For the second time, I attended the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) in New York City in June 2013. The lineup of speakers was excellent, I got to see the great Ethan Zuckerman from the MIT Civic Lab, Sasha Issenberg, author of the Victory Lab, Robin Chase founder of ZipCar and many more. The conference was titled “Think bigger”, but despite the heavyweight attendees, PDF 2013 seemed focused on small incremental change.
There has been a recent war of words between technology detractors such as Evgeny Morozev and tech promoters such as Tim O’Reilly. Basically, Evgeny accuses much of Silicon Valley of paying blind faith to technology’s ability to solve problems. Some tech promoters argue that with more computing power, a better algorithm or distributed intelligence, social problems will be solved through innovation. Who am I to judge, but if tech evangelists’ faith were true, surely we would expect a better situation in 2013. If we applied a more technology = good equation; America, home to the most advanced technological firms in the world, should be the beacon of social justice and equal opportunity.
Many talks at PDF discussed volunteer mobilization strategies for elections, crowd funding campaigns, increasing transparency in politics and other applications of technology to politics, government and civil society. However, no speaker dared mention that only 55% of people vote in US Presidential elections and from the president to the city level, there are only two political parties in the entire United States. It seems the world of tech promoters confuses operational management with investment strategy.
In a government budget, you have two main sections – operations and major investments, they are distinct and managed differently. There is little doubt that open data and technology have an important role to play in improving operational management, we can automate, streamline, digitize and publish information for internal and external use. The nature of the government – autocratic, democratic or tyrannical – matters little to this, a pot hole is a pot hole is a pothole. However, applying technology to large scale complex social issues that require massive investment rarely provides meaningful improvement. If a system is fundamentally flawed at its roots, you cannot fix it with an app.
The world’s wealthiest societies’ list of societal problems are long and damning. Fifty years ago, who would have thought that the United States of 2013 would have over 2.2 million people in jail, 32 states would still have the death penalty and more than 50 million Americans would live in poverty? No technology can solve these failures. There is no such thing as a better death penalty, better segregation, or better poverty – there are only absolute goals. Despite our clear failings to address our most basic problems, the speakers and participants at the Personal Democracy Forum seem oblivious to the reality outside their tech bubble, or if they do know about it, they dare not whisper its name.
Many of these problems have been solved elsewhere. Yet, the people in power seem uninterested in solving them or perhaps they have their reasons not to. To maintain power you must do many things, but one key task is to be a master of distraction. You must deviate your potential competition from meaningful endeavours that might undermine your power. To get your most talented opponents to focus their forces on side battles is an essential tool in any ruler’s arsenal. In the same way magicians divert their audience away from their slight of hand, the powerful distract the competition from undermining their pillars of support. Yes, we must also have bread and circuses for the masses who might join with the competition. But the educated, wealthy, intelligent people at Personal Democracy Forum are the competition to the rulers, not the masses.
In many ways, too many projects discussed at the conference come across as side shows that will not fundamentally change anything. Just because you can engineer something, does not mean you should or that it will be useful. Nico Mele was repeatedly quoted as having stated, “The best minds of my generation are working on getting people to click on more ads”. I would add, “The best noble minds of my generation are working on incremental change to a fundamentally broken system”. We expose campaign finance trails on multi-billion dollar elections, we adopt hydrants in cities with rampant poverty, and we expose crime statistics while millions rot in jail. We must focus our resources on the root of our problems – not the symptoms.
Few, if any, fundamental questions were asked at PDF 2013. It seems all the speakers assumed that the current forms of government, voting and American democracy may be defective, but with just one more app, a little more elbow grease and some hard work – the system can be made to work. No participant or speaker mentioned our moral obligations to each other, our duty to sacrifice, or our need to rally around a common cause. Just apply an upgrade and reboot.
Here are a few words I never heard uttered at the conference: “sacrifice”, “common good”, “large government programs”, “revolution”, “increased taxation”, “new forms of taxation”, “constitutional congress”, or “attack pillars of support”. Everyone at PDF seems to believe that we can keep what we have and find innovative solutions to massive social problems. No sacrifices required.
TEDxMontreal, where I spoke, was sick with the same disease. One speaker at TEDxMontreal outlined a new stove he built for rural Indian villagers. The stove replaced dirty indoor open fires with cleanly burned pelletized farm waste, helping reduce lung diseases caused by smoke inhalation. At PDF 2013, a talk outlined a plan to deliver medicine to poor towns in in Africa with drone technology; no need for roads, simply fly in the medicine. These two proposals are massive cop-outs from fundamental, large-scale foundational projects of running gas lines and electric cables, laying rail and paving roads. Infrastructure projects have innumerable side benefits, one of which is to build community ties and lift a country to a new level of development. Compare India to China and the progress made in the last 35 years. Heck, compare the Soviet Union from 1910 to 1980 to Brazil in the same period. I dare you, look it up. Common sacrifice is what nation building is all about. There are certain massive investments that require sacrifice by all for the common good, something we need more of. We cannot shortcut success with technology hacks.
The list of patches to a broken society that were presented at Personal Democracy Forum was long. Some people argued that massive amounts of money in American politics was a non-issue because a favourite candidate with more money lost to a slightly less financed campaign. Or, if campaign financing is transparent, people will take it into account when voting. Any reasonable analysis demonstrates money in politics is a toxic force. Want a solution that does not involve technology? In Québec, we unanimously passed a law that limits campaign donations to 125$ per person per year and no corporate donations and campaign expenditures to 6 million dollars. This is the most progressive campaign finance law in the world. Removing money from politics (on both the revenue and the expense side) is fundamental to a functioning democracy. No app required.
Think voting needs to be made more efficient? The team of Kate Kronis and Kathryn Peters are proposing new technology for running elections and counting votes. Do you recall the hanging chad technology of Florida? They have a solution – more technology! Want an easy to use solution with no technology, high accuracy and easy recount ability? In Canada, we go to the polling station, fill out an ultra-simple paper ballot and we then manually count them (see photo above).
Despite my cynicism, there are of course some interesting technological projects that could fundamentally change things, or be used by agents of change. I love the Pirate Party’s Liquid Feedback system, the new collaborative Icelandic constitution, driverless cars and online participatory budgeting. At Personal Democracy Forum, I felt too many of the bright talented people who could change the world were engaged in a small side games – not realizing the real power-play at hand. Bumping voter turnout by 1% when only 55% vote in a two party system is not meaningful success. They were blinded by the light of technology, hoping our next great technology will change it all.
In conclusion, I propose some actual big ideas that others have already implemented with great success: Free higher education, dirt cheap daycare for children, a base salary for all citizens, decriminalization of marijuana and other drugs, mass pardons of prisoners, mass debt forgiveness, a manned mission to mars, increased taxes on financial transactions, a new constitutional congress, a new election system based on preferential voting and mixed representation, strong privacy laws and no money in politics. Now put away the iPhone and get to work!
Links of interest
Larry Lessig on Republic Lost – Money in Politics
Clean Burning Stoves at TEDxMontreal
Drone medicine delivery
Law on campaign finance in Quebec
Evegny Morozev on Tim O’Reilly
Tim O’Reilly responding (can’t find it, but it’s somewhere on the internet)
Ethan Zuckerman Vancouver Human Right’s Lecture on the Arab Spring
Sasha Issenberg’s Victory Lab
George Packer: Can Silicon Valley Embrace Politics? : The New Yorker