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Rules for Networked Radicals
Alex Steffen, 28 Oct 03

Gary Wolf of Wired is following (and writing a book about) the Dean campaign, and has prepared a brilliant retroactive manifesto for how to grow a collaborative political movement. There are essential ideas here for anyone interested in emergent political possibilities:

"Below is a draft of an idea inspired by Rem Koolhaas’s remarkable pseudo-history of Manhattan called Delirious New York. In his book, Koolhaas pretends that Manhattan was designed according to a theory of the modern city. The imagined manifesto gives Koolhaas a way to sketch a portrait of Manhattan as it actually exists, to take it seriously as manifestation of human creativity. His book is a just-so story, a fabricated history that explicates real forces.

"Here, I’ve offered a Retroactive Manifesto of the Dean Campaign. These are the rules that might have been posted on the wall of campaign manager Joe Trippi’s office, if there were such a list of rules...."



This is the principle that resulted in the massive Meet-Up momentum, with 128,878 sign-ups as of tonight. What goes on at all the meet-ups? The Dean campaign has only the vaguest idea. “They are allowing the ends to connect without any centralized control from the campaign,” says David. “The goal is not necessarily to have messages flowing up and down. Democracy is supposed to be about people talking with each other about what matters to them and then organizing to get the things they want. If all you have a is a TV set and a ballot box, that's a shadow of democracy.”


The Internet component of the Dean campaign has no blueprint, if a blueprint is taken to mean a set of plans that specifies the final structure. Instead it offers a constantly evolving layers of tools the provide a medium for network growth, along with a stream of encouragement (cycling in a feedback loop), that serves as a nutrient. As Kelly wrote in 1998: “The network economy favors assembling large organizations from many smaller ones that keep their autonomy within the large. Networks, too, need to be grown, rather than installed. They need to accumulate over time. To grow a large network, one needs to start with a small network that works, then add more sophisticated nodes and levels to it. Every successful large system was once a successful small system.”


“The needs of most progressive movements are uniquely suited to adaptive, self-organizing systems: both have a keen ear for collective wisdom; both are friendly to change. For any movmeent that aims to be truly global in scope, making it almost impossible to rely on centralize dpower, adaptive self-organization may well be the only road available.” (From Emergence, 2001)

When I talked to Steven on the phone about the Dean campaign he was admiring but critical. Here’s part of what he said: “The Dean campaign is using lost of tools – they have a swarm like, ant-like structure. But there’s something missing. All of these tools are about organizing people and organizing their money. Finding people and putting them together to support a candidate. What they haven’t experimented with is how this could be used to generate ideas, to create emergent political values rather than just to organize support. Can you do grassroots organization of the message? Can you think of your ants not as thousands of people knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes but generating messages, and then creating a system to see which ones rise to the top?

A campaign platform is the perfect place for Wiki style document creation. A set of filters could be used to see which contributions rise to the top. Say, the 100 posters to the blog with the most karma drop the first draft of the document and then people can post changes to it. I don’t know if you’d just want to go ahead and publish something like that, but it is at least a great brainstorming method, better than just sitting down with your high priced political consultants and figuring out what’s going to sell in Iowa.”

UNTETHER (Howard Rheingold)

By permitting the action to drift away from the desktops at headquarters, the Dean campaign has taken advantage peer-production methods and open source models. Groups of supporters and volunteer workers are building tools that raise the value of the network. “Collective action does not just take place behind a desk,” says Howard. “It gets to you where you are in real time.”


For people who support the Dean campaign, Dean himself is only part of the story – and sometimes a rather minor part. The larger part is the community itself.

I asked Joi Ito today to tell me what he thought was the difference between an emergent and a political opportunist. Both respond to the emerging direction of the crowd. Both become the public face of a movement. What is the difference?

Joi said: In an online community, “you can't really jump on or rally support with force. You're not a "leader." You're a place. You're like a park or a garden. If it's comfortable and cool, people are attracted. Deanspace is really about that. He represents a place for people to hang out. For instance, the NAN (Net advisory Net) of Dean, some of us don't even agree necessarily with his politics but we are his advisors because it's a great experiment and we're meeting cool people doing cool things. It's not really about Dean. It's about us. The good thing is that Dean listens. The key to leadership here is listening. The good thing about emergent systems is that you can hear what they are saying even though they involve millions of moving parts.”


The Dean campaign is a network rather than an army – and that’s its strength. But it’s also a stupid network, and that’s its other strength. “Stupid” is used in the technical sense defined by David S. Isenberg in his classic telephony paper, “The Rise of the Stupid Network.” In this paper Isenberg advanced the principle that under conditions of uncertainty a network should not be optimized for some limited set of uses presumed to be definitive. Instead, the network should be as simple as possible, with advanced functionality (and intelligence) moved out to the ends of the network – to the users.

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