1. Networking a Green Democracy

In September 2000, I was invited to a unique gathering that brought together high-level Internet engineers with environmental activists and media professionals to strategize about the future of the Internet and the fate of the planet. In a beautiful retreat center surrounded by tall redwoods and Northern California mountains, we spent an intensive weekend discussing how new kinds of information technology could be used, not to make money, but to make our society more equitable and sustainable. Though you might think this sort of brainstorming session was common during the dot com boom years, that wasn’t the case. Activists and indy media pros rarely had direct access to top technologists. Since most funding for software development comes from big corporations, non-profit organizations and other social initiatives ended up using low-rent versions of tools built for business purposes. But for this gathering, we gave ourselves the freedom to ask if a different type of technology — created with social, rather than business, goals in mind ­– might incite a much deeper level of societal transformation. The conversation we started that weekend changed the direction of my life.

This possibility had inspired a tiny organization called Planetwork, which held a conference the previous May on the theme “Global Ecology and Information Technology.” At the time, these two subjects were an unlikely pairing. Few people saw a connection between the organic complexity of the natural world and the cold, corporate character of the military innovation called the Internet. But when I heard about the conference, I was thrilled that someone had made this linkage.

But then I always saw the Net differently than my dot com colleagues. During my twenties and early thirties I’d lived in New York’s East Village, splitting my time between community activism for peace groups and the homeless, and the downtown arts scene, hanging out with avant-gardists like Allen Ginsberg, Bernadette Mayer, and Richard Foreman. My day job was in book publishing, which was the family business. I got involved with the Web early on because of the opportunities it offered to create independent media, free from the control of global conglomerates, and led the launch of the Web’s first multimedia music zine, SonicNet.com, which in its early days was devoted to alternative rock and edge culture. My curiosity about the origins of digital media — “Where did hyperlinks come from?” “What was the first online community?” — led to my collaboration on an anthology that traces the history of computers as an expressive medium. From that research, I understood that the Internet’s potential went far beyond the basic combo of websites and email. But I hadn’t realized how profoundly the tools we use to communicate can effect how society operates, how people organize collaborative efforts, and how power is distributed among citizens. The meeting in the redwoods opened my eyes to amazing opportunities for a major societal shift.

Following the Planetwork conference, some of the organizers and participants convened about two dozen people for two days of blue sky conjecture, and I was invited. [1] Upon arrival, our hosts handed out a thought-provoking proposal that encouraged us to think outside the box. Consider this: There are easily 10 million Americans who feel strongly about the environment and want to do something that will make a difference. Is it possible to gather these people into a “green AOL” (at the time AOL was the largest online community), aggregate their purchasing power, and catalyze a network of green consumers that could help shift the market toward sustainable practices? Imagine what would happen if a coordinated green buying block was there to support new green and fair labor products and services, alternatives to the standard stuff offered by the market.

This kind of scenario was rarely, if ever, presented to high level IT pros, at least not by people from politics and media who might take their ideas seriously, and maybe even act upon them. Though quite a few engineers have progressive politics and sometimes — if they live in Berkeley — vote for the Green Party, their salaries come from industry or government clients who pay them to do engineering tasks that follow standard business models. They program systems that, in effect, support society as it is; they aren’t asked to envision society as it could be.

But when presented with the “green AOL” scenario, the techies in the room grew visibly excited and proposed a slew of extraordinary possibilities. What the techies realized — and what eventually dawned upon the rest of us — was that when you design communications systems using digital network technology, you are actually designing the behavior of the people who use the system. Most business IT is geared to make the people who use it more efficient as workers or consumers. Why not design communications tools that made people better, more engaged, citizens?

While most non-techies, and even many techies, rarely look at digital networks from this perspective, this potential was never lost on Douglas Engelbart, the visionary who invented interactive, collaborative computing in the 1960s. It was Engelbart’s lab at the Stanford Research Institute that gave us most of the ingredients that make the Web possible: sophisticated text editing, hyperlinks, online publishing, networked community, video conferencing, and the mouse. Unlike the businessmen who later turned interactive computing into a billion dollar industry, Englebart’s motive wasn’t to get rich (he didn’t), but rather to create a system that helped people to collaborate to solve the increasingly complex problems facing society. [2] He expected that there would always be a deliberate effort to improve our digital network tools based on the way people use them, and that society’s needs would be paramount in the development of these systems. [3]

After making amazing headway and launching a fully functioning prototype — which in some ways is still more advanced than today’s World Wide Web — Engelbart was in for a shock when public funding for his research dried up in the 70s. The purpose of digital media shifted to automating offices, rather than enabling increasingly sophisticated forms of collaboration to address complex problems. Tech innovation became driven by short-term market trends, and most people came to expect that high tech would always serve corporate and military interests.

