Hacking Democracy

Passivism be damned

In July 2002, Lawrence Lessig gave a speech that challenged technologists to become politically active -- to take up the fight against forces determined to replace the Net's free and open commons with a plumbing system for "content", valved at every juncture by mechanisms made to "manage" the "digital rights" of industrial producers. He didn't pull punches:

Now, I've spent two years talking to you. To us. About this. And we've not done anything yet. A lot of energy building sites and blogs and Slashdot stories. [But] nothing yet to change that vision in Washington. Because we hate Washington, right? Who would waste his time in Washington?

But if you don't do something now, this freedom that you built, that you spend your life coding, this freedom will be taken away. Either by those who see you as a threat, who then invoke the system of law we call patents, or by those who take advantage of the extraordinary expansion of control that the law of copyright now gives them over innovation. Either of these two changes through law will produce a world where your freedom has been taken away. And, if you can't fight for your freedom, you don't deserve it.

But you've done nothing.

Larry's "nothing" was a bit of an exaggeration, rounding to zero a sum that included GeekCorps, the EFF and his own Creative Commons. Yet in a relative sense, he was right Against the RIAA, the MPAA, the big publishing and broadcasting lobbies, and Congress itself, the good guys were being trounced, repeatedly.

Let's call Larry's "nothing" accusation "passivism" -- the literal opposite of "activism". In July 2002, passivism comprised the prevailing attitude toward politics by the geek community (that's us, folks).

So let's mark that point in time and fast-forward to December 2003, seventeen months later. The presidential primary playoffs are about to begin, and already a Democratic frontrunner has been chosen, on the strength of his appeal through the Internet and a variety of tools that run on the Net, mostly built by the geek community. Geek political activism is no longer an oxymoron. And for the first time, the grip on culture by industrial content producers and distributors is starting to slip.

In an interview with Christopher Lydon, Larry said this:

We're just at the moment when people realize that culture is not something that has to be fed to them, like the Soviet citizens at the end of the Soviet empire, where they realize that they can participate in the construction and sharing of culture. Technology has given us that opportunity. And the problem now is that the law takes that away. And so Creative Commons' objective is to find a way to get the law out of the way, so this extraordinary potential for human creativity can be realized in the context of this technology... What we want to do is make it easy for people to recognize the free culture that is out there for them to build upon, so that they'll build on that culture.

The 'we' in this case isn't just Creative Commons. It's something new yet familiar: the free culture movement. "Just as Richard Stallman gave birth to the free software movement," Larry said, "I think it's fair to say we're the free software movement for culture".

And, much like Richard, Larry is quick to make distinctions:

There is an important difference between the free software movement and the open source software movement, in that the free software movement's first goal is freedom. It's not promising better software. It's not promising a better business model. It's promising freedom. And I think that's what the free culture movement is about. It's about giving people the freedom to build and cultivate their culture... What I care about is that ... an extraordinarily wide range of people can participate in the act of making and sharing culture.

As with free software, tools matter. "One of the most important examples" of free culture tools, Larry says, is the weblog:

Free culture is about the transformation between a broadcast culture and a procreative culture -- from a broadcast culture where the few speak to the many to a procreative culture where the many speak to the many. That's what the Internet is supposed to have been about forever. But blogging is the first time that it happens in the context of political ideas that get translated and expanded upon as other people comment on them. In the context of political campaigns... they become better citizens. They become engaged citizens. There has been no new technology in the last 150 years that has produced more engaged citizens... For the last 150 years we've had technology has produced less engaged citizens: people who don't go out and organize polling districts but instead sit home and watch television that tells them who they should vote for.

There will be a change that comes from the fact that people participate in the construction of the political story around them. That in my view will be the most important political event in the last 100 years.

Larry said all this in late 2003, when Howard Dean had emerged as the leading Democratic candidate for president, thanks in large measure to help from the kind of geeks Larry had accused of doing nothing.

