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.

The Tragedy of the Netroots

As a volunteer for the Howard Dean campaign, I guess I helped start the “Netroots” – the net-savvy people who put grassroots campaigning online, leading to Obama’s success. I’ve come to realize that, in many ways, the netroots is old wine in new bottles. It’s hard to know if it has had any greater effect, proportionately, than direct mail politics in the 1950s. A similar “revolution”, direct mail was the first way that campaigns could reach voters directly without the media filter. Both used new media to elect the same politicians, who then operate the same obsolete way.

Among those obsolescent patterns is politicians’ willful disregard of their constituents’ preferences. Every day we are urged to “tell your representative to …………….” But our pleas, if we even make them, never match a cause with a voter who matters to an Olivia Snowe or Max Baucus. These messages are as futile as yelling at the support tech that their web site sucks.

If you don’t feel impotent about effecting change, you don’t understand the real game in politics as well as Matt Taibbi does.

The iVote4U system is fundamentally different. It’s about governance, not politics. Using iVote4U, you don’t care much who your politician is. Instead, you “push” your interests to him/her and make it clear that how the politician votes in Congress will affect how you will vote in the next primary election.

The most valuable resource in politics is a voter who shows up at a primary election. Like diamonds, they’re valuable because they’re scarce. Primary voters matter so much because most elections are safely Democrat or Republican. All the nuttiness we see in Congress is about primary elections, not the general. iVote4U gives certified constituents a way to use their primary vote pledges to give political cover to politicians who act on principle, so they don’t have to pander to the zealots who show up for the primary.

Like those zealots, iVote4U primary voters are loyal to a cause but not a party, but their loyalty stems from rational curating of a politician’s actions for years, with real consequences for the incumbent or challenger in the next primary election.

Called “Super Voters,” they are 3rd-party certified constituents, pledged to vote in the next primary, who are watching the politician’s actions, and will vote accordingly.

There is no greater threat or benefit to a politician’s career.

Size 18 Shoe in your front door. Comcast conflating content & broadband.

A couple of days ago, Susan Crawford alerted us to the Congressional hearing held today in Washington, examining what she calls the “Comcast transaction”, Comcast’s bid to purchase NBC Universal.

(FWIW, calling it the “Comcast transaction” without explanation, Susan reveals how far we insiders have distanced ourselves from the real people – voters – who might have an interest in an issue and might exert real political power on an acquisition that affects our ability to use broadband and to be free to deploy the Internet on our own behalf without interference from our Internet provider’s vested interest in the content they want us to “consume”. Out here in the nocluesphere, we have no idea what the “Comcast transaction” might be.)

Susan is rightly exercised:

  1. The transaction would give Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, control of one of the five large US content providers and about 30% control of  If the transaction is approved, Comcast will be behind about one out of every five viewing hours in the U.S.  We are a nation of living-room watchers, and Comcast will be there.
  2. Comcast is smart to be using control over content to guarantee dominance in broadband.  There are fewer competitors in broadband – usually two in any locality, a cable company and a telco – than there are in video.  Cable is already doing better than VZ/AT&T, and prices for high-speed Internet access are staying high and bundled.  NCTA says that cable modem service is “available” to 92% of homes.  We won’t be seeing VZ or AT&T fiber reaching more than 40% of households over the next few years.  Cable has a bright future.
  3. Comcast says that this is a vertical transaction that should not trigger competition concerns.  They point out that both the Comcast and NBCU cable networks together will add up to just 12% of national cable advertising and affiliate revenue.  (Comcast wants the NBCU cable networks (CNBC, Bravo, Oxygen), which generate 60% of NBCU’s earnings.)  They also say that online video content is so wildly competitive that this deal will have no impact.

And Susan suggests the questions that might come up on Thursday:

  • What power will Comcast have to shape the future of online video (or “Internet TV”)?  This transaction may make it less likely that people will cut the cord and disintermediate their cable provider, moving their online video-watching from their PCs to their large living room screens.  Comcast will have no incentive to make its content available online to non-subscribers.
  • Online video/Internet TV is a new market.  Right now, it’s relatively small and confined to PC-viewing.  Comcast says we shouldn’t consider potential harms to a future market.  Is that right?
  • What effect will this transaction have on the prices consumers pay for cable subscriptions and high speed Internet access?

But there is NO structural mechanism to ensure that those questions actually come up. Sure, on Thursday, under the currently trusted guidance of FCC Chair Julius Genachowski, the right questions might be heard. But would they have been heard under Dubya’s appointed tool, Genachowski’s predecessor, Kevin Martin? As citizens, can we afford to place our trust in the hope that the regulators will always have our interests in mind? How might we ensure that knowledgeable questions are asked in these crucial committee meetings? Since lobbyists can’t guarantee what questions are raised in a hearing, how might we?

“We” being, you know, actual voters. Maybe even *certified voters*, proven to be constituents of the representatives asking the questions and guiding the trajectory of the hearing. i.e., voters getting their democracy on.