But by that time, as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were first appearing on the scene, the key ingredients of today’s digital network were already baked into the system. Over the years, more and more people have noticed that the Web has certain democratic characteristics. They point to:

* How the Internet’s mesh-like, distributed architecture allows people to connect directly (peer-to-peer) rather than through centralized, hierarchical hubs;

* The way messages can flow in any direction, unlike the traditional “broadcast” model where information is sent to the masses from a centralized source;

* The fact that anyone anywhere can add a website to the network that can be seen by anyone else on the network at any time, and that each new website can potentially reach an international audience; and

* The way every digital file can be copied and replicated exactly, giving rise to the mantra “information wants to be free.”

The fact is, the folks who designed this system — west coast researchers like Engelbart and his team of grad students, many of whom took part in the Sixties counterculture [4] — knew what they were doing. The democratic potential of the Net did not appear by accident. Rather, the system these engineers designed embodied values that prized sharing, collaboration and transparency, and reflected a deep distrust of centralized, hierarchical authority. Military money may have paid for much of it, but the generals who signed the checks never fully grasped what they were funding. [5]

During our weekend retreat in the California redwoods, the techies — who aligned themselves with the Engelbart tradition — offered different approaches to mobilizing large numbers of people around shared objectives, and providing them with tools to coordinate their actions. The idea of a “green AOL,” though useful to consider as a conversation starter, was quickly rejected because a couple of us had worked with massive online communities like AOL and Prodigy, and were aware of the huge infrastructure and personnel expense necessary to support a single website with 10 million members (although that cost has come down quite a bit in the years since).

We began to explore other ways of connecting 10 million people online. As it turned out, there were several. The Net’s architects designed it that way. The techies brought up obscure, cutting-edge innovations that the rest of us had never heard of, but which have since become widespread, such as online social networking, Web page maps that displayed dynamic geo-spatial data, and personalized information delivery via online subscriptions. It took a while for most of us to grasp what these bizarre gizmos do — actually, it took a series of meetings every two months for over a year — but since then these abstract concepts have been made concrete thanks to Friendster, Google Maps, and RSS.

What the world hasn’t seen, however, are versions of these tools developed explicitly in the public interest to serve civil society. Imagine a Friendster (or, in today’s parlance, a Facebook) that connects you to a network of green shoppers in your community so you can coordinate purchases of local produce. Imagine using Google Maps to find farms in your area, and by clicking on the farm you could see how its water use is effecting the local water table. Imagine subscribing to RSS updates about water usage in your region that get sent when there is a drastic fall in water table level. And imagine being able to connect with all the other people in your community who have subscribed to that RSS update each time the water table drops to a danger point, so you can organize a community response to this environmental threat — and make sure to purchase produce only from farms that protect the water table.

This is a simplistic example, to be sure, but hopefully it makes a point: IT can be shaped to serve the public interest. We live in the era of databases. An extraordinary amount of information is already being captured on hard drives; every day it becomes easier and less expensive to do so. By linking computers to the Internet, that data becomes available to inform the public about how society manages its resources. It can also enable each of us to connect with others so we can self-organize into groups to take action.

These citizen action tools don’t exist today, but that’s not because of the engineering obstacles, which are relatively small. As the techies told us again and again at that redwoods summit, the challenge isn’t technical, it’s social. As a society, we simply do not make it a priority to design and deploy online systems that enable people to be more engaged in their communities.

 

2. Forming Groups

Of course, the democratic potential built into the Internet is being tapped in many ways. Groups like MoveOn, TrueMajority and Avaaz have waged many successful online campaigns, lobbying for legislation and changes in government policy, attracting millions of volunteers to their causes. Barack Obama stands on the threshold of becoming the next President of the United States, and if he does, his ability to attract donations over the Internet will be a big reason why.