Eight months ago the name Dean belonged to a candidate who had no shot in hell of being elected President. Now we're at a point ...where Al Gore, the quintessential establishment candidate, has come out and endorsed Dean. Why? Because Dean has invigorated a grass roots movement. Now how did he do that? ... (Through) ideas that got ramified through structures like the blog, where people talked about and organized around a set of passions and ideas, and raised money around them. That's an extraordinary change... Nobody knows who Dean the candidate will be three months from now.... The point is, a year ago nobody would have predicted this was possible. Nobody would have imagined that an organization could be built from the grass roots up. And every single major Democratic leader was betting on exactly the opposite, as the future. And we've proven that they were wrong. Whether we were right about this candidate or the next candidate is not important. They were wrong about what makes the future possible. And that's exciting. I'm a pessimist by profession. That's my brand, is pessimism.

We have to remember why this was possible. It was only possible because of the Internet. That's what made this happen. And that will be how this campaign is remembered. It's the Internet that maybe lost against the establishment politicians, or the Internet that won against the establishment politicians; but it is the Internet that engaged political action that will be remembered as the most important moving part in this election.

During the 2003 calendar year, the Dean campaign started from nowhere, raised record sums of money, involved record numbers of people, and made its candidate a frontrunner in the polls as well as the purse. When it was over, and John Kerry ran away with the Democratic party nomination, the mainstream press predictably compared the Dean campaign to the dot-com bubble. Joe Trippi, the campaign manager who was there for that whole trip, voiced what everybody who truly watched the campaign, or participated in it, knew intimately:

This was not a dot-com crash. The Howard Dean campaign was a dot-com miracle. Let's look at this thing. This guy starts... in January 31 of last year with seven people, $157,000 in the bank, 432 known supporters nationwide.... He was an asterisk.... How did it happen? It is a miracle that Howard Dean moved from there to $45 million, more money than any Democrat in history has raised... He didn't do it. I didn't do it. You did it. And not just you, but the hundreds of thousands of Americans out there who understood what this was about. This wasn't about one guy. This was about understanding that no one is going change America for you -- you have to change it yourself.

Politics, Trippi said, was no longer something mediated my the media, no longer a horse race run and covered exclusively by professionals. It was, Trippi said, the end of an era that began with the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960:

It took about five to ten years to realize that was the moment when television was going to change everything in America's politics. What no one could've predicted was that it would have become a race for money, a race to buy a one-way communications tool that would take the American people essentially out of the process. It was no longer about average Americans, it was about, "How do I find a rich guy to write me a $2,000 check and then how do I take that money and buy television with it?"

Joe Trippi said all this on February 11, 2004, in his keynote address to the Digital Democracy Teach-In, an event that opened O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference. That event was an idea I suggested, offhandedly, to the O'Reilly folks at the end of the company's Open Source Convention in July, 2003. It was also my idea to invite Joe Trippi to keynote the thing. That idea came to me while Britt Blaser was giving me a tour of the Dean Campaign headquarters in Burlington, Vermont. I was present in purely electronic form. My face was on Britt's laptop, my voice was on his laptop speakers, and my eye was a camera mounted on the laptop lid. My body was in California. It was in this disembodied form that I met Joe. Walking around holding the laptop like an hors d'oeuvre tray at a party, Britt ran into Joe in the hallway. After saying hi, I asked Joe to keynote the February event. To my astonishment, he said yes.

A long strange trip

My own involvement in this story, however began more than a year earlier, on June 26, 2002, at the New York launch of eThePeople.org, a "public forum for a new democracy conversation". I was the featured speaker, recruited for having coined the phrase "markets are conversations", which was the opening thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto and an inspiration for eThePeople's statement of purpose. Here's how that goes:

Democracy is a conversation. It's a dialogue that includes politicians, interest groups, parties, journalists, lobbyists, pollsters, letter-writers, campaign contributors, protestors and voters. It's an ongoing negotiation about how our priorities and our values should translate into public policy.

eThePeople built their site on Linux. So did Scott Heiferman, founder of MeetUp., which was launched just twelve days earlier. Scott was there for the party, and to let me know about MeetUp's Linux foundations. MeetUp went on to become the most important commercial accessory to democracy since the tavern. More than 165,000 people joined MeetUps for Howard Dean alone.

