This year, 2008, may go down in history as the year geeks got politics. At etech this week I caught a few disparaging references to hippies' efforts to change politics. Which, you know, seemed kind of unfair, for two reasons. First: the 1960s generation did change an awful lot of things, though not nearly as many as they hoped. Second: a lot of those hippies are geeks now.
But still. Give a geek something that's broken and he'll itch to fix it. And one thing leads to another. Which is why on Wednesday night Lawrence Lessig explained in an hour-long keynote that got a standing ovation how he plans to fix what's wrong with Congress.
No, he's not going to run. Some 4,500 people on Facebook were trying to push him into it, and he thought about it, but preliminary research showed that his chances of beating popular Silicon Valley favorite, Jackie Speier, were approximately zero.
"I wasn't afraid of losing," he said, noting ruefully that in ten years of copyfighting he's gotten good at it. Instead, the problem was that Silicon Valley insiders would have known that no one was going to beat Jackie Speier. But outsiders would have pointed, laughed, and said, "See? The idea of Congressional reform has no legs." And on to business as usual. So, he said, counterproductive to run.
Instead, he's launching Change Congress. "Obama has taught us that it's possible to imagine many people contributing to real change."
The point, he said, will be to provide a "signalling function". Like Creative Commongs, Change Congress will give candidates an easy way to show what level of reform they're willing to commit tto. The system will start with three options: 1) refusing money from lobbyists and political action committees (private funding groups); 2) ban earmarks (money allocated to special projects in politicians' home states); 3) commit to public financing for campaigns. Candidates can then display the badge generated from those choices on their campaign materials.
From there, said Lessig, layer something like Emily's List on top, to help people identify candidates they're willing to suppot with monthly donations, thereby subsidizing reform.
Money, he admitted, isn't the entire problem. But, like drinking for an alcoholic, it's the first problem you must solve to be able to tackle any of the others with any hope of success.
In a related but not entirely similar vein, the guys who brought us They Work For You nearly four years ago are back with UN democracy, an attempt to provide a signalling function to the United Nations> by making it easy to find out how your national representatives are voting in UN meetings. The driving force behind UNdemocracy.com is Liverpool's Julian Todd, who took the UN's URL obscurantism as a personal challenge. Since he doesn't fly, presenting the new service were Tom Loosemore, Stefan Mogdalinski, and Danny O'Brien, who pointed out that when you start looking at the decisions and debates you start to see strange patterns: what do the US and Israel have in common with Palau and Micronesia?
The US Congress and the British Parliament are all, they said, now well accustomed to being televised, and their behaviour has adapted to the cameras. At the UN, "They don't think they're being watched at all, so you see horse trading in a fairly raw form."
The meta-version they believe can be usefully and widely applied: 1) identify broken civic institution; 2) liberate data from said institution. There were three more ingredients, but they vanished the slide too quickly. But Mogdalinski noted that where in the past they have said "Ask forgiveness, not permission", alluding to the fact that most institutions if approached will behave as though they own the data. He's less inclined to apologise now. After all, isn't it *our* data that's being released in the public interest?
Data isn't everything. But the Net community has come a long way since the early days, when the prevailing attitude was that technological superiority would wash away politics-as-usual by simply making an end run around any laws governments tried to pass. Yes, technology can change the equation a whole lot. For example, once PGP escaped laws limiting the availability of strong encryption were pretty much doomed to fail (though not without a lot of back-and-forth before it became official). Similarly, in the copyright wars it's clear that copyrighted material will continue to leak out no matter how hard they try to protect it.
But those are pretty limited bits of politics. Technology can't make such an easy end run around laws that keep shrinking the public domain. Nor can it by itself solve policies that deny the reality of global climate change or that, in one of Lessig's examples, back government recommendations off from a daily caloric intake of 10 percent sugar to one of 25 percent. Or that, in another of his examples, kept then Vice-President Al Gore from succeeding with a seventh part to the 1996 Communications Act deregulating ADSL and cable because without anything to regulate what would Congressmen do without the funds those lobbyists were sending their way? Hence, the new approach.
"Technology," Lessig said, "doesn't solve any problems. But it is the only tool we have to leverage power to effect change."