But a more intriguing aspect of the web’s democratic potential is how it enables people with shared interests to spontaneously coalesce into groups of all sizes. In the subtitle of his book Here Comes Everybody, Internet analyst Clay Shirky calls it “the power of organizing without organizations.” The book describes how effective the Net is at attracting people to a project or cause. Shirky offers many examples of how simple tools like email, blogs, wikis and popular social networking sites (like Facebook and Flickr) give someone on a mission the ability to kick off and coordinate campaigns that can grow exponentially, engaging many thousands of people in a matter of weeks or months. Unlike in the pre-web days, these online efforts don’t cost a dollar in printing or mailing expenses. All they require is someone’s time.

Shirky tells how a Boston physician in 2002, after reading newspaper accounts of sex abuse by a Catholic priest, started a group in his basement called Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) to push for church reform. Nothing special about that. But within a few months, at its first convention, VOTF had 25,000 members. Thanks to the Internet the group was able to forward articles from the Boston Globe’s website to a steadily growing e-mail list. Some VOTF members had their own blog sites, where they reached even larger numbers of people, who in turn became VOTF members. As Shirky points out, it had always been possible to clip articles from the paper, Xerox them, and send them by snail mail to a group. But, as he says, “what we are witnessing today is a difference in the degree of sharing so large that it becomes a difference in kind.” [6] In addition, the low cost of aggregating information led to the formation of an activist website, BishopAccountability.org, which “collated accusations of abuse, giving a permanent home to what in the past would have been evanescent coverage.” Online social tools like websites for membership and e-mail for communications, enabled VOTF to “become a powerful force, all while remaining loosely (and largely electronically) coordinated.” A few years earlier, without the Internet, this would have been inconceivable.

Shirky is on the mark when he describes why digital networks have reduced obstacles to collective engagement:

“Technology didn’t cause the [sex] abuse scandal that began in 2002. The scandal was caused by the actions of the church, and many factors affected the severity of reaction in 2002, including the exposure of more of the church’s internal documents and the effectiveness of the Globe’s coverage. That combination was going to lead to substantial reaction in any case. What technology did do was alter the spread, force, and especially duration of that reaction, by removing two obstacles – locality of information, and barriers to group reaction.” [7]

Because of the Internet, people can circulate information more effectively, and gather more easily into group initiatives. But it would be a mistake to see the Internet as it currently exists as having fulfilled its potential. The obstacles that Shirky refers to may have been reduced, but they have not been removed. In the basic architecture of the Internet itself lie many untapped opportunities to extend its ability to support and amplify collective action. What we have today is pretty good, but it could be much better, exponentially so.

The fundamentals of the Internet encourage an open flow of information and connection, directly from one person to another (or to a group), without walls or intermediaries. But in practice, largely because of the online businesses that have been built upon the Net’s foundation, information and group formation can and do bump into walls.

Some walls are built by governments, as in China, where citizens are denied access to certain information. Other walls are more subtle, such as the wall erected by mainstream media to a news story that falls outside its narrow world view, even if that story generates considerable attention among an engaged group of bloggers and readers. Another wall could be imposed by the telecoms and cabal companies, if given their druthers to have a two-tier (or many-tiered) Internet that favors corporate product over independent voices. This threat has given rise to a “net neutrality” movement that has managed to protect the network to date, though future victories are not assured.

Another wall is the one that surrounds every online community, from MySpace to Twitter. When you join any of these sites, you fill out a profile from scratch. That profile information stays with the site, and you can’t take it with you when you go somewhere else online. For instance, when you leave Facebook and log into MySpace, all the information accumulated in your Facebook profile stays behind. Even though you’ve said on Facebook that one of your interests is environmental advocacy to preserve redwoods in northern California, no one on MySpace would know, unless you go through the tedious process of typing that same info into your MySpace profile, which most folks don’t. In fact, the profile you create on these sites isn’t even owned by you. That information is the site’s intellectual property. Their business models are based on the premise that they know what you want (thanks to your profile) so they can sell you things with laser-like efficiency. And they don’t want you to take that data away from them. Usually, they won’t even tell you what they plan to do with it.