I also met Britt Blaser at the same party. Britt is father of XpertWeb, an open source project for the application and compensation of expertise. Britt went on to become one of the Dean campaign's most energetic and connected volunteers, and a friend to many of the campaign's staff and volunteer hackers. DeanSpace, for example, was born at a meeting in Britt's living room in New York. Its original name was Hack4Dean.org.

Britt called me so often from Dean campaign headquarters in Vermont that I felt like I personally knew everybody there. Some of them knew me first, however, because the campaign consciously borrowed what The Cluetrain Manifesto said about networked markets and applied it to voters. Cluetrain said, "Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter -- and getting smarter faster than most companies." The Dean campaign said "Networked citizens get smarter faster than most campaigns".

More than 600,000 people joined the campaign, and an untold percentage of them were out in the world, stumping hard for the candidate, producing materials, holding meetings and rallies -- with less direct guidance from the top than perhaps any campaign in the country's history. More than one volunteer told me the campaign was less a bandwagon than a runaway train.

I got a surprise ride on that train last Summer when I wrote a piece called Saving the Net for the Linux Journal Web site. It went up on Monday, July 21. Two days later, on BlogForAmerica, the Dean Campaign weblog, Matt Gross wrote a post titled "Saving the Net, and Politics, According to Doc Searls, or Bringing out the Bat". The post was a challenge to raise more money than Vice President Dick Cheney was scheduled to raise at a $2000/plate dinner the next Monday in South Carolina. The punch paragraph:

We're thinking about bringing out the bat on Monday the 28th. We're thinking that you could demonstrate to Dick Cheney that there is another way to raise $250,000 in one day-- through the people who own this democracy, rather than the special interests that buy it. What do you think? Should we bring out the bat? What should we call the event?

Comments, as always, ran in the hundreds. Imagine a Slashdot posting about which everybody agrees -- so much, in fact, that they reach in their wallets and throw money back at the source. By Saturday morning they had $82,260.28. Then $110,960.48 by noon. Then $130,572.90 by 2pm. Two hours later, $147,430.44. Another two hours later, $162,170.59. Another two hours, 172,326.44. It kept going like this, until, one hour before Monday, they passed $250,000. By the end of that day, they passed $500,000. The final tally (though I'm told it continued to go higher): $508,540.31 contributed by 9601 people. That's an average of $52.97 apiece.

As Britt and others explained later, the people turning up the steam during this whole run-up weren't the campaign workers posting progress reports on the blog. It was the people down in the blog's comments section. "These people really think they're blogging," David Weinberger said. Even though there were no direct links to any of the comments, and the comments ran to the hundreds on many of the individual posts. A lot of these people appeared to be reading all the posts.

Opening up comments on the campaign blog was like sinking an artesian well into the pockets of hundreds of thousands of supporters. "It was a lucky thing," Britt told me. "We only did it because Moveable Type supported it. We figured, 'Why not? If you've got the tools, use them.'"

As a practical matter, those tools may not all be open source. In fact, the open-ness of software tools tends to be a subordinate concern in the pressure-cooker context of a political campaign. I ran into Dave Winer at the Dean Campaign headquarters, hacking hard on Channel Dean, an RSS feed he said was "like a clipping service for people interested in U.S. politics". Although Dave has made more than his share of open source contributions -- to RSS, XML-RPC and SOAP and other projects -- he's a veteran commercial software developer who publicly advises campaigns to remain apolitical about technology:

Build on what the weblog development community has accomplished, and will continue to accomplish through November next year. Be open to users of all platforms. You can get the leading weblog tools vendors to help your candidacy and to help the election, but not if you exclude them from participating in your campaign!

The Dean campaign accepted Dave's advice, which was why Channel Dean happened.

