LJ Archive

Hacking Democracy

Doc Searls

Issue #122, June 2004

Two US presidential campaigns made a big stir by using the Internet as a two-way medium. The innovators got clobbered by Big Television this time, but the software is open source and ready for the next round.

In July 2002, Lawrence Lessig gave a speech that challenged technologists to become politically active, to take up the fight against forces determined to replace the Net's free and open commons with a plumbing system for content, valved at every juncture by mechanisms made to manage the digital rights of industrial producers. He didn't pull punches:

Now, I've spent two years talking to you. To us. About this. And we've not done anything yet. A lot of energy building sites and blogs and Slashdot stories. [But] nothing yet to change that vision in Washington. Because we hate Washington, right? Who would waste his time in Washington?

But if you don't do something now, this freedom that you built, that you spend your life coding, this freedom will be taken away. Either by those who see you as a threat, who then invoke the system of law we call patents, or by those who take advantage of the extraordinary expansion of control that the law of copyright now gives them over innovation. Either of these two changes through law will produce a world where your freedom has been taken away. And, if you can't fight for your freedom, you don't deserve it.

But you've done nothing.

Larry was right. Against the RIAA, the MPAA, the big publishing and broadcasting lobbies and Congress itself, the good guys were being trounced, repeatedly.

So let's mark that point in time and fast-forward to December 2003, 17 months later. The presidential primary playoffs are about to begin, and already a Democratic frontrunner has not been chosen on the strength of his appeal but through the Internet and a variety of tools that run on the Net.

In an interview with Christopher Lydon, Larry said this:

We're just at the moment when people realize that culture is not something that has to be fed to them, like the Soviet citizens at the end of the Soviet empire, where they realize that they can participate in the construction and sharing of culture. Technology has given us that opportunity. And the problem now is that the law takes that away. And so Creative Commons' objective is to find a way to get the law out of the way, so this extraordinary potential for human creativity can be realized in the context of this technology....What we want to do is make it easy for people to recognize the free culture that is out there for them to build upon, so that they'll build on that culture.

The “we” in this case isn't only Creative Commons. It's something new yet familiar: the free culture movement. “Just as Richard Stallman gave birth to the free software movement”, Larry said, “I think it's fair to say we're the free software movement for culture.” And, much like Richard, Larry is quick to make distinctions:

There is an important difference between the free software movement and the open-source software movement, in that the free software movement's first goal is freedom. It's not promising better software. It's not promising a better business model. It's promising freedom. And I think that's what the free culture movement is about. It's about giving people the freedom to build and cultivate their culture.

As with free software, tools matter. “One of the most important examples” of free culture tools, Larry says, is the Weblog:

Free culture is about the transformation between a broadcast culture and a procreative culture—from a broadcast culture where the few speak to the many to a procreative culture where the many speak to the many. That's what the Internet is supposed to have been about forever. But blogging is the first time that it happens in the context of political ideas that get translated and expanded upon as other people comment on them. In the context of political campaigns...they become better citizens. They become engaged citizens. There has been no new technology in the last 150 years that has produced more engaged citizens.

Larry said all this in late 2003, when Howard Dean had emerged as the leading Democratic candidate for president. During the 2003 calendar year, the Net-centric Dean campaign started from nowhere, raised record sums of money, involved record numbers of people and made its candidate a frontrunner in the polls as well as the purse. When it was over, and John Kerry ran away with the Democratic party nomination, the mainstream press predictably compared the Dean campaign to the dot-com bubble. Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, voiced what everybody who truly watched the campaign or participated in it knew intimately:

This was not a dot-com crash. The Howard Dean campaign was a dot-com miracle. Let's look at this thing. This guy starts...on January 31 of last year with seven people, $157,000 in the bank, 432 known supporters nationwide....He was an asterisk....How did it happen? It is a miracle that Howard Dean moved from there to $45 million, more money than any Democrat in history has raised....He didn't do it. I didn't do it. You did it.

Politics, Trippi said, was no longer something mediated by the media, no longer a horse race run and covered exclusively by professionals. It was, Trippi said, the end of an era that began with the televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960:

It took about five to ten years to realize that was the moment when television was going to change everything in America's politics. What no one could've predicted was that it would have become a race for money, a race to buy a one-way communications tool that would take the American people essentially out of the process. It was no longer about average Americans, it was about, “How do I find a rich guy to write me a $2,000 check and then how do I take that money and buy television with it?”

Joe Trippi said all this on February 11, 2004, in his keynote address to the Digital Democracy Teach-In, an event that opened O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference. That event was an idea I suggested to the O'Reilly folks at the end of the company's Open Source Convention in July 2003. It also was my idea to invite Joe Trippi to keynote the thing. That idea came to me while Britt Blaser, founder of xpertweb.com and an energetic Dean volunteer, was giving me a tour of the Dean Campaign headquarters in Burlington, Vermont. I was present in purely electronic form. My face was on Britt's laptop, my voice was on his laptop speakers and my eye was a camera mounted on the laptop lid. My body was in California. It was in this disembodied form that I met Joe. Walking around holding the laptop like an hors d'oeuvre tray at a party, Britt ran into Joe in the hallway. After saying hi, I asked Joe to keynote the February event. To my astonishment, he said yes.