But suppose that every time you joined a new online social network, without having to fill out yet another endless series of forms to describe yourself and your interests, people there automatically knew you were a rainforest activist (assuming you wanted them to know). Suppose that part of your “traveling profile” included testimonials from other activists you’ve worked with, so that people who meet you for the first time could see that among activists you have a good reputation. Imagine how much more effective that would make group formation for the environmental movement.

The technology to make this kind of “introduction” service exists today. In fact, there are a number of ways to do it. But don’t expect Facebook or MySpace to spearhead its creation. It’s just not part of their business model; their attention is elsewhere. In today’s climate, if the financial allure of a new digital service isn’t immediately apparent, it’s nearly impossible to steer significant resources towards its development, especially if more than three people in a garage are needed to create a launchable product. The “introduction” service would take more work than that, but not hugely so. Still, this kind of public interest tech is not easy to build a business model around – as a result, it doesn’t get done.

There’s a strange assumption that if an online tool is any good, it ought to make someone rich, even though history tells us otherwise: many of the key ingredients of our digital communications stew were developed in research labs by engineers who never profited from their innovations. For quite some time, though, digital research has been driven by the computer, telecommunications, and entertainment industries (which are increasingly blurring into the same, multi-headed hydra), helping them to advance their existing business practices. Meanwhile, few resources are available for innovating online social tools that make it easier for people to connect to information and each other so they can contribute to a sustainable future.

 

3. Digital Identity

Let’s return to that September, 2000, blue sky brainstorming session in the California redwoods. That weekend was so highly charged with possibility that the group reconvened every two or three months for a year and a half, switching back and forth between the Bay Area and New York, percolating a new world view based on the opportunities offered to civil society by applied IT innovation. Eventually the group was formally constituted as the Link Tank (“think tank” with a geek twist), though among ourselves we half-jokingly called it the Web Cabal. Some 50 people ultimately took part in these sessions, contributing to a radical vision of an egalitarian, sustainable society made possible by networked digital communications.

What made these summits special was having professional political activists and media makers in detailed discussion with senior engineers who really knew their stuff. These techies were architects of large IT systems that had scaled up to meet the needs of millions of users. Engineers like to solve problems. Usually, engineers are presented with problems like, “How can I protect my intellectual property, so that each time someone downloads my digital thingy, I get paid?” As you would expect, the engineer will then design a system meant to meet that objective. But the Link Tank asked its engineers a different kind of question, such as, “How can millions of people who care about the environment join collectively to take actions that will drive the marketplace to support more sustainable practices?”

As we discussed different scenarios, it became apparent that any system meant to connect one person to another because of their shared interests hinges on the personal “profile” of each participant. Your profile needs to say that you’re an environmental activist in order for other environmental activists to find you and make a connection. So how does that profile get created, and — most importantly — how much control do you have over it once it exists? After all, if your profile only sits on Facebook, and it isn’t even your property but rather is owned by Facebook, its utility is pretty limited. But if you could carry your profile with you across the Internet, like a kind of flag that you wave as you enter a website, and if you could control who has access to your profile information based on criteria that you set (for instance, if you only want to reveal your environmental activism to certified members of Greenpeace), that would greatly increase your opportunity to link with others.

After all, that’s basically how it works in meat space (or, as some refer to it, real life). You don’t leave your identity at the door when you go from one social milieu to another. If you walk into a work meeting and run into a cute girl you met at a Greenpeace rally, you don’t have to tell everyone present that you’re a member of Greenpeace. You always carry experiences from different parts of your life with you, and you can be selective about what aspects of your self that you reveal under different circumstances. Why should online be different? Especially since the underlying structure of the Internet allows for this kind of flexibility.

As we got deeper into it, during these Link Tank discussions we came to realize that digital identity may be the central issue facing civil society in the Internet age. It not only affects how people are able to connect to one another and form groups. It also has implications for how we link to news and information, how we access products and services, how we behave as consumers, and how we participate in our communities as citizens. Once your profile says certain things about you – for instance, that you are interested in green news stories, want to buy locally grown food, and want to participate in zoning efforts that protect the local water table – then it becomes possible to match you to those who feel similarly, as well as to information and services you can use. For some, this kind of personally targeted online experience is increasingly seen as the pinnacle of what the Internet has to offer.