Those are the kind of voters who drive politicians’ actions: the questions, comments and votes they express in committee hearings and on the floor of the Congress.

If there were a zoning hearing affecting your home, you’d damn well find out who’s on the Zoning Board and what their biases are. Likewise, if you want to affect a Congressional Committee Hearing, you need to know who’s on the committee. In this case, the committee is the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, reporting to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. So here’s the playing field of this particular subcommittee:

Rick Boucher, Virginia, Chairman

Edward J. Markey, MA Cliff Stearns, FL, Ranking Member
Bart Gordon, TN Fred Upton, MI
Bobby L. Rush, IL Nathan Deal, GA
Anna G. Eshoo, CA John Shimkus, IL
Bart Stupak, MI John B. Shadegg, AZ
Diana DeGette, CO Roy Blunt, MO
Mike Doyle, PA Steve Buyer, IN
Jay Inslee, WA George Radanovich, CA
Anthony D. Weiner, NY, Vice Chair Mary Bono Mack, CA
G. K. Butterfield, NC Greg Walden, OR
Charlie Melancon, LA Lee Terry, NE
Baron P. Hill, IN Mike Rogers, MI
Doris O. Matsui, CA Marsha Blackburn, TN
Donna M. Christensen, VI Joe Barton, TX (ex officio)
Kathy Castor, FL
Christopher S. Murphy, CT
Zachary T. Space, OH
Jerry McNerney, CA
Peter Welch, VT
John D. Dingell, MI
Henry A. Waxman, CA (ex officio)

There they are, 34 Congresspeople, concerned mostly about being re-elected in nine months, jonesing for $3,000 per day so they can buy as many ads as needed to convince voters (whoever they are!) that they are listening to their voters. I can’t find the quote, but $3,000 per day is what I remember from Larry Lessig and that’s good enough for me. On any given day next fall, these representatives will drive 45 minutes out of their way to meet a dozen or so of their (presumed) constituents in a gym or diner to demonstrate how well they listen.

Given those imperatives, how hard can it be for a few third-party-certified* constituents to get a question asked in a hearing, the asking of which costs the representative nothing and which may line him up for grassroots campaign contributions that the lobbyists can’t promise and, amazingly, might explicitly pledged votes? Those being votes that no lobbyist would even suggest they could corral for you. They’re not in the Get-Out-The-Vote business. “GOTV” is the essence of “retail politics”, and that’s what political campaigns spend lobbyist money on. But what if we voters got into the GOTV business? Hmmm.

Welcome to the new math of citizen engagement. In the bargain, voters’ questions might actually make the representative look well informed. But wouldn’t that reduce the contributions they might get from the interested corporations? How much would it matter? According to a 2006 report from

Between 1991 and 2006 major cable industry interests and their trade groups spent more than $105 million on campaign contributions to federal candidates and on lobbying in Washington. The five members of Congress who currently hold key positions on the crucial House and Senate Commerce Committees alone have received more than half a million dollars in contributions from major cable interests since 1991. Contributions went both to members’ candidate committees and their leadership political action committees (PACs).

It’s a lot of money, but how much might those fifteen years of contributions sway each representative? According to the FreePress report, Comcast has contributed $2,516,528 to Federal candidate committees and leadership PACs from 1991 to 2006. That amounts to $167,769 to ALL politicians through the period. Freepress notes that, in 2006, when Fred Upton, R-MI, was chair of the House subcommittee, he had received $118,997 from Comcast since 1991. Of course, it stinks, but it amounts to $7,933 per year.

Perspective: We hate the fact that our congresscritters, on average, must raise $3,000 per day to conduct a serious campaign. But shouldn’t we acknowledge that, for their apparent champion on the subcommittee, Comcast was only willing to provide 2.6 days of fundraising? Do we really believe that Fred Upton is willing to pervert his entire agenda for that mild level of support?

And Fred’s just the most highly compensated supporter of the Comcast devil. In fact, the other 33 committee members must be far less impressed, financially, with Comcast’s agenda. And you can bet that they also have broadband that sucks, and they know it.

So what’s the point here? American households, not corporations, have most of the money and all of the votes. Given the tools becoming available, we might be equipped to use them.

Back on station

My WordPress blog was hacked by a Romanian over a year ago. With so much going on, I was slow to get help. Finally, Doc’s impatience with me prevailed, and the amazing Christoph Berendes provided the secret sauce I lacked. Partially, Chris was motivated because he’s been displaying a quote and link from this blog since 2004,

Responding to 9/11

… we need to be warriors: take our losses, bury our dead, isolate our exposures, repair specific flaws in our systems and stick to our mission plan: … In America’s third century, [it] has not changed for 228 years: Our God-given purpose is to demonstrate that a varied populace from disparate origins can live peacefully under an open government that governs minimally but humanely.