Sitting in the campaign's server room, IT Manager Harish Rao put the matter in perspective:

Very little in here is not open-source-based. The accounting system runs on Microsoft, for example. And we have a NAS -- network attached storage box -- that's proprietary, but also Linux based. The back end is completely accessible. We could have built our own box and saved a little bit of money, but I'd rather have my people working on what the box is supposed to do, which is important backups.

Pragmatism is the prevailing operational imperative:

We recognize two things in our development here. One is that pretty much everything we do has been done before, by somebody, somewhere. The other is that we're here because of our supporters.

Among those supporters was the author of what Rao described as the best "voter file" software he'd ever seen. It was developed in FoxBase, and ran only on Windows. The campaign embraced it anyway.

"We're very pragmatic," Rao said. "We do what works. You need a balance. I think for most back-end services and infrastructure, open source is the way to go. For the desktop, we believe in choice. Use what you want. Most of the services you're accessing are off the Net anyway. If you're used to Outlook, hey, it does some good things. So we take a practical approach. But we're members of the open source community, and that's our context."

My visit to the campaign came right before the Iowa Caucuses in January. The energy at headquarters was at maximum ebb, and everything seemed to be on track for a series of wins in the primaries. The day after I returned to New York (for LinuxWorld Expo), Dean lost the Iowa Caucuses, coming in third. That night he uttered his famous "scream", which ABC news admits playing a total of "700 times in a few days". The rest is history.

Or maybe not. Oddly, DeanForAmerica.com kept rolling on. On Monday, March 15, the number of comments below postings ran 325, 386, 105, 39, 242, 274, 293, 141 and 267. A lot of them were noise, but a large percentage were not. There were expressions of sympathy for the bombings in Madrid, suggestions for Kerry cabinet members, and practical ideas to continue applying the energy that persisted in the campaign, even while few outside the campaign seemed aware of it. Some of the posts were by Howard Dean himself --something that rarely happened while the candidate's presidential hopes were still alive.

Three days later the campaign site began pointing forward (though not redirecting) to DemocracyForAmerica.com, Howard Dean's new grass roots organization. Meanwhile the grass continued to grow, with postings at Slashdot levels, at BlogForAmerica. Even though the campaign was dead, something else was clearly still alive.

Adaptation nation

One of my regrets, while working on this story, was not getting to Arkansas to see what Cameron Barrett, Tony Steidler-Dennison and other alpha hackers were doing for the Wesley Clark campaign. Cam is one of the original bloggers: a Linux and open source maven who put up Camworld (its symbol is a package like the kind you manage on a Linux system) long before "blog" became a word. Tony is a friend of ours at Linux Journal and a frequent contributor to the magazine.

Cam and Tony put the whole Clark campaign on an open source footing, crafting a bunch of tools that have now returned to the ecosystem, along with their authors. After the Clark campaign folded, Cam went to work for the Kerry campaign. Tony went back to playing the role of interested observer. When I asked Tony what happened to the tools his team developed for the Clark campaign, he replied,

The tools themselves provided a means for the Clark campaign, in particular, to get up to speed in a very short time. We wouldn't have been able to provide the interconnected set of supporter tools (Clark Community Network -> eBlocks -> online contributions -> Clark Recruiters -> Lawyers for Clark -> various and sundry mailing lists, etc.) as quickly with proprietary tools. Or as cost-effectively.

These were the first campaigns to use the Internet in a truly *two-way* fashion. Cam's Clark Community Network was, I believe, the most effective tool for supporter community-building of any of the campaigns. The 2000 campaign used the Internet to convey a message from the candidate to both actual and potential supporters. It was a one-way communication. The Dean and Clark campaigns were the first and most effective at providing a connected voice for supporters to talk back to the candidates and to talk with each other. In other words, the campaign communities made the campaigns more than merely vehicles for fundraising. I can tell you firsthand that the Clark campaign paid attention to the collective voice of the community. So, open source tools allowed us to create a community that actually had a voice in the campaign...