At the same time, digital identity raises issues about privacy protection: who has information about you, what can they do with it, and what options are there to control what they do? What happens if some of the companies you do business with — like Amazon, Disney, and Google — combine the profile data they have about you into a shared file, and use it for purposes you don’t agree with, without your consent? Of even greater concern, what happens if the government gets hold of that information, what privacy protection do we have?

It turns out that identity is the one key ingredient that Engelbart and the other Internet architects didn’t cook into the system. Because so few people used those early networks, they simply didn’t have to worry about it then. If you were on the Internet when it launched the 1970s, everyone knew who you were. Profiles weren’t necessary, and if you acted in a dishonest way or did something to piss others off, they could always find you; they knew where you lived. It was only when the system scaled up to serve millions of people that the identity issue presented itself.

The vision that grew out of the Link Tank was captured in a paper I co-wrote with Jan Hauser and Steven Foster in 2003 called “The Augmented Social Network: Building Identity and Trust into the Next Generation Internet” [8]. We presented these ideas at a number of conferences, and in certain circles (geek utopian, to be sure) this paper got a lot of play. We figured that the next step was to raise funds for an initiative to nurture this vision and develop some prototypes. But it turned out that the progressive funding world (foundations, NGOs, liberal donors, university research initiatives) wasn’t ready to evaluate cutting-edge tech apps, let alone one based on the idea that the right kind of tech can propagate egalitarian and sustainable values in society. To many people, to this day, communications infrastructure is mistakenly viewed as “values agnostic.”

Nonetheless, a half dozen initiatives did get underway, led by idealistic programmers (and their friends), often at considerable personal and financial sacrifice since support from civil society was fitful at best. Diligently, with their eyes on the prize, they developed different aspects of what became known as “user-centric digital identity.” Privacy specialists made sure this system was secure: you have total control over your personal information, and no one else – including the government – can access it without your permission.

An organization called Identity Commons [9] was established to evangelize this vision, and to provide a venue for coordination. New technologies with arcane names like XDI [10], Higgins [11], i-names [12], Information Cards [13] and OpenID [14] began to get some traction, and a few prototypes — pieces of the whole user-centric digital identity puzzle — were completed. By 2006, these achievements, in turn, attracted the attention of major players with deep pockets.

Who showed up? Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Novell, Yahoo, Google, Verisign, PayPal, and a number of nimble start-uptechnology firms that came to realize how a trusted, user-based identity system is necessary if the Internet is going to support a wide range of next-generation products and services.

Fingers crossed, a truly visionary digital identity system will be produced by these efforts, and the intentions of the tech utopians who shepherded this vision over the years will be present in the final version. But without the direct involvement of civil society, which has such a great stake in the outcome, it’s hard to say what will happen. It should come as no surprise, however, that the first application of user-centric digital identity will be to enhance your online shopping experience, connecting you more efficiently to stuff you might want to buy — albeit in a less intrusive manner that gives you control over your personal data.

 

4. Decision Making at the Edges

People often say: society’s problems will not be solved by technology. This implies that you can somehow separate how society operates from the technology we use. It doesn’t recognize that society is shaped by the technology available to us.

In his book The Creation of the Media, Paul Starr offers an example everyone should know of the influence that technical innovation has on social organization. He traces how the emergence of newspapers in the North American colonies in the 18th century, coupled with the creation of a reliable postal service, provided the communications backbone that gave birth to modern representative democracy. Breakthroughs in printing led to the publication of journals, pamphlets and papers in larger numbers, at a lower cost. The postal service distributed these publications in a timely way, so readers across the colonies knew about recent events, removing the “locality of information” obstacle that Clay Shirky referred to. Post offices also encouraged group formation — removing Shirky’s second obstacle: they became social hubs where people read newspapers out loud. Custom held that new papers could be read by anyone who happened by the post office, which mirrors the attitude toward content sharing on today’s Net. In fact, a town’s printing press was often located beside the post office, and items from papers that arrived by post were copied verbatim by printers into their publications, an analog version of email forwarding. In its way, 18th-century communications tech offered an early version of the Internet’s barrier-reducing capabilities.

