Web 2.0 and the future of democracy

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Like Ellen and much of the rest of the Sunlight staff, I spent all day last Friday holed up in a corner of the Mitchell Kapor Foundation in San Francisco, mixing it up with the biggest assemblage of brainiacs that I’ve seen in one room since I left grad school.

The purpose, as Ellen has already written, was to bring together some of the sharpest thinkers in the interactive world of Web 2.0 and hook them up with a few of the good-government groups trying to use the internet as a tool for making politics and government more open, accessible and understandable to everyone.

There were about 50 people altogether – the out-of-town contingent came from Sunlight and a handful of other non-profits in the open government field: the Center for Responsive Politics, OMB Watch, and the Institute on Money in State Politics, among others. But most of the people – the home team, you might say – were from the Bay Area and nearby Silicon Valley.

Like Mitch Kapor himself – the father of Lotus 1-2-3 and one of the giants of the early era of PC computing – this room was full of pioneers and entrepreneurs. Though nearly everyone was younger than I was, many had already started and run their own high-tech companies. Several had done this many times.

Before I got to San Francisco I did my homework, checking the bios of each participant from their websites, blogs, and corporate “about us” pages. This crowd was so impressive it was downright intimidating. Several already had their own Wikipedia entries. One – Kim Malone of Google – was even the subject of a Harvard Business School case study.

This meeting of minds was one I’d been looking forward to for probably the last 10 years. If ever there were two groups that needed to swap notes and ideas, it was these two. The conference didn’t disappoint.

Most of the time was spent in a big corner room – spacious enough to hold a sock hop – and that’s what it reminded me of as I sat in one of the chairs around the edges. Instead of the girls on one side and the boys on the other, we were a collection of geeks and goo-goos. (Goo-goos is the slur used by political operatives to describe good-government groups trying to reform the system.)

Like a successful sock hop, we mixed it up right from the start. There was hardly a need for coffee; the buzz around the room was enough to keep us all wired until it finally broke up at the end of the day. I’ll let Ellen fill you in on some of the ideas that were bounced around – there’ll be plenty of details coming if you’re interested. What I’d rather talk about is why this meeting – hopefully the first of many more to come – was so important.

No one in the room – neither the geeks nor the goo-goos – had any doubt that the Web was an ideal medium for communicating the realities of political corruption, money and politics, and government transparency. All the non-profits in the room have long been using the web as their main platform for delivering their information – CRP’s Open Secrets website is the classic example. But in most of their efforts, the communications has been one-way only – an extension of traditional media like print and video.

Web 2.0 is all about turning a one-way presentation into a two-way dialogue. It’s not simply adding interactivity because that’s a cool thing to do. It’s about giving people new flexibility to ask open-ended questions and make their own comparisons – things that are difficult or impossible to do on a static web page that simply presents facts.

What this one-day conference reminded me of was that a similar process needs to take place with democracy itself. The idea of democracy – let us remember – is two-way, not one way. It’s Web 2.0, not 1.0. It’s supposed to be interactive, not a spectator sport.

Yet that’s precisely the direction it’s been moving, for decades now. American politics these days is the opposite of sandlot baseball, where kids from the neighborhood pick up their bats and gloves and head out to the field. It’s professional sports, with superstars and stadiums.

The people – the ones who are supposed to be running the show – are these days much more analogous to fans in the stands, or more accurately, to passive consumers of products over which our only choice is to buy or not to buy. Every once in a while we’ll derail the latest Edsel or New Coke that the marketers send our way, but we have little or no say in designing what they look like or even expanding our range of options.

The power players in this modern American democracy aren’t the voters, but the lobbyists, the PAC directors and other money people, the political consultants, and the elected and unelected officials who actually run things.

The insiders may be comfortable with that arrangement, but most of the rest of us are not. If there’s to be any serious change in the way we run elections and govern ourselves, it’s not going to come by hiring the newest James Carville or Karl Rove, but by engaging – and energizing – the soccer mom down the block or the retired couple next door. And not just once every two years on Election Day.

That’s what Web 2.0 can do – if it’s designed right and if it connects the kind of information that the open government groups have collected with the kinds of open-ended questions that normal people might have.

Last Friday’s sock hop between the geeks and the goo-goos was a lot of fun and an inspiring start. The challenge, over the next couple of years, will be to radically expand the dance floor and make room for a few million chairs around the edges. Then let the music begin.

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