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Can the Internet Fix Politics? A Look Back

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, June 7 2010

The crowd assembled last week at Personal Democracy Forum 2010 in New York City; photo by JD Lasica.

The annual Personal Democracy Forum in New York City has grown into diverse enough an event that it can play out like the proverbial blind men attempting to make sense of an elephant by touching it. The multi-day event on the intersection of politics and technology, the 2010 iteration of which wrapped at the end of last week, looks rather different depending on where you're standing in it. Lucky for us the audience for PdF felt the elephant and took copious notes.

MoveOn Board President Eli Pariser; photo by JD Lasica.

Justmeans' Marcia Stepanek has posted a trio of solid recaps of three of the talks at PdF that got people in the audience talking the most. The first was author and digital theorist Clay Shirky's morning talk on threats to the future of digital activism. Among Shirky's most provocative points, if the resulting Twitter feed was an indication, is that, as Stepanek writes, "when the cost of communication falls, the (strength of the) signal falls." Second up was co-founder Eli Pariser's provocative argument that we're being personalized and customized to death. "The filter bubble may be good for consumers," said Pariser, "but it's bad for democracy." Lastly, there was Michigan Law professor and former Obama White House official Susan Crawford's tech policy talk in which she argued that here in the United States we're "in a titantic battle for the future of the Internet."

Digital activist and former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow; photo by JD Lasica

Over on the Huffington Post, Mayhill Fowler riffs off of digital activist and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow's talk on PdF first's day to suggest that the emergent theme of this year's conference was a growing loss of faith in the wisdom of "big government" in the Internet age, putting a renewed focus on the role of the city and state in the American experiment. Also on HuffPo, tech editor Jose Antonio Vargas liveblogged the course of the event and contributor Colin Delany profiled the MIT project in grassroots mapping through DIY aerial photography that caused a fair number of jaws to drop in the CUNY graduate school auditorium.

MeetUp founder Scott Heiferman; photo by JD Lasica.

Euroblog's Jon Worth, profiled by us on techPresident in the wake of Pdf Barcelona here, writes up the tools he learned about at the U.S. version of the conference that thinks might work in the future for political organization back home, from, the U.S. government's own URL shortener to MeetUp Everywhere, the next generation of MeetUp recently announced by company founder Scott Heiferman, who also spoke at the conference.

"The Networked Nonprofit" authors Beth Kanter and Allison Fine; photo by JD Lasica.

TechSoup's Beck Wiegand looks at Beth Kanter and Allison Fine's Personal Democracy Forum '10 presentation on breaking down institutional boundaries that leave non-profits failing to progress. "They envision organizations working like an ocean sponge," writes Wiegand about Kanter and Fine's vision for a modern advocacy organization, "anchored to the ocean floor (the cause) and they allow water and sea life to flow through them (human talent, ideas, strategies) but they skillfully capture the good (innovation, free agents) and let the bad (silos, protocols) flow out."

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales; photo by JD Lasica.

Smart Mobs' Stephanie Gerson grabbed a half an hour with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who participated in the kick-off conversation of the event with PdF founder Andrew Rasiej. Gerson probed Wales on whether Wikipedia has itself emerged as an example of new forms of governance that can emerge given the right environment, one keyed towards collaboration. Wales' suggested to Gerson that Wikipedia is comparable, in fact, to the UK's system of a living, evolving constitution that exists mostly in the general agreement of that country's citizens.

O'Reilly Radar's Alex Howard looks at the relaunch of PdF's 10 Questions online platform, announced at the event. That platform sets up a two-way conversation between citizens and elected officials -- or, at least, those folks with an interest in becoming elected officials. 10 Questions relaunch is timed to the upcoming mid-term elections in the U.S.

Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher; photo by JD Lasica.

Political Wire's Taegan Goddard reflects that his Pdf '10 breakout session on "The Enduring Importance of Blogs as Organizing Hub" with Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher, BlogHer's Lisa Stone and Republican strategist Patrick Ruffini spent less time on "the mechanics of using blogs for political purposes" than the "actual effect blogs have had in specific races."

Marc Ambinder, politics editor at the Atlantic, used his PdF session on the role of "fact checking" in the modern media ecosystem with co-panelists Jay Rosen, Bill Adair, and Brendan Greeley as a starting point for a riff on the journalistic quest for truth in a time where nonsense and falsehoods seem to be enjoying a certain vigor. "Shaming requires not merely a recitation of the facts," writes Ambinder. "It requires a passion for the truth, and it necessitate risk-taking by elites who could lose their status by stepping up and deciding that enough is enough." Ambinder wasn't done with the topic, following up with a much circulated post titled, "#PDF10: On Media Bias" in which he laid down the guidelines for journalistic practice he's developed for himself over the years. "I'll give the government a chance to explain itself," wrote Ambinder, "but I won't pretend that I'm not writing the story with an intent to hold them accountable."

U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra; photo by Esty Stein

The Hill's technology reporter Gautham Nagesh covers two sessions that argued that government, by doing things slightly differently, can cause a blossoming of innovation. In the first, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra described how he saw his unique job to include "seeding entrepreneurial talent across the [federal] agencies." In the second, thinker Bernard Avishai used how distributed knowledge makes modern car maintenance possible as a reflection of how, writes Nagesh," government have a role in catalyzing competition by creating standards that allow networks to be efficient." Nagesh has also posted a round-up of assorted conference-related bits. Among them is a look at Microsoft's project with Election Mall to create a digital campaign dashboard and a conversation with an Economist tech writer who, not unrelatedly, makes the point that "you can tell a movement has arrived when companies start advertising around it."

O'Reilly Media's Tim O'Reilly, Michigan Republican Party head Saul Anuzis, the Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington, Personal Democracy Forum's Andrew Rasiej, Newark (NJ) Mayor Cory Booker, and the New York Times' Nick Bilton share a laugh; photo by Esty Stein.

And Saul Anuzis, the head of the Republican Party of Michigan and a candidate for the chairship of the Republican National Committee in 2008, reflected upon the final plenary session that featured Anuzis, O'Reilly Media's Tim O'Reilly, the Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington, Newark Mayor Cory Booker,and the New York Times' Nick Bilton, moderated by PdF's Andrew Rasiej. "Had a great time," wrote Anuzis of a session that was often spirited, "learned a tremendous amount and met some new friends." And the Washington Times' Kerry Picket has a look at the role and experience of conservatives at the conference, with quotes from Jon Henke, David All, and others.

We're working on pulling video of the Booker-Anuzis-O'Reilly-Huffington-Bilton final discussion as well as of other sessions. Of course, a great deal more happened during PdF 2010, and the quickest way to get a feel is probably to make your way through the wide and deep Twitter stream for a while. And, of course, by all means, if you have links to good coverage of the Personal Democracy Forum 2010 conference, please drop them in the comments.