Beyond Horse Races and Boxing Matches

by Doc Searls

Let's simplify things a bit.

Democracy basically is about two things, elections and governance. One is seasonal, the other continuous. And nothing sucks up more attention in a democracy than our quadrennial presidential election seasons here in the US. The playoff nature of presidential primaries turns politics into a sports event, with metaphors adjusted to the populations involved.

For all of 2003 and the first two months of 2004, we had a horse race between eight Democrats, while the lone Republican--the incumbent in the White House--ran unopposed. The "field" of Democratic "dark horses", "thoroughbreds" and "mavericks" lined up at the "starting gate" and "ran" a "race". The media talked about Dean's "early lead", while Dick Gephardt and others "faltered" or "fell behind" as they all headed for the "final stretch". After voters removed Dean as the "frontrunner" and nominated Kerry instead, the media switched metaphors and began talking about a boxing match. Bush and Kerry were now "in the ring", "nose to nose", "throwing punches", hitting "below the belt" and so on.

But something else was happening while we all watched the sports pages: open source was making headway in government. That's what I learned from Tom Adelstein, the veteran Texas activist who has written extensively on open source in government for Linux Journal (see here and here, in addition to his eight-part series on "Linux Access in State and Local Government").

As an example, Tom pointed me to, a government source for business process and technical components. It's a place to search for the components you need or to submit components for use by others. It's a way to leverage work that's been done, either on code or on ways of putting code to use. Obviously, it's a system that not only favors open source but is in alignment with the open-source value system. is a private-public effort that grew out of the Federal Enterprise Architecture Agency (FEA) Project Management Office. It was developed with the assistance of and uses's SourceCast tool. Tom says is an example of good work by open-source advocates and interested federal officials and agencies--work that is off to a good start but only beginning:

I work in the trenches with state and local governments as well as federal agencies. Overwhelmingly, we're seeing a shift from a proprietary model to open source, open standards. The key triggers are interoperability, security and consistency. The federal government will fund interoperable, standards based development on every level of state and local government if we're talking about GOTS. But, we're seeing funds dry up for proprietary, vendor lock-in type systems. This is killing the existing vendors.

We're not over the hump yet. We have something like 88,000 communities that need to deploy the new applications and protocol. You'd be totally surprised to see what the Feds are funding--like NSF's "open source" middleware initiative.

Tom also says is evidence of real support for open source by the Bush administration, which has received scant credit for that support:

I think it really speaks to how this Administration wants to save tax dollars, create jobs, invent a new industry and improve the economy. I mean, this is the of government--federal, state, local, municipalities. It fits your Do-It-Yourself IT model.

I ran some calculations and we're talking about budget savings of $56B per year for about five years.

Here's the NSF Middleware grant: Notice the sentence, "The program encourages open source software development and distribution approaches, as well as the development of necessary middleware standards.

Keep in mind that the Republicans sponsored and supported the open-source bills here in Texas and in the other southern states. In fact, everywhere I work, it's Republicans and the religious right pushing open source.

That may not be true in the northeast and in California, but it's true where I'm seeing open source being adopted: Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma. Now guess who our biggest money sponsor turns out to be? A very senior Republican in the US Senate.

Almost every vendor I know doing work for the DOD using Linux is a conservative Republican, too.

The first Bush presidential campaign already was using list-servers, e-mail and newsletters to garner contributions. GW has an intimate relationship with and clearly understands the power of the Internet--he made funding eGovernment one of his first initiatives. That's what bothers me about some of the guys who don't realize he's really one of us.

I went through an extensive search when I did the Texas Open Source Bill and found a lot of Microsoft money being donated to Democrats--hardly any to Republicans.

And let's not forget that David Boies, SCO's attorney, used to work for Al Gore.

When it comes to hackers and politics, guys like Tom are exceptions. On the whole, hackers have long been relatively apolitical, as constituencies go. That changed in 2003. To gauge how much it changed, go back to the summer of 2002, when Larry Lessig gave a keynote titled "Free Culture" at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in San Diego. He came down hard on the audience for its apathy toward political issues. (Leonard Lin has a recording of the speech, with visuals, that he made on his laptop at the event.) Toward the end, Lessig said,

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

If you don't do something now, this freedom you built--that you spend your life coding--this freedom will be taken away; either by those who see you as a threat and 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 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.

People hung their heads and nodded along.

