Give the people what they want!

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Steven Johnson is the author of six books, most recently The Invention Of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth Of America, for which he is currently on book tour. He's also the co-founder of the hyperlocal community site

Ever since the heady days of the pre-scream Howard Dean campaign, a lot of us who are interested in decentralized systems and emergent behavior have wondered when politicians would start to use new collaborative technology to do something other than organize rallies and raise money. Sure, it was exciting to see Web 2.0 concepts transform political campaigns, but wouldn't it be even more exciting to see them transform the way we govern?

So it's cool to see on the always-interesting site the newly released Citizen's Briefing Book, which is effectively a Slashdot/Plastic/Digg take on public policy. (The underlying technology is's Ideas product.) Here's the description on the site:

Share your ideas on any issue facing the new administration, then rate or comment on other ideas. The best rated ideas will rise to the top -- and be gathered into a Citizen's Briefing Book to be delivered to President Obama after he is sworn in.
Right now, the top three most popular proposals are: 1) Ending Marijuana Prohibition, 2) Bullet Trains and Light Rail, and 3) An End To Government Sponsored School Abstinence Programs. In other words, what the people want are stoned kids having sex on bullet trains. Sounds about right to me!


  1. I wish they’d revise #3. It’s abstinence only education that’s problematic. The author of #3 probably meant that, but it’s ambiguous the way it’s worded.

    There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids about abstinence. Abstinence really is the most effective way to avoid pregnancy or STDs and there are plenty of other (non-religious) reasons kids might want to choose abstinence. It’s just wrong to make funding contingent on eliminating other methods of birth and disease control from sex ed.

  2. I think getting kids engaged in ideas is important. Strong interests occupy all time.
    When Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot” the word slacker hadn’t been coined. But just hanging out waiting for the world to happen is a real downer.

  3. @Micah:

    You’re completely right. I don’t think many people would disagree that most parents don’t want their teenagers/pre-teenagers having sex. The dad with the shotgun intimidating his daughter’s date is a stereotype for a reason. Abstinence education isn’t a problem, much less the problem.

    The problem is programs that teach just the abstinence, while remaining in denial that almost every single person in the program is going to have sex some day (most of them sooner than later no matter how well you teach abstinence), and they’re going to have to know how to do it safely when the time comes.

    I’d also say that any data from is going to have some fairly significant sampling bias. And that’s even before you get to technically proficient activist groups “ballot stuffing” to get their pet issues to the top of the list. It’s hard to say that these things are “what people want” in a generalized sense.

  4. The rail idea is a great one but you need to make sure you get decent pricing structures in place to make it worthwhile for passengers. The government in the UK is supposed to be encouraging people to use public transport and leave cars at home but ever since they stupidly privatised the rail system we’ve been getting fleeced for fares with costs rising every few months. I love rail travel but it’s getting unaffordable.

  5. I’d say, decriminalize everything that can possibly be decriminalized without causing harm. In fact, it is the criminalization of essentially private acts that cause the most harm. I’m not encouraging folks to go out and become heroin users, for example, but the lifestyle of heroin users is made more dangerous by the laws against heroin than by the heroin itself.

    In my community, the criminalization of for-profit sex has put women and men in considerable danger, as those engaged in sex for profit cannot appeal to the criminal justice system for redress. I wrote about the third brutal rape and near-murder of a sex worker at

  6. Micah:

    There’s nothing wrong with teaching kids about abstinence.

    I think telling kids they shouldn’t have sex until they’re married or adults or at all is very wrong.

    Condoms is the only safe way to protect yourself. That’s what kids should be taught. Abstinence is just wrong. I don’t even understand abstinence! It doesn’t work, kids have sex with 16 or even 15 anyway. You know why? Because they want it, and it’s normal.
    Teaching kids about sexual abstinence would be like teaching them about being anorexic so they don’t poison themselves with food.

    Oh and legalize weed… please? If the USA do it, maybe Germany will have one good example to follow, unlike with the war on terror, the war on drugs and so on…

  7. Those are actually three good suggestions that would improve this country a lot. I see no reason to make a joke out of them.

  8. Abstinence works if there’s enough inner and outer discipline. Take the Roman Catholic church for example. During the last hundred years alone it’s worked for countless thousands of nuns and dozens of priests.

  9. Went over to vote, had to sign up for an account. To verify I had to type in two words: “Bouncing Distaster”. Boing Boing, I think they were insulting you!

  10. The suggestion I posted:

    Under the previous administration, warrant-less wiretaps, Unlawful searches, police harassment and detention without trial have become regular. By exploiting a environment of fear that they have created, the administration accumulated powers by no more than Presidential fiat. This created a system ripe for abuse, and abused it has been, to the detriment of our citizens and our world standing.

