Sunday, September 06, 2009

The A-List of E-Gov

Given the four-figure price tag for registering for this week's summit on Government 2.0, there should be some pretty swanky t-shirts and other swag for conference attendees. Clearly, in budget hard times, this isn't a conference designed primarily for public servants in the government sector. Instead, it is a summit intended for software and hardware manufacturers to help them position themselves for profitable contracting with the new administration.

During the Bush administration, I attended a few high-priced conferences like these as a speaker, when the excitement was all about serious games rather than social networking and the buzzwords had to do with simulation, training, and efficiency rather than access, transparency, and reform.

It's a star line-up that includes Obama's Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who has been praised for facilitating the use of open API technologies to make information in government databases more usable by the public and has been criticized for doing little to check the influence of Google and its subsidiary YouTube in the digital rhetoric of the White House. Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra will also be taking the stage, who also began his government IT start close to the beltway in Virginia. Kundra is slated to discuss possible ways that privacy and security could be compromised by the open data initiatives that he champions, and Chopra will be discussing schemes for cooperation facilitated by the transfer of principles of the "digital commonwealth" to those for the "digital nation."

Former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta will also speak; Podesta served as the transition chief for the Obama administration and was the public face of the website and the putative author of many mass e-mails received by those who visited Obama sites. Podesta will be speaking about public diplomacy online.

Speaking of public diplomacy, a notable late drop from the roster is British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who is also a blogger and YouTube personality as part of his online efforts at public diplomacy. Perhaps his office was engaged with the scandal involving the Megrahi affair and thought it was wise to stay home in the UK.

There are certainly plenty of Google executives who will be taking the podium at Government 2.0, which include ICANN Chairman of the Board Vinton Cerf, co-creator of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet, who continues to wield authority in how major networks are administered.

This O'Reilly sponsored event also contains some odd choices, such as researcher Mark Drapeau, who I've criticized in the past for his odd entomology meets militarism view of the online world.

Not everyone is a starry-eyed enthusiast, Drapeau included, however. Clay Shirky, author of an important paper on power laws and inequality online, who has also cast doubt on the utopian promise of the semantic web, given its syllogistic structures, is scheduled to speak. But it is hard to miss the corporate hype of the conference's sponsorship arrangements, in which "diamond," "platinum," "gold," and "silver" sponsors vie for attention for their magnanimity.

Good government public interest groups provide some window dressing for the occasion, but much like town hall movements in urban areas during the previous century, these groups champion the civic values of mainstream establishment America rather than the activist politics of domestic digital rights groups or international NGOs that is devoted to fundamentally rethinking the relationship between direct and representative democracy in this country.

My main problem with this summit is that Web 2.0 is supposed to take on the functions of government somehow by fiat. There seems to be no legislative vision to this conference, where all the attention is on the star power of the executive branch. I contend that Web 2.0 will offer little more than more sophisticated mechanisms for polling to foster a digital homeostasis that basically uses social computing to protect the status quo. Congressional legislation, if not a Constitutional amendment, would be required to make more substantive changes to voting, commenting, petitioning, redistricting, and deliberating.

O'Reilly appeals to communitarian impulses on the Web by calling on programmers to "lend your hands" and "lend your coding skills" to Gov 2.0 efforts. But his call do "Do It Ourselves" implicitly champions a kind of libertarianism that disengages rather than engages with existing structures of power. Although the idea of "citizen action" is opposed to "vending machine government" by O'Reilly, I might argue that little more than what he calls "shaking the vending machine" will be fostered if legislators aren't part of the narrative.

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