This is a liveblog of Micah Sifry’s book talk hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. It is not a perfect transcript of the event.
Micah Sifry is the co-founder and editorial director of Personal Democracy Media, Kate Krontiris (today’s moderator) met him a few years back and asked him what an online Civic Hall would look like. Now “Civic Hall” will be opening soon in NYC in January as a brick and mortar institution.
Kate Krontiris: Why did you write this book? What case studies or sparks made you think there’s something to write about here?
Micah Sifry: I had a persistent editor at a small publishing house (OR Books). Great people to work for. The impetus for the book was the sense after ten years of long engagement observation in the the tech politics scene in the USA and a little abroad, through PDF conferences and blogging at techpresident, I finally got my head around what was bothering me. I thought I could lay out what I wanted to say about the hopes and aspirations for the internet, and what did and did not happen. Starting point was 10 years ago with explosion of civic participation around Howard Dean campaign. What we thought would happen, what has happened, and what we can do to shift the course.
The disruptive moment is over. The expectation that reducing the barrier to entry would lead to a democratization of power has not been fulfilled. Distinguish what the internet seems to be good for in the political arena for small -d democratization and what it is not. The book focuses on two areas: (1) the changes in the political campaigning space in how they use tech, data analytics and their supporters, and how the role of the citizen in influencing the process has shrunk rather than increased. (2) How advocacy orgs have also adapted to mass connectivity and mass participation, largely by using Big Data, analytics, A/B testing, etc., to extract some value but not to empower people in any quantifiable way
We have not changed the political operating system in any major way or the way we expected. The percentage of money coming from small donors is essentially constant from 2004 to 2012, without even considering the superpacs enabled by the Citizens United case. We thought that the small donors would explode, but today we are seeing that most of the money is coming from large donors.
So there’s a lot of soul searching to be done by the tech community.
Also: the problem of the attention economy and the perverse effect that we have made self expression so easy that we have too much of it, but we have not made the listening function work at a pace that keeps up with all the expression.
Kate reads an excerpt from Page 48:
The result is a body politic that has grown more and more distorted. It has a gigantic mouth and two huge fists, left and right, that spend most of their time swinging at each other. Its heart still beats strong, and often it races in response to emotional events. But its ears and eyes are deafened and blinded by all the noise and flash; its stomach only rarely gets to digest anything; and its leg muscles are atrophying from lack of use.
“Present Shock” by Douglas Rushkoff crystalized this: The future is here and it’s broken the present. We’re losing our collective attention, which is what we need for political action. Each advocacy group may get your attention, but that collectively pollutes the commons. The only things that seem to interrupt that are hugely emotional spectacles and giant crises like hurricanes cutting off NYC’s power.
Silver lining: We’re a little more resilient at those things. I don’t want to leave the impression that I think the internet is bad. I love the internet as much as I hate the internet now.
Kate: In the book, you make the observations:
1. The effective use of tech is no longer a low barrier. You need money and power to wield these tools well.
2. The Net’s better at gathering Stop energy than Go energy.
3. We don’t have very good tools for doing things together.
Can you talk a little bit more about your chapter on big data? You talk about Obama being the most technological president. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Micah: I wanted to put to rest the question: What happened after 2008? Why didn’t Obama come to DC with his list of millions of energized supporters? They trained tens of thousands of organizers in a rigorous way. Why didn’t that go forward? Why was it so easily smothered?
The answer is only in part due to Obama. We now know he is nowhere near the community organizer he was portrayed as. He’s a technocrat and very cautious politician. You can blame the Rahm Emanuel and other people around him but he’s the one who picked ‘em. The question is: Why didn’t the base fight that?
I think the answer is that the tools the Obama campaign used were not designed to make it easy for the base to organize itself. There was a time in 2008 when Obama signalled he was going to shift his position on the FISA wiretapping bill. A group formed on MyBarackObama and swelled to 20,000 people, the largest group there. It forced Obama to deal with it and issue a statement saying, “I heard you, but here’s what I believe,” followed by his advisors spending three hours liveblogging and the issue went away. The question is why we let that happen.
