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Activist Technology
Jon Lebkowsky, 1 Oct 04

WorldChanging.com is celebrating its first anniversary! Consider this post my candle on the cake. I've been posting a lot about the intersection of politics and technology; I wrote this post to summarize my thinking. I also encourage you to check out the Extreme Democracy web site and read the collection of essays and articles about politics and technology posted there, a book-in-progress that Mitch Ratcliffe and I have been working on.


Does the 2004 election change everything? Friends I respect are saying so, that there will be a big difference in the way we approach politics if Bush is elected, vs the way we will approach politics if Kerry is president.

I share their concern that, for the USA and the world, another four years of Bush would be bleaker, darker, more dangerous, and more constraining than four years with Kerry. However I think either way we can have the same problem: too great an emphasis on the "heroic" chief executive, and a fundamentally incorrect assumption that his power and will are somehow irrevocable and beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. As a people we tend to avoid engagement in political process once the voting's done, and void whatever influence we might have on national policy and executive will post-election.

Our challenge is to remain involved, to get past cynicism, apathy, preoccupation with daily affairs, etc., and learn to sustain political interest, seek civic engagement wherever possible, and to assert our power as individual components of a system that may not be completely (small-d) democratic, but at least, according to tradition, aspires to an ideal of broader participation by all in the processes of governance.

Theoretically we all have weight as constituents of a government wherein power is mediated by legislative and executive offices. The agency associated with political representation has no more than the force we give it; we are still, as citizens in a participatory democracy or republic, the distributed sources of political power. When we delegate that power in cyclical rituals of voting, we should not surrender it completely, disengage from the process and leave governance entirely to the those we have elected.

Rather, we should be vigilant, attentive, and vocal; we must sustain our engagement and participation in systems of governance and avoid the temptation to leave that responsibility entirely to others.

Technology is extremely relevant to this call for sustained citizen involvement. We are evolving a network society; via computer networks, we can potentially offer pervasive, inexpensive access to technologies that facilitate cooperative interaction of citizens with each other, with officials, and with processes of governance.

This really is worldchanging stuff, and there are a few technology projects that emerged around and after the Howard Dean Campaign's run, which failed as a bid for nomination but succeeded as demo project for the integration of social software and politics. Some political software projects worth looking at (descriptions nabbed from the sites):

CivicSpace Labs. CivicSpace Labs is a funded continuation of the DeanSpace project. We are veterans of the Dean campaign web-effort and are now building the tool-set of our dreams. We are busily completing work on CivicSpace, a grassroots organizing platform that empowers collective action inside communities and cohesively connects remote groups of supporters. (Open Source, Free)

Advokit. AdvoKit is free software for organizing and running grassroots campaigns. Using AdvoKit, you can combine the power of voter files, membership data and social networking to identify and communicate with supporters. Advokit is an online hub for a campaign’s voter registration, voterid, get-out-the-vote, door-to-door canvassing and phone bank operations. Groups can maintain every aspect of their constituency-building work in a central location that’s accessible and secure. (Open Source, Free)

Orchid for Change. Orchid for Change™ is a nationwide initiative to give Democratic state and local parties and candidates access to powerful websites designed to maximize voter registration and action through a network of connected, powerful and interactive websites that are affordable, easy to set up and easy to maintain. (Proprietary, $50/month)

ForwardTrack. Much like Friendster and other social networking softwares, ForwardTrack works by building a database of specific people and their connections to others. By recording each person that participates in a given campaign, and who he or she has invited or emailed, the system is able to calculate and display the actual impact of every individual. The hope is that by allowing people to track their own impact on a cause, it will motivate them to try even harder to spread the word.

Several of us who have been discussing activist technology for a year or more have organized a loose coalition based at http://www.activist-tech.org/.

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