Armed with information about current affairs, and able to congregate into groups to discuss what they knew, some people in the colonies (white men with property, of course) felt strongly that they should be involved in the decisions made by government that effected their lives. So they chose representatives and sent them by coach to assemble with other representatives in formally constituted bodies to vote on decisions that effected their communities. They used the best technology for group assembly and decision making then available: horse and buggy, face-to-face dialog in public places, the circulation of printed materials to support claims and proposals, roll call votes or paper ballots, and the publication of decisions made so they could be read by other citizens. The result was a form of representative government, practiced in towns and cities across the colonies, that offered the most accountability between governors and the governed that a state had yet managed to achieve.

Today we’re still living with a government that, in its basics, is a product of cutting-edge 18th century technology. Of course, much has been layered on top of it. But dig deep enough and eventually you hit underlying, archaic assumptions that have gone unchallenged for centuries. Here are a few:

* Regional assemblies. Representative assemblies should be organized on the basis of where people live, rather than by specialized issue or project.

* Generalist representatives. Elected representatives are expected to have sound judgment about all subjects, and are empowered to make decisions even on subjects they know nothing about.

* Centralized information. For good decisions to be made, pertinent information must be gathered in a central location, so a small group of people with access to that information can propose a decision to the larger representative body, which votes on it. Widespread public access to that information, so it might be challenged or amended, is not essential to the process.

* Permanent bodies. Governing bodies composed of elected representatives — such as the Senate, Congress, state assemblies, city councils, etc. — should never be dissolved.

These assumptions are the product of the limitations of 18th-century technology. The framers of the Constitution took them for granted, which is no surprise, since no practical alternatives were available. But they also didn’t anticipate the long term consequences – government institutions that have become staggeringly bureaucratic, slow, obscure in their operations, unresponsive to citizen needs, and controlled by corporate interests.

The early democratic philosophers assumed that citizens would personally know, or at least have a passing acquaintance with, their elected leaders – there would always be a direct connection between the government and the people. Until the early 20th century, the White House doors were open to unannounced guests who stopped by to meet the President. But the number of seats in Congress today is the same as it was 100 years ago. It’s physically impossible for a U.S. Representative to press the flesh with even a fraction of his constituents, let alone have a meaningful chat with them. Government has become a TV spectacle, reduced to a sports contest that repeats every four years, like the World Cup, while the problems facing society – the environmental crisis, global food shortages, peak oil – are so complex that only specialists can begin to untangle them. Our elected representatives are ill matched to the tasks before them, and the current system leaves most citizens feeling disconnected, untrusting, and with the overwhelming sense that their actions make no difference.

As a techie might put it, our form of representative democracy doesn’t scale well.

At the Link Tank sessions, two dozen of us would gather in conference rooms in either the Bay Area or New York, exploring ways that digital networks enable connection between participants in group actions. We drew network diagrams on blackboards or white sheets, mapping various ways that people could link to one another. We kept returning to structures that allocated tasks and decisions to clusters at the edge of the network, where expertise was concentrated or an action’s effect was most likely to be felt, rather than bringing all important decisions back to a single, super-powerful hub at the center.

The intention behind these exercises was to find ways of empowering those with the most at stake – who usually have the greatest motivation to act, as well as the most relevant knowledge – so they can participate in making solutions to common problems. With digital networks, group formation can be far more fluid, transparent, and non-hierarchical. This opens up new possibilities for collaboration, new types of decision making structures, and the freeing up of creativity where it hadn’t been present before.

It’s an approach that hinges on the development of user-centric digital identity. With the right kind of personal profile, identifying expertise in a community becomes much simpler, as does linking people so they can collaborate.

Collaboration can take many forms. It can include: a loosely joined network of homeowners doing renovations who cooperatively purchase sustainable construction materials; a county zoning board tasked with protecting the water table; a car pooling initiative that connects people to drivers heading to the same destinations; or even an entire township that, following the Transition Town model, seeks to collectively lower its ecological footprint by instituting new sustainable practices. Digital networks present us with the opportunity to innovate new forms of collaboration for achieving shared objectives that could be far more effective than the tools we currently have at our disposal.

