Thursday, May 15, 2008

How Obama's Harnessing of the Internet Might Change Government

Okay, so I love it when a reporter’s mind went where mine went (and I find it) and he’s thought carefully about the question, provides historical and contemporary context, raises drawbacks – and answers the question. So what does Josh Green’s reporting on Obama’s revolutionary campaign mean for governing? What happens when he wins?

In the same June issue of The Atlantic, Marc Ambinder (another whose blog I check every day), answers in a one-page piece called “HisSpace” (And I swear I’m not kidding, there’s a cartoon of Obama and hands extended taking pictures with an Ipod phone!)

The historical context mapping presidencies to change in communication technologies is particularly striking and very cool: Jackson (post office) Lincoln (newspapers), FDR (radio), JFK (television). Next up: Obama (internet). The contemporary context is to the British government's use of the web.

I wish the piece were longer and that Ambinder had explored the significance of open source software and thinking as well as the implications in the internet, electronic communication and development. I wish he'd then explored the value-added and the pitfalls in the commercial computer industry. And then tried to extrapolate that information into implications for governing. He could have talked further with the likes of smart guys like Lawrence Lessig (whom Green quotes) to pick his brain about how governing and democracy could change as a result of that new paradigm beyond the superficial changes that technology, its speed and ease, might bring.

I remember Obama writing in his book that no one, Republican or Democrat, rich or poor, black or white, likes to wait on a lengthy line at the DMV while they see government employees yaking it up, in the back, while only one window is open. Governmental inefficiency hurts and affects us all.

If you've not read his book, The Audacity of Hope, please do. In his prologue he delineates the topic of his book: "how we might begin the process of changing our politics and our civic life." p. 9 And yes, that includes all the ways that we interact with our government. Check out this blog entry on a piece from The New Republic called The Audacity of Data, which includes what an automatic tax return would be like.

The money quote from Ambinder's piece HisSpace:

Obama clearly intends to use the Web, if he is elected president, to transform governance just as he has transformed campaigning. Notably, he has spoken of conducting “online fireside chats” as president. And when one imagines how Obama’s political army, presumably intact, might be mobilized to lobby for major legislation with just a few keystrokes, it becomes possible, for a moment at least, to imagine that he might change the political culture of Washington simply by overwhelming it.

What Obama seems to promise is, at its outer limits, a participatory democracy in which the opportunities for participation have been radically expanded. He proposes creating a public, Google-like database of every federal dollar spent. He aims to post every piece of non-emergency legislation online for five days before he signs it so that Americans can comment. A White House blog—also with comments—would be a near certainty. Overseeing this new apparatus would be a chief technology officer.

My knees go weak at the prospect of internet fireside chats. Mostly because the mainstream media (MSM), since the 1980s, have completely abdicated on their moral and civic duty to keep the public informed. News departments are ruled by ratings and money. We don't need freedom of the press from just government - as the First Amendment, so elegantly set on the front of the new Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue here in DC, reminds passers-by. We need freedom of the press from stockholders and the likes of Les Moonves.

When FDR did his chats and asked people to buy maps so that they could follow his discussions of the fronts in the war, maps were sold out in this country. It's the bully pulpit exponentially. Obama already does some of this in his rally, encouraging personal responsibility, civic involvement.

And if those internet fireside chats, Obama decides to talk for a week about the importance of carpooling or riding our bikes or fixing our rail systems in this country - it won't matter that the hosts of the Today Show are playing volleyball or doing obstacle courses on Rockefeller Plaza. If Obama talks of the history of the Middle East, it won't matter that NBC "news" is marrying brides on Rockefeller Plaza. If Obama outlines the plan for health care and goes through what we each need to do preventively, responsibly - for love our country as well as ourselves, well then, the entertainment and celebrity promotions that fill the news won't matter much either. If the president is doing it, the MSM will cover it, and maybe even expand on the efforts, provide counterpoint, do more to fulfill their civic duty. At least there'll be conversation, exchange of ideas, the possibility of getting things done.

Changing the politics of campaigning is just the beginning. Behold the possibility of changing our civic life. Obama's prologue again:

"What I offer is something more modest [than a unifying theory of American government, manifestos for action, commissions, 10 point plans]: personal reflections on those values and ideas that have led me to public life, some thoughts on the ways that our current political discourse unnecessarily divides us, and my own best assessment - based on my experience as a senator and a lawyer, husband and father, Christian and skeptic - of the ways we can ground our politics in the notion of a common good." (emphasis added). p. 9
Well, we shall see. We hope.

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