Yet by late 2003, Larry's tune had changed. He still was harping on the need to free culture from the tyranny of monopoly-forever copyright interests, but he was easing up on hackers about the participation issue. Because things had changed. Here is an excerpt from an interview with Christopher Lydon, the former New York Times political beat reporter (he was one of Timothy Crouse's famous Boys on the Bus when McGovern ran against Nixon), Berkman Fellow at Harvard and one-time candidate for mayor of Boston:

Eight months ago the name Dean belonged to a candidate who had no shot in hell of being elected President. Now we're at a point ...where Al Gore, the quintessential establishment candidate, has come out and endorsed Dean. Why? Because Dean has invigorated a grass roots movement. Now how did he do that? ... (Through) ideas that got ramified through structures like the blog, where people talked about and organized around a set of passions and ideas, and raised money around them. That's an extraordinary change... Nobody knows who Dean the candidate will be three months from now.... The point is, a year ago nobody would have predicted this was possible. Nobody would have imagined that an organization could be built from the grass roots up. And every single major Democratic leader was betting on exactly the opposite, as the future. And we've proven that they were wrong. Whether we were right about this candidate or the next candidate is not important. They were wrong about what makes the future possible. And that's exciting. I'm a pessimist by profession. That's my brand, pessimism.

We have to remember why this was possible. It was only possible because of the Internet. That's what made this happen. And that will be how this campaign is remembered. It's the Internet that maybe lost against the establishment politicians or the Internet that won against the establishment politicians; but it is the Internet that engaged political action that will be remembered as the most important moving part in this election.

The year 2003 was when hackers began to follow the advice of Scoop Nisker: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own." The Dean campaign made a lot of news for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest was that the candidacy energized and engaged a lot of hackers. Even though I was pro-actively covering the campaign for Linux Journal (look for "Hacking Democracy" in the June issue), hackers and campaign workers enabled by hackers reached out to tell me what they were doing--not just for Howard Dean, but for Dennis Kucinich, Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark as well.

Simply put, open-source hacking enlarged the entire political sphere and made it much more friendly to participation by citizens. MeetUp alone facilitated an enormous sum of grass roots activity. I learned about MeetUp when I met founder Scott Heiferman at an eThePeople event in New York City in 2002. That's where I also met Britt Blaser, a retired pilot and real estate developer who wanted to tell me about an open-source project called Xpertweb. MeetUp, eThePeople and Xpertweb all, in their own ways, are Linux hacks. It was clear to me then that Linux and open source lowered the threshold of tool-building and participation for what we might call "connected democracy".

One year later, however, open-source tools were proving mighty handy for the man who came to be known as the "Internet candidate", former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Managing Dean's campaign was Joe Trippi, a political veteran whose long career path included a tour of duty with Progeny, working with Ian Murdock, the co-originator of Debian. It's was no accident that Trippi called Dean's an "open source campaign" and said, "It's like Linux. The more people collaborate, the more likely we'll build a better thing."

Naturally, the Dean campaign attracted a lot of hackers. The first project I heard about was Hack4Dean, in the summer of 2003. By that time Britt Blaser was calling me almost every day to report What Was Going On with the Dean campaign, in which he was now highly involved. Britt's Manhattan apartment served as an ad hoc meeting space for all kinds of fun stuff (even a base for my study of Wi-Fi in Manhattan for the September 2003 Linux Journal). Hack4Dean eventually became DeanSpace, which used Drupal as the framework for a kit that allows anybody to create a rich and current political advocacy site.

Of course, parallel work was being done at the Wesley Clark campaign by Tony Steidler-Dennison (who writes frequently for Linux Journal) Cam Barrett and friends. The two built the Clark Community Network, Clark TechCorps and other tools for organizing grass roots activity. Tony tells me there still are developers working on those tools, even though the Clark campaign has long since folded. Meanwhile, Cam has moved over to the Kerry campaign, where he now consults. And Britt just told me that the DeanSpace will soon morph into DemSpace (stay tuned), aiming at release 2.0.

Here's Britt's summary of the what happened to hackage in the horse-race stage of the current political season:

Many spent 2003 hacking code because they thought it might transform politics, and they were more right than wrong. They are the open-source entrepreneurs of the governance tools space. Like all entrepreneurs, they are artists who create because they're incapable of not creating. They will spin out a hundred disappointments for every blockbuster they produce, and like Linux for the desktop, the user experience will be frustrating to most users and especially for the neophytes who run campaigns. Like many entrepreneurs, they have no clue how they'll turn their zeal into money. Adam Osbourne once wrote that the microcomputer revolution grew out of the closing of NASA's Apollo project. Those talented young engineers just knew there was some way they could keep doing what they liked to do, so they took the notion of an integrated circuit and ran with it. They had no grand scheme but they knew they could make a difference."

One thing that became clear to me was that the open-ness of software tools tended to be a subordinate concern in the pressure-cooker context of a political campaign. I ran into Dave Winer at the Dean Campaign headquarters, hacking hard on Channel Dean, an RSS feed he described as "a clipping service for people interested in US politics". Although Dave has made more than his share of open-source contributions--to RSS, XML-RPC, SOAP and other projects--he's a veteran commercial software developer who publicly advises campaigns to remain apolitical about technology:

Build on what the weblog development community has accomplished and will continue to accomplish through November next year. Be open to users of all platforms. You can get the leading weblog tools vendors to help your candidacy and to help the election, but not if you exclude them from participating in your campaign!

