Extreme Democracy and More at Future Salon

Last night I went to the Future Salon: Extreme Democracy event in Palo Alto. I didn’t have school – Jewish holiday – so I didn’t mind getting back home until 10:30 PM. It was excellent, and free!

I had never heard of this concept of “extreme democracy” before but that being the topic (intertwined with internet stuff) made it quite appealing to me. There were three speakers – Ross Mayfield of Socialtext (excellent), Zack Rosen of CivicSpace (he started the key collaboration software behind the Dean campaign), and Tom Atlee, author of Tao of Democracy.

The audience was made up of hippies/idealists left over from the 60s, business guys in suits, geeks in t-shirts, and overall just really smart, politically engaged folks. Zack started off talking about his work trying to allow civic organizations allow their local branches to organize and make change – cool stuff.
Ross then talked about social software, wikis, and blogs and tried to tie those concepts into democracy and political organizing. Finally, Tom presented case studies from Denmark and British Columbia about how they think about democractic decision making. All in all, very interesting stuff, stuff that I want to learn more about and think about how Comcate can perhaps get involved given our work with local governments. Fundamentally this is about: How can we improve the democractic process that is our government? Highlights, tidbits:

  • In the 80’s, making your voice heard consisted of institutional lobbying, inside-the-beltway politics. Reagan changed all that by insisting the public contact representatives and apply public pressure. Someone asked if sending 1,000 emails and faxes to a congressman really does anything now versus a lobbyist presenting a $1k check. Ross smartly responded that it’s either $1k check or $1k worth of staff time dealing with all the public contacts.
  • The Dean campaign used a wiki for policy analysis and decentralized news analysis. In other words, different volunteers and staff would analyze various media outlets in different regions and post reports on a wiki.
  • Is Wikipedia authoritative? Well, the only thing we know is that the quality of each article gets better every 5 minutes. Ross mentioned that he is working with some professors and journalism schools to compare the quality of Wikipedia to Britannica.
  • Big/Old/Legacy/Mainstream Media exaggerates differences, disputes, and polarization because it creates better stories.
  • Ross doesn’t buy into the “echo chamber” concept because he thinks things are getting more transparent and that private email lists are turning into public forums.
  • In Denmark they have citizen-councils – a group of about 15 people who represent a complete array of interests, often competing interests. They bring together all these different constituencies and a facilitator and discuss important issues. In the process, “experts” on the issue will come and testify (“Experts on-tap, not on-top”) to the council. In essence, this is like a citizen jury that reflects the community’s values. People know don’t know a lot about the issue but are facilitated to a concensus statement at the end. Media and other citizens watch the proceedings and then it becomes a big issue for the real government to act on.
  • “Wisdom Generation”: The building of collective understanding among diverse groups.
  • This notion of concensus, deliberative, democracy supplements actual democracy, not replace.

I don’t know about you, but there is something really exciting about new ways of thinking about our democracy. Cleary, two giant, opposing parties who play a political game of inches is not going to move our country in the right direction. $100 M has been spent this election on what? George Soros says that after thinking about how to support philanthropic endeavors that back his values he concluded making sure Kerry wins is the best choice. I would disagree. If we spent all this money and intellectual resources on rethinking the very roots of our democracy, much better change could come. Check out Extreme Democracy and the Tao of Democracy.

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