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The Internet--industry Or Democracy?

This morning marks day one of the 2008 Personal Democracy Forum, convened at the beautiful Lincoln Center in New York City. The conference, lovingly shorthanded as PDF since its inception in 2004, addresses the intersection of technology and politics. Heavy-hitters like Laurence Lessig, Arianna Huffington, Elizabeth Edwards, and dozens of others will address the exponentially growing movement for transparency, fueled by expanding internet and new media technologies. More importantly, a phalanx of hyper-wired professionals in media, politics and IT are gathered--a computer in each lap--to fix and frame and promote the possibility of “rebooting the system.” The system is as much political as it is technological; day one will deal with innovations in the deployment of information; day two seeks to incorporate the wisdom of internet crowds into an empowering framework for political engagement. Eve and I will be Planking dispatches from the conference all day.

Micah Sifry is emceeing the morning events, and digs right into the language of computer technology as an analog for civic action. “The application is running slow,” he says; “we want to run some new software”—from city halls to congress to corporate environments. It’s a message that resonates with the sizeable blogging contingent in attendance, happy to hear that they are “more truthful and more informative than the ‘bigfoot pundits.’” He makes mention of various, new transparencies in government, fueled by the netrooting phenomenon—which has actually birthed some bureaucratic changes at the federal level (who knew the Transportation Security Agency had a blog?)

The splendidly named Zephyr Teachout, who directed internet organizing for Howard Dean in 2004, follows SIfry with a reflection on her previous statement, that “in the political evolution of the internet we have barely touched the surface of its potential to shift the locus of political power.” She marks two languages of internet politics, one industrial, one democratic. The former is a marker of scale—an industrial vision valorizes huge numbers, like a million facebook members for Obama, or 1.5 million internet uses who now know Harriet Christian. According to Teachout, these are primarily “miracles of industry,” achievements without explicit political context. The democratic vision of the internet, however, is “interested in distributing power,” and is particularly suited to doing so via political means. She speaks of five percent of the nation being presidents of various volunteer organizations as a clear proof of a national habit for group-forming.

The idea that civics can be driven by consumption and competitive markets--and that business and innovation can also be meaningfully democratic--is a powerful one. What I’ll be looking for over the next 48 hours is a meaningful bridge between these languages, with the aim of encouraging what's apparently a natural American tendency: community organizing.

--Dayo Olopade