Open Source Democracy

I'll be making two kinds of posts over the next two weeks. The first are meant to explain the little introduction I wrote earlier today, and expand on the many worlds ready for advanced Boingage. The second will be examples of "wonderful things" I'm looking at that convey the spirit of the cyberpunk ethos or, to me, open source reality. This post is of the first kind.

Okay, so one area I've been looking at for a while as ripe for open-source intervention is Democracy.

Back when everyone was thinking about digital democracy as some sort of voting scheme or mass feedback polling operation, I wrote a short book called Open Source Democracy in an effort to extend people's thinking beyond elections to include participation in civics. Yes, we have representatives, but they're only good as their ability to respond to the needs that come from the bottom up.

Then, just this summer, I was invited to deliver an "opening invocation" at the Personal Democracy Forum in NYC. And I took it as something of a challenge: how do we get people past the notion that blogging about a problem is the same as actually doing something about it?

Here's an excerpt from my notes:

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….

You can find the rest here. Or now in German, here.

(Douglas Rushkoff is a guestblogger)