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May 13, 2005

Thoughts on extreme democracy

When I first tried to write a book similar to Extreme Democracy, in 1996-97, I bogged down because I didn't know whether I wanted to talk about advocacy (my original intention - to create a new "rules for radicals" on the web) or democracy. To the extent that I'd been politically active, I'd been more of an advocate, but when I started thinking hard about advocacy, I was distracted by democracy. I found interesting space between the two… what the hell is democracy, anyway? If you have 50 people voting and 40 of them are idiots, what does that say about democratic process? Of course that's an old problem, but it had never captured my attention before. I wasn't a political scientist or particularly grounded at that point.

I had my civics badge; I knew functional democracies are actually republics or representative democracies where popular will is delegated to government infrastructure with checks and balances to keep the wolves - and kings - at bay. But lived through Watergate and other revelations of the points of failure within that infrastructure. I was also media-focused and could see the growing and increasingly effective use of broadcast propaganda.

I figured the powerful will use their power wherever they can to build the world the way they want it. There's nothing to suggest that concentrated power makes smart decisions. The powerful may be smart about some things, about others they may be just as stupid as the 40 out of 50 people I left voting in a room in that next to last paragraph.

Somewhere along the way I was convinced that we needed more voices in the conversations leading to decisions about the world. When I started thinking that way we didn't have the tools we have now - blogs, wikis, aggregators, tags, etc etc. - so though I knew there was possibility, I wasn't quite sure how to get there.

The last couple of years have been quite an education in that realm. What some are calling "web 2.0," the social web, converged with the explosive political environment of the 21st century, and new voices are emerging. Many new voices. We can hear them individually or in aggregate, a chorus of new thinking, using online tools that activists and technologists are co-evolving.

Extreme Democracy is a collection of writings, many written as the Howard Dean campaign was playing out. Some of the writings express a vision for a new politics; others are observation and analysis of the impact of technology on politics. We've tried to create a book that explores the relationship of social technology and network applications with a more participatory form of politics.

Somewhere along the way I began to think of democracy as an operating system and various forms of advocacy as applications within that system. That might be one technology metaphor too many, but I think it's apt.

Posted by Jon Lebkowsky at May 13, 2005 3:55 AM


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