyzing a social network can produce big results. As the Washington Post reports today:

The Army general whose forces captured Saddam Hussein said yesterday that he realized as far back as July that the key lay in figuring out the former Iraqi president’s clan and family support structures in and around Hussein’s home city of Tikrit.

Following a strategy similar to that pioneered by New York City police in the 1990s, who cracked down on “squeegee men” only to discover they knew about far more serious criminals, Maj. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said his analysts and commanders spent the summer building “link diagrams,” graphics showing everyone related to Hussein by blood or tribe.

Arnold Kling wrote in response to Kevin Werbach that he thinks weblogs might just be as good as formal linking services. This is only true in the sense that the connections come cheap, in that they can be advertised on the requester’s blog, but I don’t think they’ll yield better success rates. I have found LinkedIn to be useful for some connections and, based on early use of Spoke, it looks promising, too. In every case, from publicizing the request on a blog to spelunking social networks, I have to make the request public and explicit, which comes at a cost to me that is measured in lost confidentiality, a price that may be too high in many circumstances.

At the same time, what is interesting about the social networking technology is that it forces requests into a semi-public venue, making us think about them more explicitly. I’m not sure that does much in terms of making successful connections today, though it certainly makes the “pain” social networking software hopes to address more explicit.

When I was on the founding board at Match.com, we didn’t know how long people would date, whether they would come back after a failed relationship or anything else that allowed for solid revenue projections for the first 18 – 24 months. I think the social networking folks are facing the same challenge. It remains to be seen if the social networkers will get the capital to learn these lessons, but I am hopeful that they will succeed. In the meantime, it is clear to me that the more purposeful the networking service offered, the more successful it will be in satisfying users’ expectations. If anything, the social networks today are suffering from a lack of clarity about what they offer, so that all sorts of crazy expectations, like the idea that relationships will become frictionless, get lathered onto the term “social networks.”

A national policy on the Internet?

David McClure, CEO of the US internet Industry Association, writes on CNET that the United States needs a policy on broadband. Actually, he writes about a lot of stuff, though the result is such a muddled agenda that it is not hard to see why this particular special interest group isn’t seeing success on Capital Hill.

McClure begins by correctly pointing out that the economic recovery isn’t reaching into the Internet industry:

…manufacturing jobs fell 24,000 in October, led by yet another decline in computer and electronics-related manufacturing. We lost 6,600 of these jobs, including 2,300 for computer equipment, 700 for communications equipment, 4,100 for semiconductors and 200 for electronic instruments.

In fact, the economic recovery isn’t reaching very many industries. There’s hardly a recovery to speak of, given the fabulously large incentives offered up to investors by our supply-side gurus in the White House. But McClure uses this to jump off on a series of demands that he says are essential to the revival of the Net industry:

Make spam illegal. As much as I dislike spam, making it illegal would be the worst thing for the Net, as so much of the excess capacity built in the late 1990s is soaked up by this junk. Don’t make spam illegal, make it cost the spammer. This could be implemented by deploying an accounting system and address registry that allowed users to bill the spammer for bandwith and storage consumed by unwanted email.

Pass a permanent moratorium on taxation of Internet access. This conflates a couple different tax issues. First, the application of local sales tax to Internet purchases is well understood and easily calculated based on the location of the seller and the buyer. We should not begrudge taxation of revenues realized in a particular locality, but we should resist the layering of multiple and arbitrary tax regimes on transations. Second, McClure makes specific reference to taxation of Internet access–this is a matter for local tax districts to decide based on debate and discussion among the people who reside in each locality. It would be unreasonable to expect people to pay taxes because their packets pass through a locality where they don’t live, but leave the state, county and city governments of the country the right to decide how they will deal with local access taxes.

Deregulate the Internet. This is such a broad statement, one that is unexplained, that it is impossible to assess what McClure means. What he seems to be complaining about is not the lack of deregulation, but the lack of subsidies and public spending to promote various physical network build-outs: “Wireless Internet is barely considered at all; satellite Internet is ignored; and policies that could spur investment in voice over Internet Protocol may finally get some consideration–next year.”

Create a national broadband policy. Again, we need more policy for the Internet, even though it needs to be deregulated? Get the story straight before you head into the Beltway. It’s pretty clear that the agenda McClure lays out is full of contradictions. If so, then deal with the issues one at a time based on the priorities appropriate to each goal, but don’t go to Congress with an agenda that would have them make laws on the one hand while endorsing deregulation on the other.

