Chapter and Verse

I’m settling into the chapter I’m writing for an upcoming O’Reilly book on Emergent Democracy. The title is “The Revolution Will be Engineered.” Obviously, my continuing focus is on design and tools and as little conjecture as possible. That’s too bad, because conjecture sells better than specificity.

There was a lot of conjecture this week around the tech of campaigning and governance: starting with the O’Reilly Digital Democracy Teach-In (DDTI) on Monday and continuing all week at the Emerging Tech conference. This high level of conjecture frustrated me since so much of it was just mistaken, with so little interest in listening to anyone who was close to the subject being discussed.

That phenomenon–disregarding the insights of those close to the problem in deference to one’s own provably mistaken impressions–deserves a book of its own. (Of course, that would be redundant. The disconnect between fact and myth has occupied most philosophers. La plus ça change, la plus le même chose. Roughly translated, “The more things change, the more the memes stay the same.”)

I hope to continue to develop my chapter here in public. This thinking out loud will be mercifully brief, since my deadline’s the end of this month.

“You’re such a Tool!”

OK, I confess I’m a tool. Or at least a tool lover, which many consider the same thing. This comes up because there was a backlash against tools at DDTI on Monday and its aftermath. This caught me and Joe Trippi, separately, off guard. Joe expressed his amazement candidly over drinks on Sunday night and in a more restrained version in his much-quoted keynote on Monday.

I’ve come to enjoy and admire Micah Sifry, especially after flying to San Diego with him and Franz Hartl of MusicforAmerica. Our conversations carry the undercurrent of tool-building vs. a sentiment that sounds to me like, “Forget about tools, everyone just needs to get smarter and better organized and more conscientious. Sheesh!” Here’s part of Micah’s DDTI post mortem:

   For all the intense discussion going on online and in the hallways about what the Dean campaign did or didn’t do right, and on how social software tools can empower people, I’m amazed by how little interaction this community seems to have with people who actually know something about social movements, political organizing and power analysis. Perhaps that’s a reflection of how new to politics so many of the people here seem to be, and that’s ok. After all, DeanforAmerica (my shorthand for the decision to try to run an “open-source”-style campaign, as opposed to Howard Dean the candidate for President) clearly inspired many people both in and outside of the hacking community and the A-list blogging community to get excited about personal political participation, and hopefully that will be a lasting thing.

    But people here talk like all that’s needed is better tools, and then people will pick them up and take back their country from the powers-that-be. There’s almost no sense of how hard organizing actually is, or why. Britt Blaser, who I’m getting to know and like a whole lot, is talking about “one-click politics,” as if mobilizing people for collective action might be made as easy as buying a book on Amazon. Last night at the open participant session on continuing the Dean campaign, someone, maybe Jon Lebkowski?, said something about how change can take place in an instant, as if it were simply a matter of spreading the right meme or something.

    Umm, sorry, but change is hard.

(Umm, sorry, but due to a CSS error, Micah’s blog is almost unreadable)

My phrase was “1-Click for politics”, not “One click politics”. There’s a world of significance in the conjunction. Amazon’s inappropriately patented means for charging and shipping your purchase with the stroke of a mouse hasn’t revolutionized online purchasing, but it may be the seminal tool (that word again) that defines the Amazon user experience. Amazon is to purchasing as DeanforAmerica is to politics.

User Experience vs. Experienced Users

None of us cedes our turf gracefully. “Or Logic” means that the existing experts must fight new ways of doing things in order to survive. Frankly, Micah, I think that’s what’s going on here. Instead, we have to embrace “And Logic,” whereby we add the new thinking to the old and thereby increase the odds of achieving the shared goal. That is the essence of invention.

Tools are all we have. Micah Sifry is a bona fide authority because of his political activism and his authorship of 3-going-on-4 books and a sheaf of articles. His experience and ideas are important whether or not they are published, but we only know they’re important because they’re published. When Micah looks at publishing, he sees a cultural phenomenon and I see a technical one dependent on specific tools.

Without recent technical contrivances, Micah Sifry has no voice.

We only benefit from Micah’s voice because publishing now allows authors to type their own books and e-mail their drafts to editors. Public Campaign, which Micah serves as Senior Analyst is just one of many organizations with a tiny physical presence and a profound virtual one. In short, Micah Sifry, who works mostly out of his home, is a creature of the virtual world, deploying the tools of virtual presence, spending money that’s an electronic fiction to educate bright kids in how to be more effective in a world which, because of emerging tools, will look nothing like the world Micah lives in and, compared to the world Micah was born into, is pure science fiction.

Regarding Micah’s broken blog: a fascinating example of the importance of tools is what happens when they break, as did Micah’s blog almost a week ago:

Apologies to anyone reading this blog who is having trouble with the margins (or the lack of same). I’ve got my ace designer Bryan Bell looking into the problem and hopefully we will have it fixed soon. I would have gotten that going sooner, but in the process of engaging Bryan’s help I managed to lose my password to get onto my own blog!

I’m writing a quick web report on the Digital Democracy Teach In for The Nation, and a much longer piece for the magazine that will incorporate conversations I’ve had here with all sorts of interesting people. (If you want to know who, check out my expanding blogroll…) I’m also committed to talking to people from the other side of this equation: political organizers and academics who study social movements. If you have any suggestions on other stuff I should read or people I should talk to, I’m all ears.

I know that Micah is excited by and committed to his blog. As a professional writer he know
s the value of his bully pulpit, unimpeded by editorial caprice or publishers’ misguided business plans. He’s even learning the mechanics of FTP and CSS and, mirabile dictu!, what those acronyms mean.

For now though, Micah’s blog is unreadable, since each paragraph runs unchecked across the page: about 5700 pixels wide as I write this. Unless he fixes it, his most dynamic expression of his valuable voice will be silenced.

Micah Sifry’s voice is more dependent on tools than the tools are dependent on him: they arbitrarily give and taketh away, yet he dismisses rather than embraces the tool-builders’ naiveté.

This is not a great way to stay in the loop as we the tool-builders fire up our forges to make the next generation of arrowheads for Micah and all the other marksmen clamoring for social justice.

7:40:23 AM    

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