Etech Day 1: Digital Democracy Teach-In

by David Sklar

Joe Trippi

The day began with Joe Trippi's keynote about the net-enabled experiences of the Howard Dean campaign. Joe Trippi and the Dean campaign have certainly performed a valuable public service -- they've gotten lots of people interested in politics, explored ways to exploit the Internet in a political campaign, and provided suggestions of how to build grass-roots organizations.

Unfortunately, they haven't done so much to get Howard Dean lots of votes.

Although Trippi labored in his talk to say that the oft-applied "failed .com" analogy is inaccurate to apply to Dean's campaign, I think it *is* apt: A stereotypical gold fishtank buying .com failed for the same reason as the Dean campaign: a lack of attention to the bottom line.

Failed .coms built cool technology, made it possible to get a box of Krispy Kremes delivered at 3 am, and threw lots of cool parties. But their efforts at generating interest and transient customers didn't result in permanent, profit-making customers.

The Dean campaign built cool political technology, made it possible to chat with a fellow Dean enthusiast across the country at 3 am, and threw lots of cool parties. But their efforts at generating interest and enthusiasm amongst supporters didn't result in votes. For .coms, the bottom line is making a profit. For a campaign, the bottom line is getting votes.

The Dean campaign's magnanimous exploration, however, certainly benefits future campaigns and all of us as voters and citizens. Mainstream media (what Trippi calls "broadcast politics") was certainly no help, as their enthusiastic embrace of Dean's novelty whipped him up to a frothy peak that they were only too happy to deflate. The blame for that artificial rise and fall is a media responsibility as much as (or more than) that of the campaign.

Effective Political Blogging

This session, featuring Doc Searls, Cameron Barrett, Mitch Ratcliffe, and Halley Suitt was definitely about blogging, mostly about politics, and not at all about effectiveness. Mitch Ratcliffe played the role of the voice of reason, emphasizing the role of blogs as just another publishing tool. He also pointed out that blogs fall into the "horse-race" style of campaign coverage just as much as the mainstream media (Trippi's "broadcast politics").

Other than Mitch's insight, this session showed me that although I had thought that the idea of people who blog alot coming together to tell each other how cool blogging is was a thing of the past, it isn't. Are there sessions at bookselling conferences where people get together and talk about how it's neat that you can read information in books?

To be fair, this is the *Emerging* technology conference, so some amount of jibber-jabber (to borrow a phrase from Mr. T) is expected, welcome, and even perhaps productive, but I'm a curmudgeon when it comes to "Up With Blogging" navel-gazing.

It sort of reminds me of what people thought about URLs in 1996. Geeks were very concerned that technical standards be maintained as all sorts of random commercial organizations staked out a web presence. (I myself must confess to nerd snits when people had the gall to call a protocol-less fragment like "" a URL and not a hostname.) Marketing folks were very concerned that URLs be easy to remember, hence the bidding wars over "any short English word".com.

I think what most of us (myself included) missed was that pretty much, no one actually types in a URL anymore. You click on a link in an e-mail message or a page, you remember that typing "buy lithops" into Google brings up on the front page, or you've got something bookmarked. So it doesn't matter if my URL contains the numerals 2 and 4 so that when it's read on a radio ad it's really confusing as to what it is -- the URL, it turns out, isn't what's driving folks to my site.

That's what this session about blogging seemed like to me. Everyone was obsessing over blogging qua blogging without talking about what kind of information makes a good political blog or a bad political blog, etc. There was one question about what distinguishes a political blog from any other kind of blog and the answer was ... nothing! "Mr. Knopf, what distinguishes the ink in detective thrillers compared to the ink in literary fiction?" Who cares? I want to know what makes a good detective thriller! The medium ain't the message here, not at this rate.

Gatekeepers and Grassroots vs. the Journalist Priesthood

Dan Gillmor, Jeff Jarvis, and Jay Rosen had an excellent session on the tensions, interesting issues, and implications for "traditional"/"big media"/"broadcast" journalism vs. a bottom-up, "grassroots" effort.

If I got nothing else good out of today (which I did, though), hearing Jay Rosen talk would have been enough. If you're interested in this topic, stop reading this right now and go read PressThink, Jay's blog about the role of journalism in a democracy. Insightful, thoughtful, worthwhile.

Don't be mislead by the fact that I spent six paragraphs ranting about what bugged me about the blogging session and only three here telling you how great this journalism session was. It was the highlight of my day.

Electronic Voting and Transparency

Phil Windley led a good panel on electronic voting technology and how much insight/oversight there should be. Bill Stotesbury, from Hart InterCivic (which makes electronic voting machines) made some good points w/r/t the comparative risk of electronic voting devices vs. mechanical voting devices. Gary Chapman, from UT Austin was realistic and sanguine about how getting electronic voting "right" is not a new problem and not a simple one to solve.

Still, I was disappointed when he seemed to think (in response to a question) that open-source voting machine software would necessarily mean that there was no vendor backing up the software to provide services like indemnification. Open source doesn't mean public domain and it doesn't mean disconnected from a corporation. I thought we were beyond explaining that.

The last session I attended was an overvirew by Wes Boyd of what has done and their strategy that has enabled them to build such a large committed base of supporters in such a comparatively short time.

There was nothing exceptional about MoveOn's activities, which is perhaps what makes it exceptional. They seem to have a good sense of listening to their supporters and acting on good ideas quickly, which has enabled them to nimbly raise lots of money and spend it in creative ways.

Audience members had some good questions. How can a citizen-based organization like MoveOn engage in dialog across the political spectrum and not just within a relatively ideologically homogenous group? Boyd didn't have a good answer for this one, he just said that he thought that MoveOn was pretty centrist (which is a difficult claim to make.) I'm not sure he needs a good answer to it, though. MoveOn attempts to (and has succeeded at) organize and galvanize politically progressive folks who want to be involved. There are plenty of other organizations out there who can be responsible for organizing other kinds of people with other political allegiances.

That said, I do think it would be a noble mission (and more beneficial to the political process) to build an organization that can use the populist techniques that MoveOn has demonstrated such skill with to de-rhetoricize and add substance to political debate so that we can trade vitriol for discussion. But that may just be the politics equivalent of just wishing for all the mean people to go away. I leave it up to someone more politically skilled then myself to engineer such civility.

Other Stuff

One of the freebies in the conference bag was a slide rule. For those etech attendees out there like me who were born after the invention of fire and therefore don't know how to use a slide rule, here's some helpful tips. For those etech attendees (or just random blog readers) who think my little invention of fire crack was too mean, stop bashing your cave wall with your club, uh, I mean, calm down, I'm just kidding -- I am trying to learn how to use the slide rule, right?

What did you think of the teach-in?


2004-02-15 09:30:07
Slide Rules
What kind of slide rule was it? Are there any pictures? :-D