This is a truly muddled lobby.

40,000 hotspots and counting

In-Stat MDR has reported that wireless access point growth outstripped projections during 2003, reaching more than 40,000 locations , even as “usage of hotspots continues to lag.” The lack of usage revolve specifically around the average revenue per user and number of times a year that travelers used public access points.

The average user surveyed by In-Stat spent $12.10 a month on wireless hotspot access and logged onto a wireless network only six times during the year (which doesn’t jibe with the average price per connection I’ve seen, around $6.50 per day). In any case, the news is good for computer users, because they can connect more places, but it also points to a potential glut of connectivity from the network providers’ perspective.

At the root of the usage issue is what the right price for a connection might be. Network providers are selling full days at $5.95 to $12.95, and that price range is skewed to high based on the lower ARPU they are realizing. But, we might also see fractions of a day or hourly connectivity in the one to two dollar range, which would be more attractive to users passing through an airport or another hotspot during the day.

Camillus at the gates

Amidst all the debate about contracts in Iraq, there remains the continuing ham-handedness in Bush Administration foreign policy. It comes down to the fact that, when standing astride the world, a great nation cannot be a bully. I’d only point to the example of Rome, where warring with most of the cities of Italy led to the first sack of the city by the Gauls because Rome was left to stand virtually alone against the horde. In the midst of that series of wars, Roman tribune and former dictator Furius Camillus provided a striking example of how acts of generosity in the midst of strife can be more powerful than any aggression.

Camillus, according to Livy, had taken up a siege of the city of Falerii, when a schoolmaster who taught the sons of the leading citizens of Falerii betrayed the city and turned the boys over to Camillus:

He had, he said, given Falerii into the hands of the Romans, since those boys, whose fathers were at the head of affairs in the city, were now placed in their power. On hearing this Camillus replied, `You, villain, have not come with your villainous offer to a nation or a commander like yourself. Between us and the Faliscans there is no fellowship based on a formal compact as between man and man, but the fellowship which is based on natural instincts exists between us, and will continue to do so. There are rights of war as there are rights of peace, and we have learnt to wage our wars with justice no less than with courage. We do not use our weapons against those of an age which is spared even in the capture of cities, but against those who are armed as we are, and who without any injury or provocation from us attacked the Roman camp at Veii. These men you, as far as you could, have vanquished by an unprecedented act of villainy; I shall vanquish them as I vanquished Veii, by Roman arts, by courage and strategy and force of arms.’ He then ordered him to be stripped and his hands tied behind his back, and delivered him up to the boys to be taken back to Falerii, and gave them rods with which to scourge the traitor into the city.

The citizens of Falerii, seeing that Camillus would not take advantage of treachery to capture hostages, surrendered and the city was taken without bloodshed. Machiavelli, in his Discourses, wrote of Camillus that “This authentic incident affords us an excellent example of how a humane and kindly act sometimes makes a much greater impression than an act of ferocity or violence; and how districts and cities into which neither arms nor the accoutrements of war, nor any other kind of human force would have been able to obtain entry, it has been possible to enter by displaying common humanity and kindness, continence or generosity.”

Now, back to today: The question is raised constantly whether the United States should fight the war on terrorism or whether it wants to (particularly by neo-con ideologues who claim anyone who criticizes any action in the War on Terror is acting traitorously). Meanwhile, the United States spends time claiming that it wasn’t responsible for the felling of a wall during a military attack that killed six children in Afghanistan, as though the wall would have fallen if the U.S. Army hadn’t been firing artillery at or near the building. We have to recognize that we are judged in detail by the world, as well as in general — and debate about the details of our actions among citizens of the United States is patriotic and good.

Our President has failed to exercise any discretion in his diplomacy, repeatedly offending people and countries for small differences of opinion or for differences in the remote past in diplomatic time, when a few acts of honor that set aside immediate U.S. interests in favor of the interests of other people would tip the scales dramatically in favor of the United States’ goal of a peaceful world. Saying that President Bush is an awful statesman is patriotic, because President Bush is not the United States, only its temporarily elected executive officer.

We need more acts of compassion and humanity and fewer acts of force and strength by the President to complement the many heroic acts of humanity by American soldiers in the field if we are going to lead the world to peace.