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Digital Democracy Teach-In at ETCON

By February 17, 2004websites

Last week I attended the Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego put on by O’Reilly Publishing. Actually, I only attended the first day’s event, which was a ‘teach-in’ on Digital Democracy that featured many notable speakers and many idealistic audience members. What follows are my thoughts on that discussion.

Tim O’Reilly, the Emerging Technology Conference organizer, explained his motive for hosting a sub-conference about ‘digital democracy.’ He said that he aims to “change the world by spreading the ideas of innovators, and ‘digital democracy’ is one of those ideas.” It was an inspirational introduction.

Indeed, the Digital Democracy conference was an uplifting ‘we the people’ kind of gathering, populated by people who fervently believe—and convincingly argue—that the Internet is changing our political landscape. If you listened closely you could almost hear the unofficial theme song: the1960’s Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth.”

There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there. A tellin’ me I got to beware.

So exactly what is going on? Well, we found out—in case we didn’t already know—that weblogs and social software are making it easier than ever for people to connect and organize themselves without the blessing of some evil, profit-driven, ‘centralized’ authority figure. Frankly, if I were employed in the centralized-authority-figure sector of the economy I would be quite worried. We also found out that a new thing called ‘transparency’ will make it much harder for government officials to hide their evil ways. Thankfully, the Internet will bestow upon ordinary citizens (or those with high-speed Internet access) the power of X-Ray vision.

The first speaker was Joe Trippi, the Internet-savvy campaign manager who helped Howard Dean make an early run to the head of the Democratic pack. Trippi explained that the ‘broadcast model’ of politics and press coverage was in serious trouble. The Dean Campaign forced the Democratic Party as a whole to re-evaluate how it raised money:

It took a party that was moribund in terms of how it raised its money and where it got its money from and redirected that and now every candidate, Kerry and others, are all out there trying to replicate someway to attract small-dollar donations over the Internet and build a community over the Internet. They have their blogs.

Trippi criticized the Democratic Party for not truly being a “Party of the People.” If it were then the Democrats would be the leading party in raising money from people who gave $100 or less, $1,000 or less, $10,000 or less, or even $1 million or less. The lesson of the Dean Campaign is that campaign money can be raised in small chunks from ordinary folk using the grassroots power of the Internet.

Trippi told the audience that the mainstream press doesn’t ‘get’ the Internet and the salutary effect it is having on politics. But, at the same time, he told them that Internet users don’t really appreciate the realities of our political system, such as the interesting factoid that there are 33 congressional lobbyists for every member of Congress. As he said, “it’s all about the money.”

Speaker Scott Heifermann is the founder of, which was instrumental in the Dean Campaign’s early success. Heifermann confirmed that the Internet was going to revolutionize politics, citing as one example that MeetUp groups are now automatically generated for every declared candidate for Congress. He also showed us slides of one of the newest popular MeetUp groups: owners of PUG dogs. If there was supposed to be a connection between PUG dogs and politicians Heifermann didn’t explicitly say so. Why ruin the moment by pointing out the obvious?

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at NYU, provided some historical background on the public’s involvement in politics. He noted that the era between 1760 – 1860 was one of transformation of the notion of ‘public’ to include the entire population. In other words, the movement has been increasingly one where more and more people have access to key information. We have the Internet to thank for this.

Jeff Jarvis was a rare voice of conservatism (at least relative to the majority of those gathered at the conference). Jarvis, a long-time reporter and editor, said that there has never been a more important time than now. The Internet has put all of the important information that one could ever want online; this has had the effect of revealing that most political reporting is not really reporting at all (it’s basically just the pack following the herd). Political reporters, he said, should work harder than ever to truly report, which means actually figuring out what the politicians are hiding from us (see discussion of ‘transparency’ above).

Speaking of transparency, Phil Windley was on the panel entitled “Electronic Voting & Transparency.” By now many of us know that there is consternation about the integrity of electronic voting. On the one hand, electronic voting promises to make voting easier and more convenient so that more people can participate. On the other hand, it promises to create a digital honey pot for those would manipulate vote tallys to gain political advantage. In order to ensure that the voting process is sufficiently ‘transparent’ there must be auditability of the vote tallys. And how would this be accomplished? Most likely, by something called “voter-verifiable paper ballots.” Yes, that’s right: paper ballots.

Apparently, if you want to have a smoothly functioning digital democracy then you are going to have to put up with some paper. Someone noted that we still haven’t mastered the art of discerning voter intent from ballots, at least not if the last presidential election was any indication. Digital ballots are easier to ‘interpret’ at the same time they are easier to forge. So it looks like electronic voting isn’t going to help us get closer to a Utopian Digital Democracy.

Then there was the panel on ‘Political Blogging’ which included former White House journalist Mitch Ratcliffe and Internet evangelists Doc Searls and David Weinberger. Talking about the early success of the Dean Campaign, Doc Searls remarked that the Dean campaign galvinized bloggers, but not necessarily anyone from the A-list of bloggers (a hierarchy among bloggers? Yes, but a de-centralized one).

Esther Dyson rose to the microphone during the Q&A to address the issue of the Dean campaign that no one seemed to want to talk about —namely, if Dean’s grassroots support was so powerful, why did he fail in his bid for the nomination? The answer, she suggested, was contained in the old adage that ‘nothing will kill a bad product faster than good advertising.’ Perhaps that’s what happened with Dean’s campaign: people liked the idea of his campaign more than they liked him.

Indeed. I had a similar feeling as I left the Digital Democracy Teach-In. Perhaps we all like the idea of digital democracy more than we will like how it will work in actual practice. I suspect, in actual practice, digital democracy will be a lot like non-digital democracy: filled with contrary views (expressed in a cacophonous din of digital communication) that make it difficult to reach important decisions quickly and efficiently.

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  • AST says:

    Yep. Democracy is maddeningly to those of us really qualified to rule.

    I’ll bet that there aren’t even as many paying attention on the internet as those who vote.

    By the way, how’s computer voting going?

  • Steve says:

    Interesting summary. It obviously wasn’t ghost written by David Weinberger. 😉 To date the marvelous democratic art of blogging seems to merely add a large number of semi-pro and amateur journalists who chase every conceivable rumor and generally ignore real content. Witness the (finally dying) Kerry affair with an intern and the nonsense about Bush’s guard record (which still has some legs it would appear). In setting us free from mainstream media we receive the gift of what most resembles two neighbors exchanging rumors over a fence in their back yards.

    After a brief discussion they adjourn to their other adjoining fence and exchange new and old gossip with another neighbor. And so it goes…high tech democracy in action. Perhaps “technology” aids in simply increasing the number of backyard fences. Alas, the golden years of rural America where 10 or more neighbors shared a telephone party line and passive participation was possible by simply picking up the receiver and listening in.

  • Billie Wagner says:

    Truly, why has not some enterprizing person put the most important information about the voting in the elections.that is how many people voted out of how many are eligible.and how many will, or, have voted in previous elections.not the precentages that mean diddly squat.

  • John Thacker says:

    If you believe, as I do, that political disagreements stem from honest disagreement about proper policy issues, then, yes, digital democracy will be very much like ordinary democracy, just more efficient in certain ways.

    I think that at conferences like this too many people seem to assume that “the people” all have the same ideas and political objectives as they themselves do, and if only there were better organization then all their goals would be achieved. I think it’s dangerous and ridiculous to talk about “the people taking back Washington,” when it’s really some of the people trying to win the majority from another group of the people.

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