Sunday, September 13, 2009

Athens, Georgia Rather Than Athens, Greece

This Sunday the Week in Review Section of the New York Times was topped with an item about "'Athens' on the Net," which appeared online under the title "Democracy 2.0 Awaits an Upgrade." Given the timing of the piece, which has appeared just after the much vaunted "Government 2.0" O'Reilly summit in Washington D.C., policy makers are likely to take note.

Writer Anand Giridharadas argues that there are serious limitations to the claims of a recent British documentary called Us Now that seems to answer the question "Can We All Govern?" with an enthusiastic "Yes!"

Instead Giridharadas paints a much more sobering picture by citing the work of academics like Stanford Department of Communication Chair Professor James Fishkin and pointing to the failures of recent experiments with using Web 2.0 technologies to encourage participation, as the following excerpt shows.

During the transition, the administration created an online “Citizens’ Briefing Book” for people to submit ideas to the president. “The best-rated ones will rise to the top, and after the Inauguration, we’ll print them out and gather them into a binder like the ones the President receives every day from experts and advisors,” Valerie Jarrett, Mr. Obama’s friend and adviser, wrote to supporters.

They received 44,000 proposals and 1.4 million votes for those proposals. The results were quietly published, but they were embarrassing — not so much to the administration as to us, the ones we’ve been waiting for.

In the middle of two wars and an economic meltdown, the highest-ranking idea was to legalize marijuana, an idea nearly twice as popular as repealing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy. Legalizing online poker topped the technology ideas, twice as popular as nationwide Wi-Fi. Revoking the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status garnered three times more votes than raising funding for childhood cancer.

Once in power, the White House crowdsourced again. In March, its Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted an online brainstorm about making government more transparent. Good ideas came, but a stunning number had no connection to transparency, with many calls for marijuana legalization and a raging (and groundless) debate about the authenticity of Mr. Obama’s birth certificate.

If the Internet needed a further nudge from its pedestal, the health care debate obliged. From the administration’s point of view, the Web arguably proved better at spreading deceptions about “death panels” than at spreading truth, and at turning town halls into brawls than at nurturing the unfettered deliberation that some imagine to be the hallmark of the Internet.

What's missing in the article is some mention of the role that corporate ideology has played in implementation and the way that Silicon Valley works independently from Washington for its own ends in ways that could be very troubling for what Siva Vaidhyanathan calls "the Googlization of Government." The writer notes that utopian enthusiasts celebrate the fact that potentially "our consent is gathered every few minutes, not every few years," but he doesn't deal with how much this consent is compromised by the very platforms being used. With the expanding use of commercial Web 2.0 technologies by government agencies, a number of other scholars have also expressed concern that in the name of “participatory culture” the government may risk compelling its citizens to participate in particular copyright regimes that constrain speech, to submit to corporate user agreements that rewrite the social contract, and to divulge private information to commercial vendors without their consent.


Blogger bob c said...

We need "Tank Girl" and the resistance movement to protect us from "The Dept. of Water and Power"! Corporate dupes that we are!

1:32 PM  
Blogger Brett Boessen said...

I would use "dismissive" rather than "sobering" to describe this NYT piece. What the author implies with his tone is more like "this is a terrible idea that'll never work" as opposed to "we need to think long and hard about this because there may be some advantages but also some significant disadvantages."

I take your point that he would need to go further in order to seriously plumb the depths of this kind of argument (something like Sunstein did in, but based on his approach in this piece, I'm wondering whether he would do the subject justice.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Jardinero1 said...

I am going to rant a little, because I really take issue with the handwringing over the "corporate takeover" of "our" government.

The founders considered this problem very carefully. They understood the danger of participatory democracy and wrote a constitution which sharply prevented public participation at the highest level of government. They established a republic whose governing power was to be circumscribed in its size and scope. They made no attempt to limit the governing power of the states. I guess they thought that if you didn't like your state government you could move to another state.

The corporate takeover of government sounds more like an argument to limit the government.

No corporation has ever held a gun to my head and told me whether I can smoke dope or gamble online. The government does so on a daily basis. The government has badges and guns to enforce behavior. Corporations don't. "...the government may risk compelling its citizens to participate in particular copyright regimes that constrain speech, to submit to corporate user agreements that rewrite the social contract, and to divulge private information to commercial vendors without their consent". "May risk"? Copyright is a creation of the government. Sorry, but without government there would be no copyright. If you are worried about invasive or abusive copyright regimes, you should limit the government not the corporation. In fact, without the government, corporations would not enjoy any kind of legal status at all. Only the government gives corporations the status of legal persons. Prior to the 1870's corporations existed merely for the purpose of aggregating capital and distributing profits among real human persons.

Where is the real problem? With a too large and intrusive government or with those who would infiltrate it.

12:37 PM  

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