This time, it’s personal: “Rebooting America”

If any of my readers attended the Personal Democracy Forum, just consider me jealous. I’ve added it to my list of “conferences I shall attend when the kids are older and I have a travel budget again.”

Until then, I’ve consoled myself with Rebooting America, an edited collection of essays about how to use technology to transform government and reinvigorate our electoral process, among other ideas to change the world.

I certainly don’t pretend to be as expert in how technology can transform our democracy as the diverse set of thinkers and practitioners contributing here, nor (at more than 230 pages) do I want to summarize all of the recommendations.

Instead, consider this a sort of “greatest hits” list, at least from my perspective–the ideas that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, and the ones that I believe have the most potential to truly change how we as citizens interface with each other, and with governance (note, not “government”, since several of the essays make a persuasive case that government as we know it may, in fact, be a concept with a limited future), not just putting a slick, “tech” face on the same old patterns.

As we approach Election Day (another time-honored ritual whose time, I believe, has come–why can’t we vote online over a period of weeks, for example?), I want to hear your most fervent hopes for what tomorrow’s democracy will look like, and your best ideas for how technology can help us get there. How would you “reboot America”?

  • The essays that I highlighted the most all had in common a strong orientation towards participation that goes far beyond voting–a reimagination, in a way, of what it means to be a citizen, and an understanding that voting alone reduces us, really, to consumers choosing between two or more prepackaged products, which is, ultimately, a really narrow understanding of civic engagement. Several contributors talked about the need for “platforms that will actually engage people in effective, sustainable efforts aimed toward identifying our difference and commonalities, and acting together to further our common goal” (Yochai Benkler). Of course, the way the system is constructed today, voting still matters. But citizens who volunteer, work in their local communities, and debate issues will still vote, they’ll just have many alternative ways to express their values, beyond pushing a button. As Marie Wilson states, “true political participation is only achieved when a person’s voice counts as much as his or her vote.” Voting should be the floor of political participation, not the ceiling; as one contributor put it, “in a world where kids can be television stars just by finding a video camera and an Internet connection,” there’s no reason citizens should relegate ourselves to being the “television audience watching along at home” (Aaron Swartz).
  • Working within the world as it is, several of the essays made concrete suggestions on how to improve electoral politics, from having a checkbox on the ballot that asks voters whether they “gave serious consideration to the booklets or websites of several candidates” or inserting short political messages into random YouTube video introductions (Brad Templeton); requiring instant runoff voting as a way to give greater political opportunities to outsider candidates, including women and people of color (Marie Wilson); putting “none-of-the-above” on the ballot or allowing voters to add a comment that explains their votes, in a way that could be aggregated to provide greater insights into the electorate (Micah Sifry); or allowing the online voting I referenced above (Allison Fine). As with many things, we run our elections the way we do largely because we have, for as long as we can remember, and, as with many things, that’s just not a compelling reason to make the rather poor decisions we do about something this important.
  • The final set of themes in my notes from the volume relate to ways to improve governance, a sort of third leg in this democratic stool; if we enhance citizenship by giving people more meaningful ways to engage, and we change the way that people are elected in ways that should make them more representative of and accountable to that engaged citizenry, then we also need to create tools that will help those two groups work together effectively to do the business of governing. These include such ideas as marginalizing the role of the presidency in favor of a tiered council model (Jan Frel and Nicco Mele); creating “radar screens” of issues coming before the local government, with interactive ways for people to provide feedback (Susan Crawford); and crafting a “Delegation for Future Interests”, composed of young people and forward-thinking scientists who would focus on what our current government does very poorly–thinking about future challenges and the future implications of present decisions (Matthew Burton). This last set of ideas is obviously the most difficult. Technology alone can’t shift entrenched power positions or reenvision our framework of governance. But it can give us the tools to make those dreams more possible, and, therefore, give us license to dream them.

    Citizens for whom voting is just one piece of a seamless life of activism and participation, a democracy that facilitates the connections to each other and to a greater purpose that can animate our lives, and a system of governance worthy of our ideals and capable of rising to our challenges…an America to celebrate in the 21st Century.

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