The Best of Personal Democracy Forum 2012

[UPDATED]Person Democracy Forum is the best digital politics conference in the country, maybe the world, because it’s a forum for radically idealistic new ideas. It just ended last night. Here are my favorite parts:

Day 1

  • Alexis Ohanian of Reddit’s funny meme-filled pitch for the bat-signal of the Internet (we are all Batmans, we all have online Gothams, we must protect them). Key insight: People sharing their likes and dislikes online isn’t the new slacktivism, it’s the private conversations we’ve always had around the dinner table. It’s just that they are public now. If anything this idle talk is more powerful for that reason.
  • Yochai Benkler of the Berkman Center shows day-by-day network graphics of the anti- SOPA campaign, putting to bed that alternative notion that it was just Google lobbyistsall along. Everyone wondered: how did he make those infographics and can I borrow his software?
  • Jaron Lanierof Microsoft gave my favorite keynote of PdF 2012. That man is straight brilliant. Without any slides he presented a bold and complex new idea for maintaing the middle class in the information economy: institute a system of micro-payments for all net content, which goes back to the creator. This would apply to our usage data too (the stuff people like Google and Facebook already monetize), so it is not uniquely a plan to benefit creatives. Among his best insights that the internet actually creates a more sustainable democracy if it is not totally free and, at this point, we can re-engineer society by re-engineering the internet.
  • Jan Hemme of the German Pirate Party described their new software LiquidFeedback and the term “liquid democracy.” Both represent a new midpoint between representative and direct democracy: temporary proxy voting. The system allows people to temporarily assign a proxy to vote on their behalf on internal policy decisions, but that proxy can be rescinded any time, not every 2 to 4 years, as is now the mode.

Day 2

  • Peter Fein runs Telecomix, which I had never heard of before, and which was apparently “tech support for the Arab Spring,” circumventing internet shut-downs with fax machines and the like. Democracy is obsolete, he argued, it’s time for adhocracy. Also, if you want to get something down, do it without money.
  • Sascha Meinrath of the Open Technology Institute showed us the surprising scope ofindependentintranets (mesh networks) around the world. The US, with its restrictions onmunicipalcommunicationsinfrastructure, is far behind the rest of the world.
  • Artist An Xiao Mina showed us amazing political memes from China, which were a bold and beautiful response to the censorship of text. They included online and offline images of sunflower seeds as a protest against the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei, and a sunglasses meme in support of blind activistChen Guangcheng. I hope the slides get online soon.
  • Chinese journalist Michael Anti talked about the psychic wounds of self-censorship. He urged Americans to help the Chinese people by defending their own online freedom of expression. Repressive regimes love to cherry-pick censorious policies from Western democracies.
  • Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen talked about successful anti-democratic online tacticsused against Russian activists. One interesting one was the “hand-made” DDoS -style attack on activist Facebook pages. Trolls (from India, for some reason) sign up for the pages en-masse and leave inappropriate – but not threatening – messages on the wall. The rate is so fast that admins cannot take them down quickly enough, the credibility of the page is undermined, and the admins themselves get punished by Facebook for blocking too many page members. Facebook, please fix this!
  • In a personal and moving speech, Cheryl Contee of Fission Strategy talked about the new digital divide of class, race, and gender. In the US the divide is not internet access or social media use anymore. It’s inequality of employment and investment. (News flash: not only young, white, male, Harvard drop-outs make good tech.
  • David Karpf of GW explained why the internet has not enabled a third party – as the vaunted America Elects effort attempted to do – because there is no radical center.
  • Mayor Alex Torpey of South Orange argued that American could still be filled with independent elected officials because the internet allows powerful tools for broadcast and fundraising outside of party structure.

And finally, a few critiques. There were a lot of main stage keynotes – I counted 40 in two days. This means at times we were in our seats as the non-interactive audience for two and a half hours at a stretch. While some keynotes were excellent, others were only okay, and a couple were not. An attempt to introduce interactivity into the keynotes, by using the Berkman Questions tool, did not work out, probably because the event was often running over time.

Also, the afternoon panel discussions, while they do allow PdF to comp tickets for interesting people, are never the highlight of the event. Too often it is yet another audience experience, with more (short) presentations andpreciouslittle Q&A. Making an non-interactive event for the interactive set is strange strategy. Even bringing back the stage-projected tweet stream would have helped. Others likely felt the same way as the audience dropped significantly from Day 1 to Day 2 (they roped off a number of back sessions of the auditorium to cluster the remaining audience at the front.)

Finally, there were a lot of men in dark suits and precious few tee-shirted geeks and jeans-wearing activists. To me this indicates more vendors and nonprofit types whose organizations can afford to send them and less of the young and Ramen-eating people who are doing some of the best and more innovative work online. (When you can offer a $100 early-bird discount, that’s the sign of a damned expensive conference ticket.) They’ve priced-out an important demographic.

PdF is a can’t-miss annual event for me because of the wonderful ideas they present, but they need to cut back on keynotes and create more truly interactive and inclusive intellectual space – and not only during the coffee breaks!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Proudly powered by WordPress
Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.