Britt Blaser, 2004

Chris didn’t like his link telling people that my blog would harm our computers. That’s not my aim. I just wanna hurt our brains. Some friends know that my project, the Independence Year Foundation , has evolved away from the iYear branding to a two-part platform called iVote4U. That’s because it’s a better way to state what’s in the tin.

Here’s the current description, with enough links to screw up your weekend:

The iVote4UPolitician Management & Support System


Politicians care mostly about money and votes. The iVote4U Politician management system equips voters to manage politicians like coaches manage players: withhold money and votes from uncooperative politicians and find and elect better ones.

In practice, iVote4U helps you manage your politicians as easily as you manage your iTunes:

Rate, Promote, Collect, Discard politicians & never attend a party meeting.

Why? Because there is no system of collaboration sites for constituents to surround their politician with candor, collaboration and criticism. A site owned by the government, a party or a politician doesn’t provide this.

iVote4U: two parts that work together.

Part 1: a set of spaces, one per US representative.

The spaces are for constituents to meet, talk, and influence their reps.

Part 2: a Facebook app for voters to pledge action.
David Weinberger, Ph.D.: “The trick is that the app is set up so the rep can be certain that the

citizen is in fact one of her/his constituents.”

iVote4U’s Facebook Application Services

  1. Voter home page, with politician action panels
  2. Candidates for each office you vote for.
  3. Dashboard: Politicians you’ve “touched” in any way.
  4. Vote and Money Pledge manager.
  5. Vote bombs: Vote challenges you’ve issued or supported.
  6. Causes: the Facebook Causes you’ve sent to politicians.
  7. Invite Friends to join iVote4U.
  1. Politician Action Panel elements:
  1. Become a certified constituent to make politicians listen.
  2. Say Yes-No as a snap indicator of support.
  3. Pledge your vote with a firm calendar commitment.
  4. OWN your politicians: pledge to vote in the Primary.
  5. Pledge money to your favorite politicians.
  6. Form a powerful voting bloc supporting a Facebook Cause.
  7. Send a smiley, a frown or other emotion to your politicians.

Documents and links

DGSNA Social Networks A paper written by Britt Blaser, David Weinberger and Joe Trippi, accepted by the Digital Government Society of North America for presentation at its annual conference, May 2009. Subtitle: How Citizens can Aggregate their Money and Votes to Define Digital Government
USA 3.0 Returning to the Founders’ Vision by adding direct voter oversight of lawmakers in Virtual Political Districts
iVote4U Federation How the Virtual Political Districts relate to the iVote4U Facebook app
DGSNA paper compared to the iVote4U Federation Compares the recommendations in the DGSNA paper to the services provided by the

iVote4U communities andFacebook app

Power of Constituents Why constituent communication is so much more effective than email or nonprofit

campaigns, based on research by John Hird, Georgetown Univ.

Activist Guide How to harness constituents to manage legislation in committees
Virtual Leaders How “Virtual Leaders” can be a powerful force in politics
Benefits handout A single page overview, oriented to tech-savvy political activists
Misty Smith goes to Washington How a newcomer can use iVote4U to challenge an entrenched incumbent
Zipped package The above nine documents compressed into a single package (18 MB)
Super Voter Benefits Why blocs of certified constituents matter so much.

Analysis based on Power, Knowledge and Politics, John Hird, 2005

Dean Campaign papers Britt Blaser’s papers and documents developed in 2003-4

Who’s behind the iVote4U system?

The design and vision is provided by the Independence Year Foundation, a Not-for-Profit corporation. The Facebook iVote4U apps leverage the community and connectivity of the world’s largest social network.

The 585+ virtual political jurisdictions are being designed, built, hosted, maintained and supported by the companies who built and support Acquia Inc. and Phase2 Technology. (They can’t and won’t tell you that, but it’s public knowledge)

Running out of Sugar in a Beet Field

I have a default action when I run into the absurdity of grand potential limited by unimaginative capital. I haul out my tattered copy of Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All and re-read the best single paragraph ever written on economics:

During periods of so-called economic depression, societies suffer for want of all manner of essential goods, yet investigation almost invariably discloses that there are plenty of goods available. Plenty of coal in the ground, corn in the fields, wool on the sheep. What is missing is not materials but an abstract unit of measurement called ‘money.’ It is akin to a starving woman with a sweet tooth lamenting that she can’t bake a cake because she doesn’t have any ounces. She has butter, flour, eggs, milk, and sugar, she just doesn’t have any ounces, any pinches, any pints.(Skinny Legs and All, 1990)

Crossword contribution

palindrone |ˈpalinˌdrōn|

  1. a sequence of words that sound like communication when spoken but are equally meaningless when read backwords or forwards, e.g., in the great history of America rulings there have been rulings.
  2. a person who speaks in palindrones, often a person who does no useful work and lives off others.

ORIGIN early 21st cent.: from Greek palinagain+ Old English drān, drÇ£n [male bee,] from a West Germanic verb meaning resound, boom‘ ; related to Dutch dreunen to drone.