THE NEXT RENAISSANCE
To me, "Personal Democracy" is an oxymoron. Democracy may be a lot of things, but the last thing it should be is "personal." I understand "personal responsibility," such as a family having a recycling bin in which they put their glass and metal every week. But even then, a single recycling bin for a whole building or block would be more efficient and appropriate.
Democracy is not personal, because if it's about anything, it's not about the individual. Democracy is about others. It's about transcending the self and acting collectively. Democracy is people, participating together to make the world a better place.
One of the essays in this conference's proceedings—the book "Rebooting Democracy"— remarks snarkily, "It's the network, stupid." That may go over well with all of us digital folks, but it's not true. It's not the network at all; it's the people. The network is the tool—the new medium that might help us get over the bias of our broadcasting technologies. All those technologies that keep us focused on ourselves as individuals, and away from our reality as a collective.
This focus on the individual, and its false equation with democracy, began back in the Renaissance. The Renaissance brought us wonderful innovations, such as perspective painting, scientific observation, and the printing press. But each of these innovations defined and celebrated individuality. Perspective painting celebrates the perspective of an individual on a scene. Scientific method showed how the real observations of an individual promote rational thought. The printing press gave individuals the opportunity to read, alone, and cogitate. Individuals formed perspectives, made observations, and formed opinions.
The individual we think of today was actually born in the Renaissance. The Vesuvian Man, Da Vinci's great drawing of a man in a perfect square and circle—independent and self-sufficient. This is the Renaissance ideal.
It was the birth of this thinking, individuated person that led to the ethos underlying the Enlightenment. Once we understood ourselves as individuals, we understood ourselves as having rights. The Rights of Man. A right to property. The right to personal freedom.
The Enlightenment—for all its greatness—was still oh, so personal in its conception. The reader alone in his study, contemplating how his vote matters. One man, one vote. We fight revolutions for our individual rights as we understood them. There were mass actions, but these were masses of individuals, fighting for their personal freedoms.
Ironically, with each leap towards individuality there was a corresponding increase in the power of central authorities. Remember, the Renaissance also brought us centralized currencies, chartered corporations, and nation states. As individuals become concerned with their personal plights, their former power as a collective moves to central authorities. Local currencies, investments, and civic institutions dissolve as self-interest increases. The authority associated with them moves to the center and away from all those voting people.
The media of the Renaissance—the printing press—is likewise terrific at myth-making. At branding. Its stories are told to individuals, either through books, or through broadcast media directed at each and every one of us. Its appeals are to self and self-interest.
Consider any commercial for blue jeans. Its target audience is not a confident person who already has a girlfriend. The commercial communicates, "wear these jeans, and you'll get to have sex." Who is the target for that message? An isolated, alienated person who does not have sex. The messaging targets the individual. If it's a mass medium, it targets many many individuals.
Movements, like myths and brands, depend on this quality of top-down, Renaissance-style media. They are not genuinely collective at all, in that there's no promotion of interaction between the people in them. Instead, all the individuals relate to the hero, ideal, or mythology at the top. Movements are abstract—they have to be. They hover above the group, directing all attention towards themselves.
As I listen to people talk here—well-meaning progressives, no doubt—I can't help but hear the romantic, almost desperate desire to become part of a movement. To become part of something famous, like the Obama campaign. Maybe even get a good K-street job out of the connections we make here. It's a fantasy perpetrated by the TV show West Wing. A myth that we want to be part of. But like any myth, it is a fantasy—and one almost entirely prefigured by Renaissance individualism.
The next renaissance (if there is one)—the phenomenon we're talking about or at least around here is not about the individual at all, but about the networked group. The possibility for collective action. The technologies we're using—the biases of these media—cede central authority to decentralized groups. Instead of moving power to the center, they tend to move power to the edges. Instead of creating value from the center—like a centrally issued currency—the network creates value from the periphery.
This means the way to participate is not simply to subscribe to an abstract, already-written myth, but to do real things. To take small actions in real ways. The glory is not in the belief system or the movement, but in the doing. It's not about getting someone elected, it's about removing the obstacles to real people doing what they need to to get the job done. That's the opportunity of the networked, open source era: to drop out of the myths and actually do.
Sadly, we tend to miss the great opportunities offered us by major shifts in media.
The first great renaissance in media, the invention of the alphabet, offered a tremendous leap for participatory democracy. Only priests could read and write hieroglyphs. The invention of the alphabet opened the possibility for people to read or even possibly write, themselves. In Torah myth, Moses goes off with his father-in-law to write the laws by which an enslaved people could now live. Instead of simply accepting legislation and government as a pre-existing condition—the God Pharaoh—people would develop and write down the law as they wanted it. Even the Torah is written in the form of a contract, and God creates the world with a word.
Access to language was to change a world of blind, enslaved rule followers into a civilization of literate people. (This is what is meant when God tells Abraham "you will be a nation of priests." It means they are to be a nation of people who transcend heiro-glyphs or "priestly-writing" to become literate.)
But this isn't what happened. People didn't read Torah—they listened as their leaders read it to them. Hearing was a step up from simply following, but the promise of the new medium had not been seized.
Likewise, the invention of the printing press did not lead to a civilization of writers—it developed a culture of readers. Gentlemen sat reading books, while the printing presses were accessed by those with the money or power to use them. The people remained one step behind the technology. Broadcast radio and television are really just an extension of the printing press: expensive, one-to-many media that promote the mass distribution of the stories and ideas of a small elite.
Computers and networks finally offer us the ability to write. And we do write with them. Everyone is a blogger, now. Citizen bloggers and YouTubers who believe we have now embraced a new "personal" democracy. Personal, because we can sit safely at home with our laptops and type our way to freedom.
But writing is not the capability being offered us by these tools at all. The capability is programming—which almost none of us really know how to do. We simply use the programs that have been made for us, and enter our blog text in the appropriate box on the screen. Nothing against the strides made by citizen bloggers and journalists, but big deal. Let them eat blog.
At the very least on a metaphorical level, the opportunity here is not to write about politics or—more likely—comment on what someone else has said about politics. The opportunity, however, is to rewrite the very rules by which democracy is implemented. The opportunity of a renaissance in programming is to reconfigure the process through which democracy occurs.
If Obama is indeed elected—the first truly Internet-enabled candidate—we should take him at his word. He does not offer himself as the agent of change, but as an advocate of the change that could be enacted by people. It is not for government to create solar power, for example, but to get out of the way of all those people who are ready to implement solar power, themselves. Responding to the willingness of people to act, he can remove regulations developed on behalf of the oil industry to restrict its proliferation.
In an era when people have the ability to reprogram their reality, the job of leaders is to help facilitate this activity by tweaking legislation, or by supporting their efforts through better incentives or access to the necessary tools and capital. Change does not come from the top—but from the periphery. Not from a leader or a myth inspiring individuals to consent to it, but from people working to manifest it together.
Open Source Democracy—which I wrote about a decade ago—is not simply a way to get candidates elected to office. It is a collective reprogramming of the social software, a disengagement from the myths through which we abdicate responsibility, and a reclamation of our role as citizens who participate in the creation of the society in which we want to live.
This is not personal democracy at all, but a collective and participatory democracy where we finally accept our roles as the fully literate and engaged adults who can make this happen.
[Postscript: At the conference's closing ceremony Personal Democracy Forum founder Andrew Rasiej announced he would be changing the name of the conference to the Participatory Democracy Forum.]