The most likely legacy of the Clark campaign is Clark TechCorps. The tools we created to organize the supporter communities are available under open source licensing for anyone to use and improve upon. There's still a fair amount of activity on the TechCorps site as interested developers continue to work on those tools. We'll have to see where they go.

Britt Blaser provides a nice summary of the first well-hacked party presidential playoff season:

Many spent 2003 hacking code because they thought it might transform politics, and they were more right than wrong. They are the open source entrepreneurs of the governance tools space. Like all entrepreneurs, they are artists who create because they're incapable of not creating. They will spin out a hundred disappointments for every blockbuster they produce and, like Linux for the desktop, the user experience will be frustrating to most users and especially for the neophytes who run campaigns. Like many entrepreneurs, they have no clue how they'll turn their zeal into money. Adam Osbourne once wrote that the microcomputer revolution grew out of the closing of NASA's Apollo project. Those talented young engineers just knew there was some way they could keep doing what they liked to do, so they took the notion of an integrated circuit and ran with it. They had no grand scheme but they knew they could make a difference."

Back to school

Is it about the tools? Or is it about the methodology? Does the itch to elect a candidate call for scratches that aren't good for much else?

This last question came to mind at a talk Clay Shirky gave at the O'Reilly booth in LinuxWorld a few days after I visited the Dean folks in Vermont. Here's what he said:

There's a new class of software I'm calling "situated software", courtesy of my students in the ITP program at NYU. They're split roughly between artists who aren't afraid of machines and programmers who care about aesthetics. It's a very cross-disciplinary institution. People tend to work in groups, and on unconventional projects. For the last couple of years I've been assigning projects in software that supports group interaction. Social software. And one of the things I'm seeing after about a year of watching these projects come out, is a way of taking tools, and particularly open source tools, and combining them to create software that we wouldn't create if we were working what I call the Web school, which is what I learned to program in.

The idea in the Web school is: The Web is your platform, the Web server is the delivery vehicle. This is the school of software that has been building and launching applications that rely on the browser, for ten years.

The characteristics of Web school software are:

  1. Scalability is all. The core intuition of the Web school is, you MUST be able to scale to an order of magnitude or two orders of magnitude larger than your current situation. Without requiring a software redesign. If you launch on the Web and get popular, you don't want to melt down from your own success. As a result of this we've been sitting in meetings for ten years killing ideas because they won't scale. "That's an interesting idea, but it doesn't scale." And then everybody goes, "Oh okay." Saying "It doesn't scale" is the same as saying "It's a bad idea".
  2. You have to make software as complete as possible. You have to assume that the user has no other context than the software itself. And so when you come to the Website, it has to bend over backwards to give you the most complete possible experience.
  3. It has to be as general as possible. You have to solve the most general problems in your domain. So if you're doing a site for rating, say, tractor trailers, you have to make sure the engine can also handle baby blankets or album covers. Because someone else might be adopting your framework. Again, you need to scale, to grow and expand. So you're constantly being pushed by the Web school to move up the ladder of abstraction to more and more general solutions to problems.

This leads to a kind of merry-go-round quality: You have to get big, and to do that you have to bring in money, and to do that you have to get big. The expense in programmer time and bandwidth forces you into being the next Amazon, the next eBay, the next Yahoo. One size of generality or scalability requires another.

What I'm seeing is my students getting off that ride. I'm seeing them develop software that violates a lot of the principles of the Web school, and also works really well.

The first example was about a year ago, when two of my students at ITP (at NYU) created a piece of software called, somewhat alarmingly, Teachers on the Run. And it was basically HotOrNot for professors... Two students took a Linux box, Apache and a MySQL database, entered the names of fifty or sixty professors, and let anybody add any comments without a filter. It also let visitors look at existing comments and vote plus one or minus one. Comments with the most agreement were at the top, and the most disagreement at the bottom. Five features that were really the embodiment of the simplest thing that could possibly work. They launched this thing on a Friday afternoon. Overnight two hundred students had produced more than a thousand votes. It was mobbed.

