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Me and Jon Stewart, On Making Democracy Work

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, November 1 2010

The Wall Street Journal published an essay by me this weekend in their Review section, where I try to look at the big picture of what internet-powered mass participation is doing to politics and governance in America. And it's kind of nice to see some of the points I was trying to make echoed by none other than Jon Stewart in the closing remarks that he made at the end of his semi-satirical Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington on Saturday.

Here's Stewart:

The country's 24-hour, political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing....

The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker--and, perhaps, eczema. And yet... I feel good. Strangely, calmly, good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us, through a funhouse mirror....We hear every damned day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. The truth is, we do! We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don't is here (in Washington) or on cable TV!

But Americans don't live here, or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done--not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.

And here's me:

...though many online activists use their platforms to unearth critical facts, user-generated media is also created and shared to dramatize and exaggerate the other side's faults—to paint the tea partiers as racist or Obama supporters as anti-American. Being hyperconnected, it seems, is contributing to hyperpolarization.

The rapid rise of social media has generated more talking than listening, more pushing than parsing, and more fragmentation of attention than concentration. The resulting sense of information overload may cause more people to retreat from the public arena, simply because it feels too crowded and noisy.

The current stack of online tools and platforms is especially good at organizing attempts to block government action as opposed to synthesizing solutions to our public distemper. If we don't change course, the future of American politics may be a dysfunctional cycle of "I can stop your bad Social Security privatization scheme; you can stop my bad energy-reform scheme," ad infinitum. Americans yearn mostly for efficient and responsive government, not bigger or smaller government. But try organizing that constituency when the news is driven by hyper-networked political minorities....

What's needed is a new political synthesis akin to the "neutral point of view" balancing act that has enabled millions of people to contribute to Wikipedia despite their many differences. Call it "we government": new forms of collaboration and service that use technology, open data and public participation to solve shared problems. This is not "e-government," where the authorities use the Web to provide information and services, but rather an effort by citizens to refashion government as a platform connecting people around the issues and needs that matter most to them....

"We government" is neither right nor left, small government nor big government. It is, rather, effective do-it-ourselves-government by people who want to contribute to their communities but find themselves put off by today's hyperventilators. The Internet is transforming our politics in some worrisome ways, to be sure. But it may yet improve how we govern ourselves, giving us new tools for working together on the everyday problems of public life.

Stewart built his talk around an interesting metaphor, that of cars making room for each other to merge into a tunnel crossing under the Hudson River.

Everyone of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear -- often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers.

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile-long, 30-foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river…And they do it. Concession by concession. You go. Then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go -- oh my god, is that an NRA sticker on your car, an Obama sticker on your car? Well, that’s OK. You go and then I’ll go…"Sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst.

Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together...

I couldn't agree more. But building systems for integrating disparate voices is a lot harder than getting cars to merge on the highway. I may sound like a broken record saying this, but we need better tools for collaboration. If you are making those tools, or know of people who are, send me a note.