Get Over the Rainbow

The Democrats have had a nice ride with the rainbow coalition. It was brilliant to build such an open tent and to thereby gain the political clout carried by the real majority in the US: its minorities. But a new golden coalition is waiting at the end of the rainbow: those connected by even more than mutual self-interest: the continuous dialogue of the ‘Net, serving up tangible-seeming communities forged from ephemeral TCP/IP packets.

Like the eye fooled by 30 fps film, thinking it’s watching reality, our brain eagerly maintains the illusion that on-screen traces of keystrokes are a tangible community. So pervasive is the illusion that people act on its imperatives, so the community is as real as any has ever been. Perhaps more real, since through it we embrace the best of our collective thinking and orphan our lesser inclinations.

Are We There Yet?

Since the future’s unevenly distributed, we might test new political possibilities earlier in some venues than others. Take New York City, for example. This is probably the most connected and forward-looking city on the planet. Is it possible that the next election for Hizzoner da Mayor could be driven by connectivity in ways that the moneyed establishment cannot imagine? If so, how might it happen?

Patron Age

Patronage was the most powerful lever of the old politics, the source of most political power until usurped by broadcast politics. Especially in a place like New York, politicians and their ward bosses and precinct captains made sure that voters got a free chicken every once in a while. Everyone knew that such favors were to be repaid on election day.

Imagine you’re a well-connected, reasonably prosperous, politically-oriented New Yorker who “gets” the ‘Net (that ain’t me, babe, not even for the purpose of this mind game). You might glimpse an opportunity to engage the best of the old and new politics in ways others cannot comprehend.

Instead of buying chickens to compel voter loyalty, politicians now buy TV slots. I assume that’s based on the belief that it’s better to hypnotize a voter into acquiescence than to do some small thing of real value for a real family. But might the ‘Net empower politicians disproportionately, delivering real value to voters as a scaffold for actionable loyalty–not with poultry but with the fruits of online community? Imagine with me a few expressions of web services as patronage writ large.

    This would be an extension of the project we noodled with last winter. It’s purpose is to bring together and energize three kinds of people:

       • Under-trained workers
       • Skilled professionals
       • Employers seeking skilled, motivated workers

    You could probably build a political machine based on this web service alone. At, you connect people seeking new skills with people pleased to demonstrate and coach them in anything from network administration through HTML coding to Word tables, business letters and the 500 courses that MIT offers online. As work skills have become more technical and specific, jobs have become a series of tech-based procedures strung together like pearls on a string, a tight coupling of skills with income.

    The key to is the participants’ required reporting of each hour of skills training–mentor and student describing their session together. If the model spreads, it’s not hard to imagine the get-togethers growing to thousands of hours per week, all provable and quantifiable.

    This is heady stuff for politics. Imagine reporting to voters that your web service has inspired a quarter million hours of skill training in the year before the election. Imagine further that you’re able to reach those engaged participants directly, to leverage your web service and promote the proven benefits of your proposed administration. When that happens, the candidates’ debates feature a guy who does business as usual, with the usual suspects, and a guy who’s not just promising improvements, but who’s delivering them to real people, by the thousands, every day.

    A cohort you should reach out to is the vibrant community of bright young New York professionals who spend their days working for dead white guys. This may be the best-educated, well-connected demographic on the planet, but no NYC mayoral candidate has made a coherent effort to reach them. Since so many of them are already prosperous, it’s harder to entice them than people looking to upgrade their skills. But one thing’s certain: they want a voice in the future of this great city and a sense of their collective power, whether they know it or not.

    My tactic would be to challenge them to build and maintain a virtual city government. Invite tham to engage the issues the city government is facing and stir up a messy and passionate debate about better ways to discuss things, think of things, run things. Expose these young lions to the public and find out how many of them have a future in governance.

    Simply by hosting the community of young professionals, you’d demonstrate that it’s a community worth hosting. It’s probably a genie you’d never get back in the bottle.

    New York is a Union Town. Union members, like it or not, do most of the work and collectively enforce the work rules that empower and constrain the Big Apple’s progress. Union members are outspoken but their passionate voices are filtered through union management’s alternate agenda. What if a private citizen with an eye on Gracie Mansion decided to sincerely embrace unions and their members’ personal and family challenges?

    What kind of a union-oriented web service might one commission? It would surely chronicle and celebrate the history of unions and their real but camouflaged contribution to our way of life. It would probably invite union members to speak out in their own voices, to mentor each other through comments and blogs, and weave a fine-grained tapestry of mentors’ and apprentices’ skills, voices and hopes.

    We might discover that union members’ emphasis on skills and solidarity resonates with geeks’ emphasis on working code and rough consensus; that people who believe that skills trump suits have a natural bond, regardless of the hue of their collar. Once you engaged that synchronicity, you might fuel an engine that could transform even a tradition-bound city like this.

You get the idea. Just by hosting disparate communities, one has the potential to engage and energize voters as free chickens never could. Once glimpsed as a campaign tactic, the failure to do so looms as a colossal oversight.

Opportunity, Meet Obligation

But is there more to such insights? OK, you’re a clued-in dude with the means, the insight and, possibly, the ambition to com
mission these web services. Do you go ahead with them?

Turn it around. If you glimpsed that vision, how could you fail to deliver these services? Whether or not you were jonesing for the Office, if you have the vision and means, what keeps you from offering the services? They are obvious, straightforward and powerful. Would a modern-day Carnegie, possessing a fraction of the means and vision, shrink from the possibility, once glimpsed? That would be the equivalent of ignoring a person lying on the track of the A Train, with five minutes before arrival.

So possibility segues, compellingly, into obligation. The coincidence of insight and near-zero costs make the unthinkable proximate and the grand gesture quotidian.

It’s a strange reality we’ve built. The sweeping ambitions of statesman are overlapping the incidental expressions of enlightened citizenship.

10:46:25 PM    

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