The Dean campaign accepted Dave's advice, which was why Channel Dean happened.

Nicolas Rushkoff's Open Source Democracy: How online communication is changing offline politics (London: Demos, 2003) gathers articulate opinions about what open source and democracy are coming to mean for each other. Here's Douglas Alexander, Member of Parliament in the UK:

The Internet is both specific to the needs of its users and inherently a collectively engineered phenomenon. What makes this network succeed is a series of common protocols which facilitate but do not dictate the way in which the Web works. In the same way distributive democracy requires strong relationships between participants to ensure a feedback loop which allows innovation in policy-making to be diffused throughout every institution.

As Andrei Cherny argues, the information age seeks political entities which are built on conversations, not monologues. Thus participation is no longer about listening to a hierarchical decision-making process but instead a cooperative experience for all citizens. In helping to advance the ideals of the egalitarian society, this form of 'offline' extension of the principles of online action is to be welcomed. Yet, we must not lose sight that the driving force of this interactivity and its concomitant potential for extending egalitarian values is not the Internet itself but the voice it gives to our civic disposition.

Cherny was a senior speech writer to Al Gore at age 21 (the youngest in American history), author of the 2000 Democratic Party Platform and Founding Editor of "Blueprint: Ideas for a New Century". Among other things, Cherny says we need to "return America to our bottom-up Jeffersonian roots and turn away from our modern top-down Hamiltonian rule."

If you want bottom-up evidence, look no farther than the blogs of the two democratic candidates who did the most to cultivate their grass roots, Clark and Dean. I'm not talking about the blogs as expressions of technology here, but rather as places where the grass roots continue to grow. Even though Clark's blog is no longer linked from his official campaign site (in fact, all navigation links are now inactive there), the activity continues. The most recent post is from Clark himself, titled We have to help Kerry win. At last count, 191 comments followed. Dean's campaign is now rebranded Democracy for America, which also is the new name for the campaign blog. Comments there often run in the hundreds as well.

Joe Trippi says the television era in campaigning is coming to an end, while the Internet era is just beginning. Substitute "privileged few" and "everybody" for "television" and "Internet", and you can see how far-reaching this change will be. How much more time will pass before we all realize that mass mediated democracy isn't democracy at all, but a form of entertainment? The length of that time got a lot shorter this past year. The re-usability of open source is one big reason.

For example, take the campaign of George W. Bush, which features a blog of the sort modeled by that herd of Democrats. The whole site was relaunched on April 17, and now puts out the same level of energy we saw on the Democratic side through the whole horse-race stage of the campaign season.

I asked Tom Adelstein if he knew what was up with the Bush campaign site. For example, was it still running on Windows (as a Netcraft query suggested)? He replied, "The White House uses Apache on Solaris. They got rid of the outsourced Web Servers. The current site was built by Omniture and runs SiteCatalyst and they are a Linux shop."

One key point made by the Cluetrain Manifesto, which I co-wrote five years ago, was "Networked markets get smarter faster than most companies." When I visited the Dean campaign in Vermont, several people there told me they were applying that statement to politics. "We're at the front of a parade here", one guy told me. "We let the voters take the lead." The voters then rejected Howard Dean.

But what happens to all the energy that built up during the campaign season? A lot of it is shifting from activism for candidates to activism for governance. And naturally, nobody is more energized about making "connected governance" happen than Howard Dean's former top hacker-advocacy volunteer, Britt Blaser.

Britt's new project is Open Republic (no site yet). He calls it a "guide to the new activism" and "Dean done Right". He also aims to make it the indispensable site to "help activists grow their communities, their support, their contributions and their political power". He says it will be "both an entry point for the tech-averse political novice and a back-room operations guide for the tech-savvy political pro". Either way it serves as a place to find and develop open-source tools for making democracy work, plus other good things, still to be determined. The other day Britt told me that the steering committee includes Ethan Zuckerman (another Berkman Fellow and founder of GeekCorps), Brian Behlendorf (of Apache and and Jeremy Allaire (of Cold Fusion and Macromedia), among other familiar figures (including at least one Republican I know but can't name yet--the group is non-partisan).

As always, Britt's sounding excited about where things are going:

The founding fathers could hardly imagine the media culture we've had for the last seventy years--a machine where information and opinion had mass producers and mass consumers. But they could imagine a culture where everybody had the power to print and distribute information, where the consent of the governed was self-informing, and where every citizen had the power not just to vote, but to participate. We're just starting to see people wake up and detoxify themselves from the narcotic we call television, and start to see how they can make the real world, rather than watch an artificial world make them. We want to help them make the kind of democracy citizens really want.

Sounds like something about which all the horses and boxers should agree.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal.

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