A Long Strange Trip

My own involvement in this story, however, began more than a year earlier, on June 26, 2002, at the New York launch of eThePeople.org, a “public forum for a new democracy conversation”. I was the featured speaker, recruited for having coined the phrase “markets are conversations,” which was the opening thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto and an inspiration for eThePeople's statement of purpose. Here's how that goes:

Democracy is a conversation. It's a dialogue that includes politicians, interest groups, parties, journalists, lobbyists, pollsters, letter-writers, campaign contributors, protesters and voters. It's an ongoing negotiation about how our priorities and our values should translate into public policy.

eThePeople built their site on Linux. So did Scott Heiferman, founder of MeetUp, which was launched just 12 days earlier. Scott was there for the party and to let me know about MeetUp's Linux foundations. MeetUp went on to become the most important commercial accessory to democracy since the tavern. More than 165,000 people joined MeetUps for Howard Dean alone.

Britt called me so often from Dean Campaign headquarters in Vermont that I felt like I personally knew everybody there. Some of them knew me first, however, because the campaign consciously borrowed what The Cluetrain Manifesto said about networked markets and applied it to voters. Cluetrain said, “Markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.” The Dean campaign said, “Networked citizens get smarter faster than most campaigns.”

More than 600,000 people joined the campaign, and an untold percentage of them were out in the world, stumping hard for the candidate, producing materials, holding meetings and rallies—with less direct guidance from the top than perhaps any campaign in the country's history. More than one volunteer told me the campaign was less a bandwagon than a runaway train.

I got a surprise ride on that train last summer when I wrote a piece called “Saving the Net” for the Linux Journal Web site. It went up on Monday, July 21. Two days later, on BlogForAmerica, the Dean Campaign Weblog, Matt Gross wrote a post titled “Saving the Net, and Politics, According to Doc Searls, or Bringing out the Bat”. The post was a challenge to raise more money than Vice President Dick Cheney was scheduled to raise at a $2,000/plate dinner the next Monday in South Carolina. The punch paragraph:

We're thinking about bringing out the bat on Monday the 28th. We're thinking that you could demonstrate to Dick Cheney that there is another way to raise $250,000 in one day—through the people who own this democracy, rather than the special interests that buy it. What do you think? Should we bring out the bat? What should we call the event?

Comments, as always, ran in the hundreds. By Saturday morning they had $82,260.28, and one hour before Monday, they passed $250,000. The final tally (although I'm told it continued to go higher): $508,540.31 contributed by 9,601 people. That's an average of $52.97 apiece.

As Britt and others explained later, the people turning up the steam during this whole run-up weren't the campaign workers posting progress reports on the blog. It was the people down in the blog's comments section. Opening up comments on the campaign blog was like sinking an artesian well into the pockets of hundreds of thousands of supporters.

My visit to the campaign came right before the Iowa Caucuses in January 2004. The energy at headquarters was at maximum, and everything seemed to be on track for a series of wins in the primaries. The day after I returned to New York (for LinuxWorld Expo), Dean lost the Iowa Caucuses, coming in third. That night he uttered his famous “scream”, which ABC News admits playing a total of “700 times in a few days”. The rest is history.

Or maybe not. Oddly, DeanForAmerica.com comments kept rolling on. There were expressions of sympathy for the bombings in Madrid, suggestions for Kerry cabinet members and practical ideas to continue applying the energy that persisted in the campaign, even while few outside the campaign seemed aware of it. Some of the posts were by Howard Dean himself—something that rarely happened while the candidate's presidential hopes still were alive.

Adaptation Nation

One of my regrets, while working on this story, was not getting to Arkansas to see what Cameron Barrett, Tony Steidler-Dennison and other hackers were doing for the Wesley Clark campaign. Cam is one of the original bloggers, and Tony is a friend of ours at Linux Journal and a frequent contributor to the magazine.

Cam and Tony put the whole Clark campaign on an open-source footing, crafting a bunch of tools that now have returned to the ecosystem, along with their authors. After the Clark campaign folded, Cam went to work for the Kerry campaign. Tony went back to playing the role of interested observer. When I asked Tony what happened to the tools his team developed for the Clark campaign, he replied:

The tools themselves provided a means for the Clark campaign, in particular, to get up to speed in a very short time. We wouldn't have been able to provide the interconnected set of supporter tools (Clark Community Network→eBlocks→on-line contributions→Clark Recruiters→Lawyers for Clark→various and sundry mailing lists, and so on) as quickly with proprietary tools. Or as cost-effectively.

