B.Y.O. Bias to the Virtual Party

It’s axiomatic that insights arrive in bunches, like lights going on in several windows at once. I felt so clever declaring yesterday that Dean’s best shot at winning the Presidency is to officially form the Great Centrist Party, the GCP, an act of chutzpah which no longer requires the irritant of owning assets to give voice to your constituents. I’d been thinking it for quite a while and circulating a white paper to that effect in Burlington.

Obviously I hadn’t been thinking about it as long as Everett Ehrlich, who had researched the idea’s resonance with the Nobel Prize-winning work of Ronald Coase and published his conclusions yesterday in the Washington Post. Coase won the 1991 Nobel for Economics by noticing that the cost of gathering information determines the size of organizations. As Ehrlich puts it,

It sounds abstract, but in the past it meant that complex tasks undertaken on vast scales required organizational behemoths. This was as true for the Democratic and Republican parties as it was for General Motors. Choosing and marketing candidates isn’t so different from designing, manufacturing and selling automobiles.

But the Internet has changed all that in one crucial respect that wouldn’t surprise Coase one bit. To an economist, the “trick” of the Internet is that it drives the cost of information down to virtually zero. So according to Coase’s theory, smaller information-gathering costs mean smaller organizations. And that’s why the Internet has made it easier for small folks, whether small firms or dark-horse candidates such as Howard Dean, to take on the big ones.

Well. Ehrlich’s article inspired responses from Slashdot, Cory Doctorow, Clay Shirky and John Robb, so I’m emboldened by that reaction to follow through on my threat to list the specific, technically trivial web apps that will, I think, guarantee a sweeping change in the nature of democratic governance.

My shorthand for those scaling issues is that an organization is stressed to the extent of its conversation opportunities. When the press, regulators, lawyers, vendors and customers are hounding you for feedback, you are trapped in a conversational black hole that means you can’t get the goods out the door.

But in the case of a campaign, the “goods” are conversations that result in sympathetic voter’s hands on voting levers, ballots and (shudder) touch screens. Dean’s people are not just the campaign’s voters; they are the national staff. They are the ones operating in the campaign’s novel permission-free zone. As far as I can tell from close up and personal, there’s no limit to what role you can play in the campaign, as long as you provide an end-to-end solution and don’t call on the paid staff for resources of time, attention or money.

Essentially, Joe Trippi’s mantra is, “Talk among yourselves and everything will work out.”

A conversation about our core American values and the explicit pledges we’re willing to make to each other will have the force of a new national political party, and there’s nothing the Rs and Ds can do about it. The Dems are screaming helplessly today. The trick is to make the Republicans join them in their impotent wailing in about 6 months.

Is there anything more American than turning the tables on those fat ass bad asses? In a campaign full of inspiration, the most inspiring truism I’ve heard came, as usual, from a blog comment: “Dean’s the messenger, but WE are the message.”

Do We Have the Stones to Design Democracy?

The change depends only on technology, and pretty trivial tech at that. If my premise is correct, this new political tipping point will inspire so many new conversations about governance and the role of individuals governing themselves that the promise of the Golden Age of Greece will be realized soon.

All we need is the stones to do it. The G[r]eeks voted with little round white and black stones–white for aye and black for nay, an eminently auditable voting system. Everyone could see the result when the top was taken off the clay pot, and each voter retained a receipt in the form of the opposite-color stone left in his hand. From a geek perspective, it’s all engineering.

Jay Rosen stopped by for lunch yesterday and he amplified what I had not learned well enough from his web site–that blog software so trumps the press mentality that we really are at the beginning of the end of the dominance of the master narrative that dominates the press: what Doc calls the “vs.” story: sports and conflict as the universal metaphor for life. Jay, a decidedly tech-averse guy, is so taken by Moveable Type that he anthropomorphizes the little widgets on its interface as speaking to him. “Use me,” he hears them calling.

The Revolution will be Engineered

I had a pleasant visit with Tim Bray at XML 2003 in Philly on Tuesday. Anyone who’s read Tim’s blog knows that he’s a polymath with broad and deep interests. In describing some of our challenges, he smiled coyly and disclaimed, “I’m just an engineer.” I laughed out loud. That’s like saying Howard Dean is an internist. True but less filling. Tim, like so many other systems designers, looks at the world’s most assertive democracy and wonders who designed its OS?

I’m an engineer at heart also, and so I assert that the sole difference between tipping point 1 and tipping point 4 is engineering and chutzpah. If you build it, they will come, but “it” includes a great User Experience.

Let’s start with some imagination: imagine that Dick Morris knows what he’s talking about in his Chris Lydon interview–that Howard Dean is dead meat because the Republicans have 40 times the email addresses as Howard Dean, and that Republicans are intrinsically more connected, through church, school and boosterism, than Democrats. If that’s so, we need to modify the tipping point options from yesterday.

Limiting Our Options

I was disingenuous when I suggested yesterday that I thought Dean has four options:

  1. Win the nomination and lose the election (the current smart money)
  2. Squeak by Rove et. al. and barely win the election
  3. Craft robust coattails using the Boswell strategy to eke out a majority in Congress
  4. Design and instantiate a virtual Great Centrist Party, the GCP, as Ehrlich describes,
    not merely a great tent but an immense echo chamber where the illusion of the press-inspired conservative-liberal polarity gives way to agreement on the specific issues that unite us:

    1. fair play
    2. financial responsibility
    3. love of family and friends
    4. reverence for our shared spirituality
    5. modest public behavior home and abroad
    6. freedom to be privately reserved or outrageous
    7. the right, as Greta Garbo pleaded, to be left alone
    8. the primacy of human beings over corporate persons
    9. mistrust of bureaucracy and its seductive handmaiden, unearned rewards

Alan Kay taught us that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. Recognizing that we’re forging a new political party anyway, and knowing that it’s easier to build our GCP than to win over the DNC, I say we pump enough fuel into this beast to get us to the destination and hold for the weather delay.

The New York Times reminds us today that Joe Trippi’s plan is more likely to be grand than timid. Joe’s vision, plus the military’s axiom that hope is not a plan, suggests we’d better go for the gusto and assume there are just two options, 1 or 4:

Dick Morris points out in his Lydon interview (.mp3) that it doesn’t matter who builds the tools of democracy: politicians will go where the voters go because that’s their food supply: visibility into the hearts and minds of voters could inspire a politician to practice Bikram yoga three times a week, if that’s what the constituents demand. If we want the democracy we think we were promised, we merely need to build it. Here are the pieces I can think of, your list will be better:

  1. Assertion Processor – RSS feeds of facts that matter
  2. Constituents’ Issues Assessment and blog archives of comments
  3. Explicit vertical and horizontal linkages among like-minded individuals
  4. A citizen-based Administration elected by a citizen-based campaign
  5. Citizen-based (not faith-based) programs for training, jobs & mutual support
  6. Peer-to-peer vigilance through our personal sensors and shared video archive
    1. of terrorism
    2. polling place coercion
    3. brutality by armed and unarmed bureaucrats

And a few other means, obvious to others, that are obvious to the citizens as we wake up, shake off our accumulated drowsiness and get it that we are the message.

I’ll flesh out my list next week, but why wait? As Joe Trippi might put it, Code among yourselves.

6:18:24 PM    

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