When Obama came in, there was no transition plan for the base. We can’t just blame the top. We have to asked ourselves why Americans don’t have a stronger tradition of assertion. In my book, I don’t spend enough time exploring where that culture comes from: lack of history, forgetting that politicians need to be held accountable, very weak local communal organization. So I’m not sure this generalizes to other countries. E.g., Spain has a stronger tradition of local self-organization. The Podemos party is using Reddit and Loomio to build face to face organizating, showing that other paths are possible. There was a moment when the Obama team reached out to the supporters and there was a high response and support them and many of them expressed their interest in running for local office, but nothing happened. A lot of people didn’t take matters into their own hands because of deep cultural issues. Learned deference.
Also, a failure of leadership. The history of the democratic party is that there’s a moment when the people try to keep the pressure on, and then they lose. E.g., Clinton and Labor.
Kate: We’ll get to a moment of optimism, but not yet.
Micah: Yochai Benkler read the manuscript, didn’t find much to disagree with, and said that afterwards he felt like crawling under a rock.
Kate: Let’s talk about another force shaping the body politic: big technology companies are another group affecting these efforts. What role do you see these companies playing now and what do you think these companies can do to more positively promote civic life?
Micah: The people inside the companies think they’re benign. They have very little self-awareness of the possibility that the effect of what they’ve created could be dangerous. I’ve been banging on Facebook for years to get them to open up and tell us more about the experiments and learning they have when they tweak the news feed or put the “megaphone” to encourage people to vote. In 2012, in the 10 weeks before the election, they pushed hard news to the top of the feed of two million users. If your friend shared a link to a news story, they would put those articles at the very top. They then went back and surveyed that group. The self-reported results of the survey were that people who saw the news higher up reported that they were significantly more likely to vote and pay attention to government. They were planning to publish an academic paper about the results and the issue with academic papers is that we’ll get to see the results and learn from them years after the event.
News publishers are afraid to question the power of social media platforms. The power of these platforms is enormous and we have to take their word on their experiments. There needs to be independent auditing of Facebook algorithms by other qualified technologists — so that if Facebook says it does something in a neutral and random way, it was actually neutral and random. It’s good when companies do things like encouraging people to be organ donors, he says, but as they have a drive to maximize profits, it will be important to watch the effect they have on society.
We have to be concerned that so much of our public discourse occurs on a private platforms. Why should an Orthodox Jew who doesn’t want to be on Facebook be forced to be a member of Facebook in order to participate in a town hall with their member of Congress. If Walmart were hosting town hall meetings and required people to have Walmart cards to participate, we would be up in arms. Why do congress-people do that with Facebook?
Another piece of important work for us is building the public internet. The government should be doing this, but isn’t. You can get a permit for a meeting in a public park, but you can’t congregate on a government website. I can’t get an email from the Post Office.
We’ve allowed too much thinking about what a public internet should look like fall under the carpet.
We distinguish: Twitter is a better platform than Facebook for enabling public discourse on a topic. But that is about to change, as they start diddling with their platform and you’ll see less of what you want to see and more of what they want you to see.
Kate: So you’re interested not only so much about the algorithm and its transparency, but also about the kind of platform on which we might have public discussion?
Micah: Yes, we need to have public platforms, our communication is also happening on private connections. The US has twice tried to deal with crises in public infrastructure. Access to clean water in NYC in the 1800s when there was a cholera epidemic from drinking water polluted with sewage. The city fathers and mothers bought water sources in upstate New York and built aqueducts to bring it into the city. And that’s when it became the premier metropolis in the United States.
Second there was the provision of a telephone dial tone. Today, the idea of public broadband is the dial tone of the twentieth century: that is another aspect of building the public infrastructure and internet that we need.
Micah: We should also talk about Stop/Go. The Wealth of Networks is a bible to me, as I expect it is to lots of people in this room. I agree that the networked public sphere is a better public sphere than the mass media public sphere. But there is a flaw in the examples Benkler puts in the Wealth of Networks. The cases, where the public has a greater interest than moneyed actors, whether it’s Diebold having flaws in their electronic ballot machines; or the Sinclair Network trying to put out partisan videos right before an election, and a civic network organizes and protests, and Sinclair withdraws them;
SOPA/PIPA is another example, where Hollywood over reaches and the internet public, with the help of large companies rises to oppose the legislation…
What do these cases have in common? An outrageous action. People know what they want to do. They want to stop Diebold, Sinclair, SOPA/PIPA, stop Wikileaks from being taken off the Web.
