The Winter of our Discontents

Last month, Doc riffed about a conference held at Georgetown yesterday, Digital Power and Its Discontents:

The title and description raised a number of questions for me. Is power always a sum of something? Does disruption always subtract power from whatever it disrupts? What is “digital power” and how is it applied? What makes private and public “sectors”? Are they really that separate? Why does the possessive pronoun “their” apply to citizens?

The word balance calls to mind something like the image on the left. You have a sum of X in one place, and it’s balanced by a sum of Y in another. For many subjects involving power the metaphor applies. There is a given sum of gold in the world, for example. But does power always pile up in ways that a scale suggests? Does it pile at all?…

…For that conference, and for the rest of us in the meantime, I invite considering this: The entity with the most power to gain is the individual…Giving individuals more power is the job ProjectVRM and its development communities have taken up. But it will happen anyway.

It’s tempting to focus on what Big Bad Government and Big Bad Companies are doing. They hog spotlights they deserve in any case. But digital technology makes many other places no less deserving of spotlights. Our ability to learn, to inform and to act, will only grow. If we’re busy being discontented with others who have more power at the moment, we’ll get less done. And we’ll miss out on a lot of the fun.

Doc and I agree that what’s most fun is ‘building shit’. That means web applications that have a reasonable shot at routing around our most vexing economic and societal constraints. And we agree that if you’re discontented, you’re less likely to build something with that magic route-around power. Lots of work has been done, on projects with a good purpose, but they all seem to be focused on politics rather than government.

Doc’s ProjectVRM seeks to invert the power balance between customers and vendors, while my personal project is to invert the power balance between lawmakers and voters. I had no interest in attending the Georgetown event because I’m a guilty instigator of the Tragedy of the Netroots I described last month. Following the Howard Dean half-time celebration-cum-meltdown in 2003-4, we Internet utopians just knew that We-the-People were about to wrest control of the political power levers from the political hacks. The fact that nothing even close to this happened should cause We-the-Netroots to reconsider our assumptions. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, people convene meetings like the one at Georgetown to opine where all this is going.

The mechanisms behind We-the-Netroots’ collective failure were a mystery to me until I came across Kevin Kelly citing The Shirky Principle, “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” Kelly asserts that “complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem”. Kelly notes the tension between institutions’ business as usual and edge phenomena:

In his brilliant, classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clay Christensen demonstrates how disruptive technologies almost always arise from the margins of an industry, where they start out as insignificant, or toy, solutions. Honda’s hobbyist electric bicycles were no threat to the big four automobile companies, until electric bikes become motorcycles and motorcycles became small efficient cars. Cheap crumby dot matrix printers were no threat to big offset printing companies until dot matrix became inkjet printers and inkjects became the HP Indigo 5000 on-demand printers. In each case, the solutions were marginal, barely working, at first, and therefore ignored.

And therefore huge.

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