Open Sourcery

I’m privileged to be the Senior Lurker and Occasional Contributor to the team that’s building AmericansForDean (A4D)–Zack & Josh and all the rest. After having my open source sensors tuned up at OSCon last week, it’s fascinating to watch these guys re-inventing democracy out in the open.

These truly are the best of times, because our tools have become permission-free. Just as there is no way to stop us from Purchasing the Dean Campaign by buying our own votes, there is also no way any force on earth can keep citizens from giving themselves the tools to contribute money, ideas, talent and shoe leather to the political activity of their choice. A4D is building an open source toolkit. I call it Campaign-in-a-Box (notice that little RSS Feeds widget in the center):

There’s an interesting aspect to all open source tools: These are commodities that, like Google or the ‘Net itself, stop working if passionate people don’t show up each day, as Tim O’Reilly pointed out in his OSCon keynote. You may have all the money in the world, but unless you invest yourself in the results you promise to the world, there’s no there there.

The scarce resource is NOT capital, but rather the ideas and energy to make commodity tools do insanely great things. Once there’s a resource scarcer than capital, are we still practicing capitalism? I’m not sure.

Mistake-based Talent

Different organizations treat mistakes differently. When I flew airplanes for Uncle Sam, we always talked about fuck-ups. They are the raw material for all aviation stories, since aviation is hours of sheer boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. We all agreed that aviation rules are just a collection of be-nos.

Yeah, be-nos. As in “There’ll be no more of this and there’ll be no more of that.” Every action you take in an airplane is surrounded by the hundred ways you could screw it up with spectacular results. You’re never on course, you’re correcting back to course. You’re never on time, you’re adjusting to make your ETA. And bombs dropped by humans are never right on target.

I saw that kind of approach in my consulting to a couple of university medical departments. Every week, they hold an “M&M”–Morbidity and Mortality Conference about what went wrong the previous week. Doctors talk proactively about mistakes for the same reasons pilots do–their mistakes are so obvious and so significant. Perhaps Dr. Dean will talk about mistakes as well as successes, for how can anyone enjoy success without committing errors?

The same is true for engineers and programmers. Programmers write code and immediately list all the things that are wrong with it. A group of programmers talks about what’s wrong, ways things can be done better and then they go away and do real work to improve performance the next day. Here’s the kind of thinking you get from a programmer:

I did this in perl, and I can probably port the code, but I don’t quite know what
sort of modules are available in php for mail header construction/deconstruction.

I added these notes here:
[URL for the Dev wiki]
Please tell me if I’m way off base here.           

(from an A4D volunteer email just in)

Perfection-based Companies

But that’s not how most companies behave. Companies never tell you what’s wrong, though it’s obvious that things are haywire. Instead they minimize problems and deflect criticism and suggestions. We’ve built a business culture focused so much on appearances that reality is nowhere in sight.

Most corporations only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.

It should be no surprise that, when a President campaigns as our CEO, his spin can outweigh his facts, causing some people–curmudgeonly sticklers for detail–to mistrust the spin behind the recent hostile takeover bid for a long term, low cost oil lease in the middle east.

Mistake-based Democracy

You don’t collect Internet clues if you’re in denial about your mistakes.

“The clue train stopped there four times a day for ten years and they never took delivery.”
— Veteran of a firm free-falling out of the Fortune 500

There’s a current notion in the body politic that it’s unpatriotic to discuss problems. Finding faults in America is equated with finding fault with the American experiment. Of course that’s just silly. We’re making mistakes every day because this nation is a human enterprise. People with an America–Love It or Leave It bumper sticker apparently can’t live in an imperfect world, preferring to be coddled in some theme park America where you’re surrounded by uncomplaining, politically passive citizens.

Doc writes today about the Dean Meetup he attended last night in Santa Barbara:

The main attraction for the event, from what I gathered from a few conversations, was a pitch passed among friends by email and phone: Maybe Dean has the best chance of dumping Dubya. The assumption seemed to be that Dean was the one Democrat who was not only taking clue train deliveries, but laying as much track as possible. This, of course, is why I’m so interested in what the man and his campaign are up to.

On Tuesday Doc quoted his Cluetrain co-author:

Go back and read what Dr Weinberger says about “management.”

Every company already to one degree or another is a hyperlinked organization, although management may not yet know it.

…(get) out of the way. It’s not your job to create conversations, to create voices. It’s your job to listen to the conversations and voices alread
y there.