The Internet is very good at “stop moments” but not “go” moments.
What tool would you use to enable a consensus to form among a group of people if you’re working on the Web and there isn’t an existing consensus. A wiki? When Wikipedia decided to go dark in support of the SOPA/PIPA protest, they used Jimmy Wales’ Talk page. Try to read it. It’s 55 screens long on my laptop. There’s no way that people read all that. You might say it was sufficient because people came to agreement, but, seriously, it’s not at all clear to me that the minority voices got a serious hearing.
The most painful example: Egypt. There was consensus for the Stop: to get Mubarak out of party. But when they briefly had an opening to create a new government, they failed. They fractured. We have a disease of too much ease in expressing yourself and not enough listening and coming to agreement.
Kate: Is there fundamental clash between Internet organizing and community organizing?
Micah: We have to change the toolset. We need easy to use tools that replicate the processes that community organizers use, to avoid privileging face to face; not everyone can get to a community meeting at night.
Loomio has a great opportunity to fix this gap. This is a tool that was written by folks in New Zealand who participated first hand in the occupy protests in Wellington. They realized that the consensus-based decision-making broke down when scaling in space or time.
The problem with Loomio is that it works well if you are already part of a bounded group. If the group feels like they have a common purpose they are bound to, then Loomio works great for them. We haven’t solved the problem of getting people to that point of common purpose. It may be unsolvable.
Kate: In the last chapter you reflect on the Snowden moment and what it means for us. You are by nature hopeful and optimistic, yet this book suggests that we shouldn’t be optimistic. Is that right? When you finished writing it did you think there are reasons to be hopeful?
Micah: I’m hopeful constitutionally for lots of different reasons. But I think seeing things clearly is the starting point for acting in better ways. Maybe I’ve cleared some cobwebs. That’s the prerequisite for taking better action going forward: understanding what has happened before.
Lots of complicated thoughts about the Snowden affair. The constitutional optimist is with Cory Doctorow who says the moment of peak apathy by privacy and surveillance is over. We’re seeing some changes in tech. E.g., WhatsApp adopted privacy encryption for 100s of millions of users. It’s a reason for optimism that some companies are opting for privacy as default.
We have a political sickness. I don’t know a single Congressperson who’s called for clemency for Snowden. There’s been political pressure for reform, but that’s been blocked. But there will be more.
I had lunch with Ben Wizner, who is Snowden’s ACLU lawyer. First off, he noted Snowden’s film will be nominated for an oscar and will be on HBO which will give millions a chance to learn more about him. Second, Snowden is incredibly popular among people. He articulates what the Internet should be in a way that many young people recognize. The fact that 3-4M people have told the FCC that they want Net Neutrality is a pretty big deal; I’m surprised this issue is even still alive.
On the other hand, we’re creatures of convenience. Yesterday I gave a talk at Nicco Mele’s class at the JFK school. I said to the students, “You know, if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product.” People’s eyes light up and say, “I never thought of that!” On the other hand, people may not want to know they are the product. That might be when the scales fall from people’s eyes. I expect to see more clashes along these battle lines.
I have one request to make: We need to stop referring to “privacy policies.” I’m on the board of Consumer Reports and I’ve been urging them to adopt this change.
It’s not privacy if they have your data. It’s fine if you want to give that away, but don’t refer to it as privacy.
I write something called First POST, which you can all subscribe to; it’s free. And when I go to put that together, every day I see where someone is doing something good with the internet.
Kate: Thanks. I feel better.
Micah: Don’t feel too much better.
Halley Suitt: What should those policies be called?
Micah: Daily usage policies
David Larochelle: At the beginning you talked about filtering ut Citizens United when comparing then to now. Maybe without the Net things would be much worse than they are now.
Micah: If you look at political contributions, the percentage of money going from small donors (Anyone who gives less than $200 is considered a small donor) has gone from 8-10% in House races and from 12-14% in Senate races since 2004 to 2012. There are a handful of candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, who have amassed a serious war chest from small donations. They’re just a few, not enough to say that the operating system of politics has changed. The most depressing statistic of all is that if the barrier to participation in politics has been lowered by the Internet, why are 4-10 races per state unopposed. People don’t bother because they know the incumbent is going to win. The problem is gerrymandering, pork, learned deference, corrupt local power structures — many other things than technology go into the lack of society opening up in the way we hoped.