Try looking with fresh eyes at the decisions facing our communities and our nation, taking into account the tools we have to share information and convene groups to take action. If we re-wrote the Constitution from scratch, would our current type of representative democracy be the optimum choice for governing ourselves? Or would we use a different model more appropriate for our time?

Consider a county in northern New York State that wants to contribute to sustainability by reducing its ecological footprint. Suppose it tried an alternative approach to government designed based on assumptions quite different than the ones that hailed from the 18th century, discussed above – new possibilities suggested by the capabilities of the Internet. It might include:

* Issue Assemblies. Representative assemblies would be convened to focus on separate issues that impact sustainability, such as: transportation; energy; toxic clean ups; and local organic agriculture. Some assemblies – such as transportation and energy – might have the standing of government bodies, while others — like local organic agriculture — might be groups of consumers loosely organized into buying clubs to support local farmers.

* Expert Representatives. Elected representatives to the issue assemblies should be recognized experts with professional experience in their area of specialty.

* Distributed information. The information introduced into assembly discussions should be made available online, so everyone can see and comment upon it, allowing outside experts to participate in the decision making process.

* Temporary bodies. Once a particular issue is addressed — for example, implementing a new transportation plan for the county, or evaluating alternative energy sources to generate power for the region — the assembly is dissolved, keeping the group from calcifying into yet another sclerotic bureaucracy.

The social tools we have today — email, websites, wikis, blogs, etc. — aren’t adequate for the complexities this kind of system demands. But shouldn’t we be experimenting with new tools, testing different kinds of systems, to see what really might be possible?

One such experiment, called Smartocracy, was spearheaded by Link Tank member Brad deGraf in 2006. It uses digital networks to explore an alternative approach to democratic decision making, one that might prove more effective, though just as egalitarian, than the notion of “one person/one vote.” The concept is explained on the Smartocracy website: Collect $20 donations from 1,000 participants, and then use the Smartocracy system to collaboratively decide which deserving projects or institutions should receive grants from the pooled sum of $20,000. The site goes on to say:

“Democracy has a fundamental problem, namely that “one-person/one-vote” guarantees that the wisest among us will be devalued, in favor of the least-informed. Here [on Smartocracy], participants have equal weight, not in voting, but in deciding who to give their votes to. Instead of “one person/ one vote”, it’s “one person/ ten votes to give away”…. Each participant gets an equal number of votes (initially 10) for each decision to be made, to be exercised not by them but by their proxies. That simple change, from voting to delegating your vote, creates meritocracy in an equitable, natural way. The most highly respected participants are by definition on more people’s lists.” [15]

Instead of each participant casting a single vote, you get 10 votes to distribute to proxies who you trust. You might give three votes to one and seven to another. By doing so, you authorize these proxies to make decisions on your behalf. But by distributing your votes among several experts, rather than authorizing a single proxy to cast all your ballots, you help set the context for a conversation between several trusted experts, a team that is empowered to act in the interest of the entire group. Smartocracy is an ingenious approach to democratic collaboration. At the same time, it’s a logical extension of what digital networks have to offer.

In the years leading up to the Constitutional Convention, many flavors of representative government were tried, each growing out of local conditions and customs. Some were successful, others failed. From those experiments came the experience that guided the founders as they laid the foundation of American representative government. Today we need similar experiments. [16]

It’s worth mentioning that one outcome of this approach might be entirely new economic models that don’t rely on money to motivate people’s actions. Rather than receiving cash, participants in a collaboration could be rewarded in other ways. Online systems are particularly good at tracking a person’s contributions to a group effort, and at calculating appropriate compensation — which might be a service offered by another person in the network. This means that networks can be convened to meet shared objectives without having to raise massive funds to pay for it; if there’s enough will to get a project going, the group can find plenty of ways to reward participants other than with cash. (Not to linger on doomsday scenarios, but considering the questionable state of the global economic order, and the possibility that a series of environmental and resource crises could trigger a sudden collapse, this visionary approach to collaboration becomes even more relevant.)

Back in the days of the Link Tank, only a few seemed to grasp that the digital infrastructure carries implicit values about sharing and collaboration. But every day, this awareness dawns on more people. A generation has grown up with the Internet as part of the atmosphere it breathes. Through the Net, we viscerally experience our interconnection with others, each of us individual nodes in an intricate, interdependent network. At the same time, the environmental crisis calls us to become more conscious of our interdependence with all life on Earth — yet another network we are part of. The intricate collaborations of nature become models for our own behavior. The most beautiful ecosystems are the sum of many moving parts, working together in collaboration. We have much to learn from them.