    I would like to see President Obama, immediately upon taking office, rescind these powers and return the rights of the American people and restore the bill of rights.

  11. Government by web 2.0 sounds really keen until you remember all the polls Ron Paul “won” prior to the election.

  12. @15 Really? I got to type in “growth discussion” and assumed they were talking about boingboing, too.

    I felt pretty giddy voting up and down the issues. It’s exciting. But I was a little alarmed by the large number of “Tell the truth about UFO’s” topics. I had no idea this was such a burning issue for so many. It made me question the sampling bias Ivan mentioned. Or maybe I’m just out of the loop….

  13. “During the last hundred years alone it’s [abstinence] worked for countless thousands of nuns and dozens of priests.”

    No, it didn’t. Kids who are taught abstinence just switch to anal because it is perceived that it’s not really sex. They are also three times as likely to get pregnant. Denial, it seems, does not work. Who knew?

    What I would like is for us to phase out politicians altogether. There’s no reason most governmental functions couldn’t be done through web 2.0 or 3.0 (or 4.0) tech.

  14. Abstinence works if there’s enough inner and outer discipline. Take the Roman Catholic church for example. During the last hundred years alone it’s worked for countless thousands of nuns and dozens of priests.

    Buddy, it doesn’t work for those priests who fail to keep their vows and either leave or have affairs. My father is a former Roman Catholic priest and a deeply religious man. He left the priesthood 35 years ago, but he still struggles with the choice he had to make. It’s inhuman to require celibacy and singleness from people who have that calling.

    (I’m 28 in case anyone’s wondering.)

    1. Regarding Buddy’s comment:

      it’s worked for countless thousands of nuns and dozens of priests.

      There are thousands of nuns and it’s worked for thousands of nuns.

      There are thousands of priests and it’s worked for dozens of priests.

      Get it?

  15. @#16 Vetnoir:

    I completely agree with you. My suggestion on the website was to rescind the Patriot Act and I expanded on that with similar ideas to what you have proposed.

    I don’t know if this will make it into the “briefing binder”, though, as most Americans seem to be blissfully (for now) unaware that the previous administration has used the Constitution to wipe its collective ass.

  16. I am really, really skeptical that the Obama administration is reading and taking a real cue from this voice of the people. For example, one of the top proposals is about changing the face of agriculture. Yet Obama just nominated Tom Vilsack for Ag secretary. Vilsack has zero interest in organic and local ag, actively promotes GMOs, and is unquestionably in the pocket of big ag. Over 100,000 people wrote letters – not signed a useless email petition, but wrote actual letters – asking for another nominee in favor of sustainable ag. The New York Times published numerous op ed pieces asking for a Ag Secretary who was actually interested in food and nutrition. Thousands of grassroots organizations put forth names, rallied, made cases, stated facts. And got nothing. No response, not even “Yes, we hear you.” Not the change we voted for. I am starting to think is a just a spot for The People to put a lot of thought and energy into venting. I’ll believe it’s a genuine voice to the White House ears when I see an actual nod to responding to those vote tallies.

  17. “No, it didn’t. Kids who are taught abstinence just switch to anal because it is perceived that it’s not really sex. They are also three times as likely to get pregnant.”

    See this is why we need better sex education. Who would have thought that anal sex makes you more three times more likely to get pregnant that plain old vaginal intercourse…

    Of course I understand that this is just a poorly constructed paragraph. But the point is valid, abstinence only education just does not work.

    Not that abstinence is bad, it’s just not the end all be all. It is much better to say, hey ya probably want to wait until you really care for someone before you start boning your brains out. But when ya do it anyway, slide one of these on so ya don’t wind up fucking up your life and someone else’s.

    There is nothing wrong with telling kids not to do it as long as you tell them what to do when they do it anyway.

  18. WolfiesMa, that surprised me as well. I’m hoping a lot of people voted for UFO’s as a joke. Voted yesterday after receiving the e-mail, it was strangely empowering, but I too am waiting for the other shoe to fall.

  19. Sex, drugs, and bullet trains? Wow. This just confirms my suspicions that rock n roll is dead.

  20. “Thousands of grassroots organizations…”

    Now, to mix our metaphors, that’s one helluva groundswell! Why do I think you’re exaggerating?

  21. #32 Four Naught Four

    Sex, drugs, bullet trains, ufos, nuns, dozens of priests and all the permutations education in abstinence can give rise to sounds pretty much rock n roll to me.

  22. @#33

    Yes, it’s a huge groundswell, you can read all about what sustainable food policy folks have tracked on COMFOOD, the Grist, and other food policy blogs. Completely and utterly ignored.

  23. A interesting train wreck of idiots to watch. A lot like digg. Some interesting things, but a bunch of stuff that is redundant and just plain crap.

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