Let me give a silver lining, because I see so many grim faces. The one change I would credit to the open media system the Net has enabled are the rise of women and minorities into parity. We’re living through a calamitous moment when you think about how gender and race are emerging online and demanding parity. The idea that Bill Cosby could be taken down after decades of successfully suppressing rape allegations– his defense just shattered. Every day, another bastion of male power starts to crumble– like the fraternity system. Women are 51% of the population and not 51% of the power, but open media is enabling an assertion. This is not without horrible misogyny, harassment and attacks on women in response, but this is a rising force that is actually getting stronger with each battle.
David Weinberger: I love the book, and I love you. I have two reactions to the book. I am totally depressed by it. I was an optimist and something of a techno-determinist. But I think there is something optimistic in what David Larochelle just said. When I was a lad and you wanted to get information from your congressperson, you had to go and get a one-page mimeographed copy of their position paper, on maybe a dozen topics. Our ability to get information now is amazing. There is a bigger change than we could have anticipated in how we engaged in politics. On the other hand, nothing has changed as you pointed out; the money has made things worse. So there are forces outside of technology (as you say). Technology is not enough to overcome these powers. In the longer game though I still have hope.
Micah: I still have hope too. The optimist in me is amazed that the week SOPA/PIPA happened there had been almost no mainstram media coverage, but the Pew survey of what people were paying attention to that week showed that old people were paying attention to the cruise ship that sunk but young people were paying attention to the SOPA/PIPA issue.
David W: Not just that they were paying attention but the depth of understanding that they had about this issue was so much more than they would have had before this new technology existed.
Micah: We may be at the extreme end of arc here and might unlearn some bad behaviors. We are constantly attracted by what the next spectacle is that attracts our attention. I hope that by pointing that out we might collectively decide to stop doing it. We still have way more good stuff to look at that might keeps us sitting still. Clay Shirky says we don’t have info overload ,we have filter failure. He’s hopeful that our filters will get better and better and get pure signal. Nicholas Carr says that we have filter success because we are getting fed the good stuff—the algorithms are working in our Facebook feed—and we are getting too much of it.
The best example I have in my book is on SeeClickFix. SeeClickFix fascinates me a lot; it’s based in New Haven, CT. It’s basically 3-1-1 + location + phone. It started when Ben Berkowitz wanted to report something to city hall. This started when it became easy to put things on Google Maps. He and some friends spent a weekend hacking together a way to post a report to a map and allow comments on it for others to participate.
City hall started to get emails from people putting up issues on SeeClickFix and asking for service. And the city ran with it rather than ignoring those emails. SeeClickFix is now operating at scale in New Haven. They have 17,000+ registered users from a population of about 140,000. This is altering how the city works there. In the book, I write about a report a lady submitted about a stray dog (see the excerpt on TechPresident).
This is an example of local civic life being enacted….
Kate: what you call thick engagement..
Micah: … Thick engagement means to me more of click and sharing, rather knowing each other and having a sense of obligation. [Micah tells an anecdote about SeeClickFix being used to enable neighbors to watch out for one another.]
SeeClickFix has created an augmented reality that makes things better for everyday life (read Micah’s post on SeeClickFix from June). New Haven’s municipal website gives real estate for a live feed of recent reports from SeeClickFix. By the way, SeeClickFix is a for profit. It begins to knit together the opportunity for greater civic action. E.g., food deserts, intersections where lots of people have been by cars.
So I think there’s a way to design for thick engagement that improves people’s lives. But it can also be used in a Big Brother way. E.g., Waze is giving its traffic data to civic managers in Rio de Janeiro, but the drivers don’t have any sense that they are contributing their data. SeeClickFix enables people to share a common location to form interest groups. Waze did that in Europe, but not once it was bought by Google.
Richard Parker: I hear you talking about pessimism and I think about starting Mother Jones 40 yrs ago: Nixon, Vietnam, etc. And I’m not as pessimistic as you are. I’d like to see this discussion become part of a larger public discussion. Thomas Piketty has begun this conversation. Big Data frightens more people than it encourages them. The environment has become a mobilizing issue. The discussion of tech if nested within the wider environment might be more empowerment.