So I saw this incredible amount of social value created in a very lightweight fashion. And I missed the importance of it, because I thought it succeeded for reasons that were basically unfair. It violated the precepts of the Web school. Especially, it wouldn't scale. In my school, that meant it was DOA.

There's a site out there called RateMyProfessors.com. Classic dot-com: put the full phrase of what you're doing into a single URL and throw it out there, waiting for riches to come back to you. RateMyProfessor.com has been out there for years. It has a feature set that's huge. It is so unbelievably much more richly over-provisioned than Teachers on the Run. Yet no one at ITP had ever gone to RateMyProfessors.com. No one has ever bothered to try to log in there or circulate it to the students. Even though it had been out there for years before Teachers on the Run had been launched.

I started thinking, "Well, what if it's possible to build software that knows the community it's for, and isn't pressed to scale?" As I started looking around, I found two things. One was the pattern I already observed, which was that students knew the characteristics of the community they served, and could customize the software for that community. The second thing was: Open Source. Consistently, the platforms these were designed for were open source.

In the conversation that followed, I added one more item to Clay's list of situated software characteristics: time. Software can become highly situational when the deadlines are hard and close. Clay responded,

A lot of what's driving people to build things in this way is the sense that it's not going to get them into trouble down the line. Web applications famously launch weeks or months late. The idea is, It Must Be Right At Launch, right? Web applications typically don't have fixed launch days, and if they do there is usually a disastrous trade-off between feature set and time.

With situated software, the launch date is fixed, and subsequent changes in software need to rely on community feedback. So instead of wanting the most complete feature set, as we did with Web apps, what you want is to get to a gestalt that includes the minimum set of features that creates a complete experience. As simple as possible, but no simpler, as Einstein said. It's the time pressure itself that makes the difference.

With a political campaign, every day the software isn't launched is worse than what happens given the feature set you have at launch day. That is a design center we haven't been able to reach very easily because we're encumbered by assumptions about how software should be built -- that it should be around permanently and be infinitely scalable. We've assumed that software should last long periods of time and scale to an unlimited numbers of users. Hey, we don't run our dinner parties that way. You don't invite six people over for dinner and then say "Well, it would be really good if sixty people show up."

Not to say Web apps don't belong in the ecosystem. Joe Trippi called MeetUp the Dean Campaign's "killer app". "We built a hammer," says Scott Heiferman, "and they built a house with it."

Zephyr Teachout, whose visibility as a Dean campaign worker was exceeded only by Joe Trippi, says MeetUp made such a good tool because what it built wasn't online. MeetUps happen in meat space -- in physical, geographical reality. Off-Net. Scott Heiferman tells me MeetUp's most important corporate relationships are with the local restaurants and coffee shops where MeetUps meet. (Although they also happen in people's homes, on beaches, in public parks and other places.)

So MeetUp succeeded in part because it violated at least one Web school maxim: it didn't overprovision its feature set, or let its ambitions fall out of alignment with its core services. And it kept those services simple, in the tradition of great practical open source applications.

Consider the source

Joe Trippi's long career path included a tour of duty with Progeny, working with Ian Murdock, the co-originator of Debian. It's not just coincidental that Joe called Dean's an "open source campaign", and said "It's like Linux. The more people collaborate, the more likely we'll build a better thing." Nicolas Rushkoff's Open Source Democracy: How online communication is changing offline politics (London: Demos, 2003) gathers articulate takes on what open source and democracy are coming to mean for each other. Here's Douglas Alexander, Member of Parliament in the U.K.:

The Internet is both specific to the needs of its users and inherently a collectively engineered phenomenon. What makes this network succeed is a series of common protocols which facilitate but do not dictate the way in which the Web works. In the same way distributive democracy requires strong relationships between participants to ensure a feedback loop which allows innovation in policy-making to be diffused throughout every institution.

As Andrei Cherny argues, the information age seeks political entities which are built on conversations, not monologues. Thus participation is no longer about listening to a hierarchical decision-making process but instead a cooperative experience for all citizens. In helping to advance the ideals of the egalitarian society, this form of 'offline' extension of the principles of online action is to be welcomed. Yet, we must not lose sight that the driving force of this interactivity and its concomitant potential for extending egalitarian values is not the Internet itself but the voice it gives to our civic disposition.