The web is remaking business in its image. This is a bottom-up, distributed network of people creating their own loose structure. You’re not in charge anymore. Resist the reflex to reassert your control.

Here’s what’s cool: What’s happening in slow motion to business is happening rapidly to politics. So far the Dean people are taking advantage of the change.

Wow. “What’s happening in slow motion to business is happening rapidly to politics.” And then I got it: Politics is like war, where you improvise within a tactical framework, without the luxury of endless staff meetings.

Unlike past campaigns, Dean’s Campaign Manager Joe Trippi is running one that doesn’t claim to know it all. He acknowledges that he’s learning from the comments posted on the campaign’s blog. The campaign’s bloggers, Zephyr and Matt and Joe and (oh yes) Howard, are having a conversation with their supporters, speaking in a human voice:

Doonesbury Getting Local with Dean Again
I haven’t been linking to every single Dean-focused Doonesbury because there are too many — but I can’t resist this one. Dean supporters organizing with the Get Local tools are featured again.

Technology happens fastest in war and communications technology is happening fast in this campaign. The campaign has built a rapid feedback loop that’s not going to disappear after the election. These donors will be just as demanding of the President they bought as any other donors. And that’s where the A4D network comes in. Remember that widget called RSS Feeds in the network graphic?

It’s a technical breakthrough in campaign organization, a chaordic disruption of party politics, and another genie freed from its bottle. This is a big deal:

  • The campaign (or resulting presidency) can’t ignore the comments posted to its own blog
  • Interesting comments rise through the Dean sites to reach a broader audience
  • More information moves to the campaign than from it
  • More initiatives and work get proposed and acted upon from outside the campaign than within

Consider these two comments (of 127 so far) to the blog announcement that former Senator Howard Metzenbaum (Ohio) is supporting Dean. This is the kind of ferment that’s not unusual in 19 minutes of Blog For America comments:

Hi bloggers etc. –

I have an idea that may sound strange, but I’d like some feedback. We’ve been doing a great job of getting the word out digitally, but I’ve become increasingly convinced that it will be our success outside the digital-world that will define this campaign. The thing that has been so great about this campaign, however, has been our ability to use the internet to do real grass-roots organizing and keep everyone engaged and excited.

I’ve been thinking that we could probably use computers to organize a huge outreach effort by building a one-to-one non-digital action database.

It seems like there are plenty of supporters who would be happy to make a few calls a day or write a few letters a week.

It also seems like we can (as a group) probably identify a number of the people who would like to hear from Dean supporters, (from Democratic mailing lists, friends, family, folks we talk to who want more information but can’t get online).

If we can employ a Database for sharing information about who we should call or write to, then we can be more efficient about using our people-power (letting the people who know a lot of interested people, but don’t have much time, share those contacts with people who have exhausted their personal resources but have plenty of time to help.

I’ve been moved by the effectiveness of the one-to-one campaigning, and since we definitely have the people power we’ve got to use it.

I worry about security problems etc . . . What does everyone think ?

Posted by Anne Bradley at July 17, 2003 04:53 PM

Response to Anne: Yes, capital idea. Logistically a bit of a problem, and perhaps security a bit of a problem also, but probably not insurmountable. The letter-writing campaign is a great idea, and many hands make light work. Computers might make a distributed mass letter-writing campaign possible.

How about it, Joe? Figure you can ramp it up? Let’s see; if 200,000 people each write one letter a week for six months, that’s 5.2 million letters…for Howard Dean and other Democratic candidates as well. And it’s on the cheap. No number of $2,000 hot dogs could buy it.

No other candidate can offer that level of assistance to state and local central committees.

Posted by Alan Barbour at July 17, 2003 05:12 PM

“Since we definitely have the people power we’ve got to use it.”

Has that kind of dialogue ever been conducted by anyone but campaign staffers? Have two voters ever designed a letter-writing campaign and ragged on a campaign manager to provide the contact data so they can get out the vote? But it gets better. The campaign staff is surely overwhelmed with the mechanics of the campaign. Will they be able to respond to Anne and Alan’s initiative? It’s not certain.

Has a campaign ever enjoyed the resources represented by A4D and thousands of other experts who consider it their obligation to manage data on behalf of the campaign? Experts with the means to design the data base, the User Interface, and acquire the data for their fellow voters to write letters and to report which letters have been sent and which calls made?

How does a conventional campaign, no matter how rich, respond to such passion? It’s a big challenge in a world where passion and smarts is the apparent successor to capital as the dominant force in our economy.

10:20:03 PM    comment [commentCounter (177)]

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