These were the first campaigns to use the Internet in a truly two-way fashion. Cam's Clark Community Network was, I believe, the most effective tool for supporter community-building of any of the campaigns. The 2000 campaign used the Internet to convey a message from the candidate to both actual and potential supporters. It was a one-way communication. The Dean and Clark campaigns were the first and most effective at providing a connected voice for supporters to talk back to the candidates and to talk with one another. In other words, the campaign communities made the campaigns more than merely vehicles for fund raising. I can tell you firsthand that the Clark campaign paid attention to the collective voice of the community. So, open-source tools allowed us to create a community that actually had a voice in the campaign.

The most likely legacy of the Clark campaign is Clark TechCorps. The tools we created to organize the supporter communities are available under open-source licensing for anyone to use and improve upon. There's still a fair amount of activity on the TechCorps site as interested developers continue to work on those tools. We'll have to see where they go.

Britt Blaser provides a nice summary of the first well-hacked party presidential playoff season:

Many spent 2003 hacking code because they thought it might transform politics, and they were more right than wrong. They are the open-source entrepreneurs of the governance tools space. Like all entrepreneurs, they are artists who create because they're incapable of not creating.

Joe Trippi called MeetUp the Dean Campaign's “killer app”. “We built a hammer”, says Scott Heiferman, “and they built a house with it”.

Zephyr Teachout, whose visibility as a Dean campaign worker was exceeded only by Joe Trippi, says MeetUp made such a good tool because what it built wasn't on-line. MeetUps happen in meat space—in physical, geographical reality. Off-Net. Scott Heiferman tells me MeetUp's most important corporate relationships are with the local restaurants and coffee shops where MeetUps meet.

So MeetUp succeeded in part because it violated at least one Web development maxim: it didn't over-provision its feature set or let its ambitions fall out of alignment with its core services. And it kept those services simple, in the tradition of great practical open-source applications.

Consider the Source

Joe Trippi's long career path included a tour of duty with Progeny, working with Ian Murdock, the co-originator of Debian. It's not coincidental that Joe called Dean's an “open-source campaign” and said “It's like Linux. The more people collaborate, the more likely we'll build a better thing.”

Phil Windley, former CIO of Utah, says we're coming to the end of an era in which governance is crippled by two waves of opposing ideologies and ideologues: anti-business lefties in the '60s and '70s and anti-government righties in the '80s and '90s. “Both groups failed to understand that most citizens don't subscribe to an ideology. In fact, all most people really want from government is to get the roads fixed.” What's exciting now, he says, is the potential for involvement and participation by ordinary citizens in the mundane machinery of governance. Already, he says, countless NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are bringing solutions to government rather than waiting for the reverse to happen.

I had a chance to witness this first-hand when a friend asked me to sit in on a meeting between a local group and county supervisors. The local group had some ideas for improving bandwidth in the county, and this meeting was the one where they were presenting concrete recommendations. To my surprise, I found myself participating in a productive conversation with elected officials about an important local issue—a new experience for me.

The friend who invited me to the meeting doesn't work in government, but he is an astute observer of government and how it works. What he told me after the meeting blew my mind, because it had never occurred to me before, was:

Government isn't the problem. People need to bring solutions to government. Government is dying for answers. Bring some and you'll get somewhere.

I don't have experience with the government stonewalling me at all. I experience interest and cooperation at every level, as long as I bring solutions and not just problems.

A lot of helpless people want government to solve their problems or to carry their spear on one issue or another. That reflects an ignorance of how the whole ecosystem actually works. If you're constructive, you can participate in that ecosystem. Bureaucrats are crying for help on all kinds of issues. If we provide some, we can make stuff get done together.

“Democracy is the first open-source application”, Phil Windley says. More to the point, he considers open-source values such as code exposure, peer review, individual initiative and iterated inclusion of improved code in goods that are never quite finished essential to functional democracy in the long run. In fact, he believes open-source values and practices will help democracy finally deliver on ideals that have remained unfulfilled for thousands of years.

In other words, we may finally have the kind of democracy we've always idealized—governments not only representative of their citizens but open to participation by everybody with something to contribute.

Three interesting facts about that meeting with the county supervisors:

  1. All the guests in the meeting were technologists. (I was the least technical of the bunch.)

  2. All the public servants in the meeting (supervisors and various staffers) believed that improving Internet bandwidth was a no-brainer issue.

  3. It was only natural for government to look to technologists for help.

Here at the local and regional levels of government, where the density of lobbyists and other pressure groups is lower than in Washington, pro-Internet technologists are starting to find themselves in a sellers' market for their expertise and solutions. At the very least, we're seeing some interfaces open up. Maybe we'll see quite a few more soon. According to Zephyr Teachout, over a hundred candidates now running for public office were inspired by the Dean campaign. “All the significant trends start with technologists”, Marc Andreessen says.

Those trends don't have to be technical. Clearly, they also can be political.

Perhaps now we won't get merely the government we deserve. Maybe now we'll get the government we hack.

Read more from Internet democracy innovators in “Voices from the New Hackers of Democracy” on the Linux Journal Web site: www.linuxjournal.com/article/7474.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

LJ Archive