Cherny was a senior speech writer to Al Gore at age twenty-one (the youngest in American history), author of the 2000 Democratic Party Platform, and founding Editor of Blueprint: Ideas for a New Century. Among other things, Cherny says we need to "Return America to our bottom-up Jeffersonian roots and turn away from our modern top-down Hamiltonian rule."

Phil Windley, former CIO of Utah, says we're coming to the end of an era when governance was crippled by two waves of opposing ideologies and ideologues: anti-business lefties in the 60s and 70s and anti-government righties in the 80s and 90s. "Both groups failed to understand that most citizens don't subscribe to an ideology. In fact, all most people really want from government is to get the roads fixed." What's exciting now, he says, is the potential for involvement and participation by ordinary citizens in the mundane machinery of governance. Already, he says, countless NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are bringing solutions to government, rather than waiting for the reverse to happen.

I recently had a chance to witness this first-hand when a friend asked me to sit in on a meeting between a local group and county supervisors. The local group had some ideas for improving bandwidth in the county, and this meeting was the one where they were presenting concrete recommendations. To my surprise, I found myself welcomed at the door by one of the supervisors, who said "You've come to the right place." She didn't know who I was and had never met me before. Soon I found myself participating in a productive conversation with elected officials about an important local issue -- a new experience for me. At the end of the meeting, all the participants left knowing that they each had a role to play, and that progress was being made.

The friend who invited me to the meeting doesn't work in government (he's in the production side of the movie business), but he is an astute observer of government and how it works. What he told me after the meeting blew my mind, because it had never occurred to me before:

Government isn't the problem. People need to bring solutions to government. Government is dying for answers. Bring some and you'll get somewhere.

I don't have experience with the government stonewalling me at all. I experience interest and cooperation at every level, as long as I bring solutions and not just problems.

A lot of helpless people want government to solve their problems, or to carry their spear on one issue or another. That reflects an ignorance of how the whole ecosystem actually works. If you're constructive, you can participate in that ecosystem. Bureaucrats are crying for help on all kinds of issues. If we provide some, we can make get stuff done together.

Government and business are both parts of an ecosystem. Both also have advantages. Government has a clear priority for community good on a long term basis. There's no quarterly rush. Business has a bias for action and for private interests. Government is concerned with output: meetings and notes, for example. Reports. Business is concerned with outcome. Getting things done. You can get a culture clash out of output vs. outcome, or you can combine the two and solve some problems.

"Democracy is the first open source application", Phil Windley says. More to the point, he considers open source values (code exposure, peer review, individual initiative, iterated inclusion of improved code in goods that are never quite finished) essential to functional democracy in the long run. In fact, he believes open source values and practices will finally help democracy deliver on ideals that have remained unfulfilled for thousands of years.

In other words, we may finally have the kind of democracy we've always idealized -- governments that are not only representative of their citizens, but open to participation by everybody with something to contribute.

Three interesting facts about that meeting with the supervisors:

  1. All the guests in the meeting were technologists. (I was the least technical of the bunch.)
  2. All the public servants in the meeting (supervisors and various staffers) believed that improving Internet bandwidth was a no-brainer issue.
  3. It was only natural for government to look to technologists for help.

Think about that for a minute. Here at the local and regional level of government, where the density of lobbyists and other pressure groups is lower than in Washington, pro-Internet technologists are starting to find themselves in a sellers market for their expertise and solutions. At the very least, we're seeing some interfaces open up. Maybe we'll see quite a few more soon. According to Zephyr Teachout, over a hundred candidates now running for public office were inspired by the Dean campaign.

"All the significant trends start with technologists," Marc Andreessen says.

Those trends don't have to be technical. Clearly, they can also be political.

Perhaps now we won't just get the government we deserve. Maybe now we'll get the government we hack.