Of governance and network emergence
July 1st, 2009


For the past two days I have been attending the Personal Democracy Forum 09 in New York City. As I said here at SmartMobs after the first day, the event was a sweet spot in the ongoings of political operatives, with many of the key operatives in attendance. (Thanks to Jay Bryant for the image of the operatives.)

Although the organizers strive to balance the annual forum, this is Obama’s year and his euphoric minions dominated things. As an “old pol,” I was fascinated by the rhapsodies to digital organization and tools. Having spent a decade over forty years ago participating in winning election campaigns with none of the stuff they talked about at PdF09, I was looking to learn how the digitization and virtual networking have really changed things, if they have. I am still not sure.

One thing I did learn is that the government sector may well be about to be knocked on its heels by the spontaneous stuff networks do, just as have other major sectors including commerce, entertainment, communication, and more.

One by one the speakers from the Obama administration told us how they are setting up online mechanisms by which citizen opinion will flow in to help in their new way of “governance.” Is that really what is going to happen? Will citizen input be accepted and put to use by the establishment? That is not what happened with the music industry. That is happening not so much with newspapers and other top-down media. That is certainly not what happened in Moldavo’s Twitter Revolution, or Iran. It was interesting to hear one White House panelist describe what her team did when a large number of inquiries about the President’s citizenship came into an open online suggestions tool they were operating out of the White House. She told us she was surprised that such questions would be sent in, and that her White House team took care of it by degrading the Presidential citizen category incoming from the public as they would have questions, as she put it, about aliens from outer space.

There is a general assumption that during the Presidential election last year team Obama used the Internet to open some new sort of way for support to flow to candidate Obama. I know from my own experience that there have long been analog ways to do the same thing. The “I like Ike” cascade in 1952 produced more of a public landslide victory than what occurred in 2008. Political campaigns have always found ways to attract and cluster supporters. Today’s tools are 3×5 index cards gone hyper and viral.

But the Obama efforts they talk about to involve networks in governance may be about to create something that IS completely new. Network science is about emergence. Patterns form in networks from the aggregation of many individual nodes. The sovereignty of the individual node seems very hopeful to me for the future of democracy, not just in the United States, but worldwide. In the political and governance context, nodes in a network are individual citizens. There is no top down from which to exercise control in a network that will force favorable patterns to emerge — a really big bummer for top guys with controlling urges.

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