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Net.activism and Open Source Politics
Jon Lebkowsky, 8 Nov 04

When I first wrote "Nodal Politics" in 1997 as part of an unpublished book on Internet activism, I suggested that the Internet could support effective activist work:

Computer networks route information laterally through nodes or routing points. This makes for a distribution of information that is from many to many with no single, established point of origination. Information can originate from any point in the network, and virtually explode in all directions.

This ultimately changes the way that we experience information, and a change in the distribution or flow of information has a clear impact on power structures and the way that those structures work. The nodal model acknowledges and facilitates complexity. It allows for an accelerated "word of mouth": a single email message can be replicated to thousands of recipients in a matter of minutes. Each recipient in turn can replicate to thousands more. Given effective networks you can quickly reach millions through email and Web technologies.

It took some time, but the with a critical mass of citizens online and the social software explosion of the last couple of years, the mainstreaming of net.activism has begun, and political use of Internet technology is rapidly evolving as tools like Civicspace and Advokit, both projects that emerged from the work of progressive activist developers that supported Howard Dean's more or less tech-savvy campaign.

Micah Sifry has just written "The Rise of Open Source Politics" for The Nation, an essay noting that "new tools and practices born on the Internet have reached critical mass, enabling ordinary people to participate in processes that used to be closed to them." Sifry applies the label "open source politics" to the emerging, contemporary version of "nodal politics":

Open-source politics is still a long way off. The term "open source" specifically refers to allowing any software developer to see the underlying source code of a program, so that anyone can analyze it and improve it; better code trumps bad code, and programmers who have proven their smarts have greater credibility and status. Applied to political organizing, open source would mean opening up participation in planning and implementation to the community, letting competing actors evaluate the value of your plans and actions, being able to shift resources away from bad plans and bad planners and toward better ones, and expecting more of participants in return. It would mean moving away from egocentric organizations and toward network-centric organizing.
Near the end of his piece, Sifry quotes Music for America's Josh Koenig: "We're only seeing the first drips of what is going to be a downpour."

All the political technology in the world won't help us, though, if we don't figure out how to think about the political and social problems that we are facing. Glenn Smith of Drive Democracy has written a compelling new book, Politics of Deceit,that provides a framework for thinking about democratic renewal. Glenn is discussing his book and his thinking on The WELL. He notes that the word "freedom" can have different meanings, and he focuses on two potential perspectives based on "freedom to will" vs "freedom to experience." Freedom to will is a freedom to assert individual or group will over the rest of the world, while freedom to experience is the freedom to live without arbitrarily imposed constraints. The origin of freedom to will is in the Cartesian concept of human nature bifurcated "into cool reason and unruly emotion and desire that must be tamed." From the discussion on the WELL:

Soon this idea of the divided self can be expanded to something wider than a single embodied being. It can become a social whole, a state, a cult, an ethnic group of which the individual is but a member. The group, then, is justified in taming and controlling other, more unruly
individuals, in just the way the bifurcated individual wills his emotions to conform to his reason.
Smith defines the alternate vision of "freedom to experience" as "actualizing and enhancing the human, which we cannot divide into reason and emotion." Smith, like his colleague George Lakoff, makes an analysis based on the fundamentals of human nature, and this may prove more essential than the oppositional thinking that consumes so much of the energy of partisan political movements and entities.

This is an example of one compelling way of thinking about society and politics; there can be more, and it is in exploring the fundamental human elements of political reality that we can move toward transformation. Online communication will help, but face-to-face communication is essential. Let's Talk America was formed to support ongoing facilitated discussions across the U.S., a "growing movement to take American politics from diatribe to dialogue." The group was formed based on a "we the people" declaration: "we commit ourselves and our communities of interest to foster dialogue across the many divides in America, in large and small groups, to build trust, insight, and inspired action toward the more perfect union we all desire." Nothing here about partisanship... the idea here is that people who have different beliefs not only can sit together and engage in civil conversation, but can do so as an effective political act that is democratic rather than partisan.

Politics-as-usual go on, but promising political activities and conversations are percolating behind the scenes, and the greatest hope is that we can heal the potentially catastrophic divisions within the U.S. and the world and find a way to live meaningful, sustainable lives where conflict is mitigated by a commitment to civility.

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