My Favorite Tech-Politics Books of 2007
BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, December 18 2007
On any given day, I've got about four or five books that I'm currently reading--or trying to finish--and I can understand why some people try to take a "reading week" (or month) where they do nothing but catch up with the piles of things that we wish we had time to read. I'm taking a break from my own piles to offer some capsule reviews of several books I did manage to read this year that cover the emerging world of technology and politics.
At the top of my list of recommendations, I have to put Zephyr Teachout and Thomas Streeter's anthology "Mousepads, Shoe Leather, and Hope: Lessons from the Howard Dean Campaign for the Future of Internet Politics". I've marked dozens of pages in this book for referral, and you will too if you have any interest in really understanding what was unique and important about Howard Dean's 2003-4 presidential campaign and what it still can teach us about the future of internet politics. Michael Silberman's "The Meetup Story" chapter alone is worth the price of the book, and will help you understand why the lateral self-organizing that the Dean campaign nurtured with its Meetups still continues today, as hundreds of Democracy for America groups still meetup every month. As I read Mousepads, I marveled at all the ways the Dean campaign revived the idea of democratic decentralized politics. (Time permitting, I'm hoping to re-read it and blog further about its lessons.) If you want to understand why this time around presidential politics seems so controlled from above (with the exception of Ron Paul's supporters, which Zephyr highlights in this PBS interview) compared to 2004, and you want to be reminded of the unfulfilled potential of net-centric politics, read this book.
It's hard for me to be objective about Garrett Graff's "The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House". That's not only because he offers a glowing profile of PdF co-founder Andrew Rasiej as one of his model future thinkers, but because the whole book feels like it was written by a daily reader of techPresident and an avid devotee of all the ways technology is changing politics. So I won't try to be objective and just offer this: Graff offers an up-to-date synthesis of the multiple challenges facing Americas as we adjust to living in a flattening world, and a valuable critique of how our policy debates on everything from health care to education haven't yet caught up with reality.
If the Dean campaign popularized the phrase, "You have the power," philosopher-pundit David Weinberger brings it new meaning with his book "Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder". In it, he describes how the shift from paper to bits is changing how we manage and marshall information, with subtle but deep effects on how power is structured. "We have entire industries and institutions built on the fact that the paper order severely limits how things can be organized," he writes. "Museums, educational curricula, newspapers, the travel industry, and television schedules are all based on the assumption that ...we need experts to go through information, ideas, and knowledge and put them neatly away." But now, he argues, we have the power to tackle all this miscellaneous information and organize however we like, using arrangements that make the most sense to us, expert authority be damned. Everything is Miscellaneous is a rarity, one of those books that offers up a genuinely fresh way of understanding the times we live in.
I've already written a long essay analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of Matt Bai's book
"The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics" (Matt Bai) The Argument, so I won't repeat them here. If you're looking for a useful survey on the main players on the Democratic side of the fence, from the Clintonian establishment to the netroots, Bai is a strong guide. I still think he caricatures the online activists and misses the many places where the conversation IS about the big ideas of the future. But for an inside-the-Beltway journalist, Bai at least goes out and reports, and if you read his non-blog or his new blog The Primary Argument (why does the little guy illustrating each post have so much hair, by the way?), you'll see that his ideas are more nuanced than his book might suggest.
One more book for good measure: Al Gore's "The Assault on Reason". Why? Because he offers the best argument I've seen anywhere yet for how the internet can fix what ails American democracy. Here's an excerpt: "...the Internet is not just another platform for disseminating the truth. It's a platform for pursuing the truth, and the decentralized creation and distribution of ideas, in the same way that markets are a decentralized mechanism for the creation and distributions of goods and services. It's a platform, in other words, for reason." [Emphasis in the original.] I don't think there's a single word in that quote that a conservative, or a liberal, could quibble with. To be sure, his book is also a closely argued polemic against the Right, but I suspect we'd all like to see a world where ideas win on their merits, not their money or muscle.