 

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NOTES

[1] A group of 23 was initially convened in Ben Lomand, California, in September 2000 by Brad deGraf and Neil Sieling, with Planetwork’s Elizabeth Thompson and Jim Fournier. The others who participated were: Debra Amador, Juliette Beck, Jack Bradin, Bruce Cahan, Bonnie DeVarco, Andres Edwards, Steve Foster, Chris Gallagher, Lev Gonick, Jan Hauser, James Hung, Allen Hunt-Badiner, Michael Litz, Richard Perl, Christie Rothenberg , Greg Steltenpohl, Hardin Tibbs, Michael Tolson, Amie Weinberg, and Nate Zelnick. Ultimately, an additional two dozen people took part in the process, either by attending meetings or engaging in online discussions. Among them were: Jeffrey Axelrod, Owen Davis, Gerald de Jong, Tom Laskawy , Tom Munnecke, Robin Mudge, Ellen Pearlman, Jonathan Peizer, Richard White, and Duncan Work.

[2] See http://www.bootstrap.org/chronicle/chronicle.html

[3] See http://www.bootstrap.org/augdocs/augment-81010.html

[4] As John Markoff describes in his engaging book, What The Dormouse Said (Viking, New York 2005)

[5] To fully appreciate the culture that gave rise to the networked personal computer, check out hypermedia pioneer Ted Nelson’s remarkable book Computer Lib/Dream Machines, published by Hugo’s Book Service in 1975, now unfortunately out of print.

[6] Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations. The quotes in this paragraph are taken from page 149-152.

[7] Shirky, p. 153

[8] The ASN paper was first presented at the Planetwork conference in San Francisco in May, 2003 and appeared in First Monday in the August 2003 issue, accessible at http://www.firstmonday.org/Issues/issue8_8/jordan

[9] Visit the Identity Commons at http://www.idcommons.org

[10] Wikipedia defines XDI as: “XDI (XRI Data Interchange) is a generalized, extensible service for sharing, linking, and synchronizing data over the Internet and other data networks using XML documents and XRIs (Extensible Resource Identifiers).” For more information, visit http://www.xdi.org

[11] The Higgins home page on the Eclipse website says “Higgins is a framework that enables users and applications to integrate identity, profile, and relationship information across multiple data sources and protocols. End-users can experience Higgins through the UI metaphor of Information Cards.” For more information, visit http://www.eclipse.org/higgins

[12] The i-names website explains: “URLs are for connecting web pages. Now get the address for connecting people and businesses in rich, long-lasting digital relationships: i-names. Whether you are an individual looking for a safe, lifetime personal address or a business seeking long-term, opt-in customer relationships, there’s an i-name for you.” For more information, visit http://www.inames.net

[13] The Information Card Foundation website explains: “You already know how to use cards in your wallet to present ID, to purchase things, to show you are a member of a club, or that you have a relationship with a merchant like Best Buy. Now what if it was just as easy to login or do business on-line as it is to present a card in the rest of your life? No more typing. No more filling in forms. And that is just the beginning. Just as media became a lot more flexible and useful in the digital world, now your cards can manage more things for you!” For more, visit the Information Card Foundation at http://www.informationcard.net

[14] On the OpenID website it says: “OpenID eliminates the need for multiple usernames across different websites, simplifying your online experience. You get to choose the OpenID Provider that best meets your needs and most importantly that you trust. At the same time, your OpenID can stay with you, no matter which Provider you move to. And best of all, the OpenID technology is not proprietary and is completely free.” For more information, visit http://openid.net

[15] Though the Smartocracy system has been taken off line, information about it can be found here: http://smartocracy.net/ovrvw.html

[16] For more ideas about how digital networks could be used to revolutionize democratic practices, see the anthology Rebooting America: Ideas for Redesigning American Democracy in the Internet Age, edited by Allison Fine, Micah Sifry, Andrew Rasiej, and Joshua Levy, and available as a free download at http://rebooting.personaldemocracy.com/