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PdF 2011 Theme: Agents of Change

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, April 10 2011

Too often, the discussion of technology and politics employs a kind of lazy shorthand. We say things like "The Internet is revolutionizing politics," or "the Internet is helping dictators," as if a set of network protocols and bits and wires could do anything on its own. Unfortunately, that shorthand often infects our discussion of current events, and we end up debating things like "Twitter Revolution" or "Facebook effect" rather than the real issues, which are what people do with these tools; how key actors like organizers, leaders, volunteers and followers interact; and how these players are learning from and adapting to the new environment they are themselves helping create and shape. The Internet, after all, doesn't empower anyone. We empower ourselves.

So, with those thoughts in mind, we're proud to announce that the theme for this year's Personal Democracy Forum, our eighth annual gathering since 2004, will be "Agents of Change." Save time and money and go register now!

Since June 2010, people in the United States and all over the world have made big changes happen, some that were predictable and others than few ever expected. They've done so using connection technologies in many new ways, and also by seizing opportunities presented by new circumstances on the ground. The most obvious examples range from the shift in power in the U.S. House of Representatives to the uprisings in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. But they also include promising new kinds of story-telling and political media, and fundamentally game-changing kinds of tools and platforms.

Our goal with "Agents of Change" is to put the emphasis on the people making these changes, the new ways of thinking that they are bringing to politics and government, and on the conditions that such people need to engage in effective change-making. In that respect, this year's Personal Democracy Forum will be about what happens when the technology itself starts to fade into the background, and what becomes most important is all the new uses people come up with, as well as the policy changes that we may need in order to make such activity safe and productive.

Our already confirmed list of speakers include many people whose recent efforts go right to the heart of these questions, including Sami Ben Gharbia (Tunisian exile blogger-journalist-activist whose work was central to that country's revolution), Vivek Kundra (White House Chief Information Officer, who is driving government innovation around open data), Jenny Beth Martin (national co-coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the key grassroots organizations of that upstart movement), Andy Carvin (NPR social media guru and longtime crowd-sorcerer, whose Twitter curation of the ongoing Arab Spring has been hailed as a new kind of online journalism), Susan Morgan (director of the Global Network Initiative, a consortium that is pressing tech platforms to be better at protecting user rights), and Nathan Freitas (longtime coder whose Guardian Project is building the next generation of tools to keep activists safe), to name just a few.

Today, we are also pleased to announced a new round of confirmed speakers for PdF 2011. They are:

  • Martin Avila, the President and CEO of Terra Eclipse, a Santa Cruz-based technology firm that worked for Ron Paul in 2008 and more recently built the Freedom Connects online social network platform for FreedomWorks.
  • Ori Brafman, co-author of The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations and Click: The Magic of Instant Connections.
  • Mona Eltahawy, an award-winning columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues whose 2008 "Generation Facebook" article for World Policy Journal anticipated the current revolutionary wave.
  • Seth Flaxman, a graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School who is the executive director of Democracy Works, Inc., a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to improving civic engagement through the use of technology, and the founder of TurboVote.
  • Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the Senate's leading practitioner of open government transparency.
  • Marianne Manilov, co-founder and co-director of The Engage Network, which works to build change on a human scale through creating distributive networks and engagement pathways.
  • Eben Moglen, Columbia University professor, general counsel of the Free Software Foundation, and founder of the new Freedom Box Foundation.
  • Marko Rakar, Croatia's top political blogger and the man who, using liberated government data on such topics as the country's bloated voter rolls single-handedly broke open the scandal and forced an ongoing discussion of constitutional reform.
  • Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, producer and co-host of The Stream, a new show being launched by Al Jazeera English in May that will be rooted in the social web in an entirely original way.
  • Michael Silberman, co-founder of EchoDitto, where he is a senior online campaigns strategist.
  • Dan Sinker, aka @mayoremanuel, who focuses on entrepreneurial journalism and the mobile web at Columbia College Chicago where he teaches, and is also the creator of the election tracker the Chicago Mayoral Scorecard, the mobile storytelling project CellStories, and was the founding editor of the influential underground culture magazine Punk Planet until its closure in 2007.

In the coming weeks, we'll be unveiling the full conference schedule. [UPDATE: Go here for more info on the plenary sessions.] But you can trust that this year's PdF is shaping up to be our best event ever. Right now, tickets are still available at our early-bird rates but the deadline to save is next Monday, April 18. (Details and directions on how to register are here.) Don't wait til the last minute!