Hacking Democracy

Two US presidential campaigns made a big stir by using the Internet as a two-way medium. The innovators got clobbered by Big Television this time, but the software is open source and ready for the next round.

In July 2002, Lawrence Lessig gave a speech that challenged technologists to become politically active, to take up the fight against forces determined to replace the Net's free and open commons with a plumbing system for content, valved at every juncture by mechanisms made to manage the digital rights of industrial producers. He didn't pull punches:

Now, I've spent two years talking to you. To us. About this. And we've not done anything yet. A lot of energy building sites and blogs and Slashdot stories. [But] nothing yet to change that vision in Washington. Because we hate Washington, right? Who would waste his time in Washington?

But if you don't do something now, this freedom that you built, that you spend your life coding, this freedom will be taken away. Either by those who see you as a threat, who then invoke the system of law we call patents, or by those who take advantage of the extraordinary expansion of control that the law of copyright now gives them over innovation. Either of these two changes through law will produce a world where your freedom has been taken away. And, if you can't fight for your freedom, you don't deserve it.

But you've done nothing.

Larry was right. Against the RIAA, the MPAA, the big publishing and broadcasting lobbies and Congress itself, the good guys were being trounced, repeatedly.

So let's mark that point in time and fast-forward to December 2003, 17 months later. The presidential primary playoffs are about to begin, and already a Democratic frontrunner has not been chosen on the strength of his appeal but through the Internet and a variety of tools that run on the Net.

In an interview with Christopher Lydon, Larry said this:

We're just at the moment when people realize that culture is not something that has to be fed to them, like the Soviet citizens at the end of the Soviet empire, where they realize that they can participate in the construction and sharing of culture. Technology has given us that opportunity. And the problem now is that the law takes that away. And so Creative Commons' objective is to find a way to get the law out of the way, so this extraordinary potential for human creativity can be realized in the context of this technology....What we want to do is make it easy for people to recognize the free culture that is out there for them to build upon, so that they'll build on that culture.

The “we” in this case isn't only Creative Commons. It's something new yet familiar: the free culture movement. “Just as Richard Stallman gave birth to the free software movement”, Larry said, “I think it's fair to say we're the free software movement for culture.” And, much like Richard, Larry is quick to make distinctions:

There is an important difference between the free software movement and the open-source software movement, in that the free software movement's first goal is freedom. It's not promising better software. It's not promising a better business model. It's promising freedom. And I think that's what the free culture movement is about. It's about giving people the freedom to build and cultivate their culture.

As with free software, tools matter. “One of the most important examples” of free culture tools, Larry says, is the Weblog:

Free culture is about the transformation between a broadcast culture and a procreative culture—from a broadcast culture where the few speak to the many to a procreative culture where the many speak to the many. That's what the Internet is supposed to have been about forever. But blogging is the first time that it happens in the context of political ideas that get translated and expanded upon as other people comment on them. In the context of political campaigns...they become better citizens. They become engaged citizens. There has been no new technology in the last 150 years that has produced more engaged citizens.

Larry said all this in late 2003, when Howard Dean had emerged as the leading Democratic candidate for president. During the 2003 calendar year, the Net-centric Dean campaign started from nowhere, raised record sums of money, involved record numbers of people and made its candidate a frontrunner in the polls as well as the purse. When it was over, and John Kerry ran away with the Democratic party nomination, the mainstream press predictably compared the Dean campaign to the dot-com bubble. Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, voiced what everybody who truly watched the campaign or participated in it knew intimately:

This was not a dot-com crash. The Howard Dean campaign was a dot-com miracle. Let's look at this thing. This guy starts...on January 31 of last year with seven people, $157,000 in the bank, 432 known supporters nationwide....He was an asterisk....How did it happen? It is a miracle that Howard Dean moved from there to $45 million, more money than any Democrat in history has raised....He didn't do it. I didn't do it. You did it.

Politics, Trippi said, was no longer something mediated by the media, no longer a horse race run and covered exclusively by professionals. It was, Trippi said, the end of an era that began with the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960:

It took about five to ten years to realize that was the moment when television was going to change everything in America's politics. What no one could've predicted was that it would have become a race for money, a race to buy a one-way communications tool that would take the American people essentially out of the process. It was no longer about average Americans, it was about, “How do I find a rich guy to write me a $2,000 check and then how do I take that money and buy television with it?”

Joe Trippi said all this on February 11, 2004, in his keynote address to the Digital Democracy Teach-In, an event that opened O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference. That event was an idea I suggested to the O'Reilly folks at the end of the company's Open Source Convention in July 2003. It also was my idea to invite Joe Trippi to keynote the thing. That idea came to me while Britt Blaser, founder of xpertweb.com and an energetic Dean volunteer, was giving me a tour of the Dean Campaign headquarters in Burlington, Vermont. I was present in purely electronic form. My face was on Britt's laptop, my voice was on his laptop speakers and my eye was a camera mounted on the laptop lid. My body was in California. It was in this disembodied form that I met Joe. Walking around holding the laptop like an hors d'oeuvre tray at a party, Britt ran into Joe in the hallway. After saying hi, I asked Joe to keynote the February event. To my astonishment, he said yes.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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