Net Politics Grows Up

Technotopianism was in short supply at this year’s Personal Democracy Forum. That was a good thing.

The annual conference on politics and the Net, held in New York in June, attracted a high-wattage cast from both worlds. The mood, while hopeful, reflected some realities too often overlooked in the first blush of love between policy wonks and geeks.

After the 2007 iteration of the forum, I groused on my blog, “If one more person had said that the Internets were ‘revolutionary’ and ‘transformative,’ I would have required medication.” This time around, there was a sense that using technology effectively is hard work, that it requires investment in infrastructure and rethinking of processes, and that the best of intentions can lead to unexpected consequences.

The big thinkers brought sober messages to the main stage. The Net social critic Clay Shirky summarized the point of his book Here Comes Everybody as “group action just got easier,” but noted that so far, online political organizing has been more effective at protesting things than building them.

Robin Chase, founder of the auto-sharing service Zipcar, mused about ways to turn scarce resources into abundance. Stanford law professor and intellectual property guru Lawrence Lessig said Congress needs a watchdog and governance is harder than showing up at the polls every four years. And Jonathan Zittrain framed his concerns about open and closed technologies in terms of civic life.

One of the most closely watched panels brought together Internet strategists from the major presidential campaigns. (Of course, all but two of those organizations had already tasted defeat.) Joe Rospars, the New Media director for Barack Obama, said his team had to build its own tools to make use of the sea of information it’s gathered.

Tracy Russo, late of the John Edwards campaign, mocked John McCain’s reliance on others to explain the Net to him by saying that explaining social networks to your grandma doesn’t mean she can go out and use them effectively. Everyone agreed that online politicking was having a big impact in ’08, but nobody made it sound like magic.

During a break in the program, a press conference was held to announce the launch of Internet for Everyone, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit group set up to address the reality that the digital divide is not shrinking. Until poor and rural Americans have access to broadband, the idea of a networked democracy is incomplete at best, and the competitive standing of the United States in the global economy is at risk. Later, Internet progenitor and Google evangelist Vint Cerf talked with me about the importance of establishing a coherent national technology policy.

The panel I sat on dealt with local politics. There was a lot of progress to report–regular folks empowered by the Web to stand up to real estate developers in North Carolina, smart new alt-media in Colorado and New York–but there was also a discussion of the legwork required to make it all happen.

This represents a healthy new phase for tech-infused politics: the understanding that this stuff doesn’t happen simply by flicking a switch. Just in time, too. There’s a lot of work to be done.

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