Micah: Richard, I think that first of all the shiny optimism tech is losing some of its sheen. The conversation around inequality and the degree to which the Silicon Valley version of how the tech economy is working is finally on the table. There are conflicting goals: there are a lot of us fighting for expanded broadband access because the way the economy works now you can’t even apply for a job without wifi. There’s a lot of boostering going on about how important it is to open up free or low-cost access, but we have to skate past the question whether the Net is empowering those without power or entrenching those with power already. I don’t feel like that discussion is being engaged all that well right now.
On the other hand, I think there is a cultural desire for magical power that tech still embodies for people. It’s like secular religion. When Apple introduced the iPad that moment got more international attention than B. Obama’s first State of the Union speech which was probably a more important event. That’s part of why everyday we share these amazing examples of altruism or collective action that the Internet enables and helps us discover, and that’s a good thing. We have the capacity to do self-organized, non-market-based collective action at world scale. We’re not doing it yet, but it’s a potential yet to be realized and could be a very very very powerful thing.
Felipe Heusser: I agree that when you look at a significant portion of Internet users as a herd, there are reasons to be pessimistic. What is the role that you assign to smaller intermediaries: companies, organizers, NGOs. Rather than arriving at consensus around something, what about smaller groups that push for more specific issues? In our work on civic technology, we got lobby legislation passed after a big campaign — our tenth campaign. Over time, we’re getting better at politics, using tech tools to create awareness, while also playing the field of lobbying. When we used both elements, we were able to get legislation passed. Might organizing institutions be getting better at the Internet and Internet organizers be getting better at politics?
Micah: I think what you were asking was in reference to the American political context. I don’t know how you guys managed to pass that strong legislation in Chile. What I would say about that is you always get a moment of transition wherein there is an opportunity to make change. The longer the government is in power, the harder it is to make changes. Obama was great on transparency on his first day in office, but the longer he’s in office, the worse he gets about it. You have to use that window.
We need something like the NRA for the internet. People need to believe that the internet is such a fundamental part of their identity like owning a gun. We need internet lover’s leagues. This is one of the unfinished moves in our emerging political process as more people express their desire for an open internet. Those people are out there they are just not organized. And there are members of congress that probably know that they have constituents that care about the internet. I tried to convince Google to mobilize the 2-3M people they had on their SOPA/PIPA list, but no.
Tim Davies: in the case of See Click Fix, the state is collaborating with the public. In other cases like OpenCorporates, we see civic technologies as a balance to power, providing open data so essential to a civic infrastructure. What key civic infrastructures are needed, in addition to public space and broadband?
Micah: I’m intrigued by the Indieweb movement, the idea that we can own our own stake and claim to a piece of cyberspace. As people think about themselves not wanting to be products, the answer is to think about how to be an owner of your own space online. There are many ways to do that- maybe the library here that trains students on how to do research could also train them how to be your own person online.
I should really talk about Civic Hall. It’s basically PDF all year round. We are trying to create a space where people like NGOs, activist, and technologists can get together and experiment. We have a space opening next month in the heart of Silicon Alley that will hold about 150 people.
Mayte Schomburg: Although Internet conversations can reveal to us what the public is passionate about, government doesn’t always pick up on the conversation. The system is very self-referential and does not have the incentive to pick up on what is politically relevant. In our small NGO in Germany (Publixphere.net), we’re working on non-partisan spaces for deliberation around politics. Originally, we were thinking that this should be provided by the state. However, in Germany, we have a lack of trust of the people in politics who we are trying to reach, so as things stand at the moment we don’t even accept state funding. Institutions have been slow to catch up to movements. We realized that the government wasn’t going to do it, and that it’s now too late for them to have the legitimacy to create public space. If someone were to create public Internet for political discussion in the US, would the government be the right entity to create this?
Micah: I kind of like Germany at the moment having twice seen the horror of what can happen with big data. The Germans are most attuned to those issues. I like that GErmans have sufficient distrust of the state to form alternative ways to do what you are describing. For me, the state is the option of last resort. I would like something independent that is then supported by government.
In order to make the connection to enable political discourse, I think it’s important that governments create processes to open two-way channels. The head of the rules committee of the Utah House of Representatives opened up a space for comments online to share. People keep trying to open things up to a group of people not bound by common purpose, it fails. Richard Durbin tried this too until the graduate student working for him went back to school. But when people who have power make the efforts, there is a possibility.