James Borda Writer, Game and Interaction Designer

PDF11 – The Elephants in the Room

How I love PDF. After their insightful flash conference in December, in which the events of the Wikileaks cable release were illuminated by a panel of brilliant minds almost as soon as it happened, I signed on for their annual conference. Let me tell you how good it was: after the first morning’s plenary session, I texted the obligatory survey to their 877 number (for a chance to win tickets to next year’s event). There were only two questions – what was my rating on a 1-5 scale, and who was my favorite speaker. (I gave speaker’s preference to Zeynep Tufekci, because she has a great mind for putting ideas into a broader context, seemingly on the fly.) I was well satisfied with the morning, and gave it a 5. But that evening, the final session soared to such extraordinary heights that when I took the survey again, the new five felt painfully inadequate.

And yet, throughout the conference I had the odd sense that I kept bumping into this great, galumphing creature, a huge heavy white beast that no one quite wanted to look at. It snorted in the elevators and shuffled its feet near the coffee urns. I wondered if I was hallucinating it. So in the interests of my own sanity, I will describe it here and see if someone can tell me whether they saw it too, and politeness kept its name from crossing anyone’s lips, or if it is only the product of my own fevered imagination.

I’ll frame it as a question: What makes you think that in fifty years, the dominant form of political organization on the planet will still be the nation?

All day, both days, we heard stories of how distributed processes and distributed software tools could do things better, faster, cheaper, more efficiently, could unlock more human potential, serve more human needs, and save more human lives than the lumbering government agencies they are trying to assist. We heard about how citizens making calls to open311 solved the mystery of the Maple Syrup Events that were rolling across Manhattan’s west side last summer. We heard how new software from companies owned by 20-somethings was able to distill the deluge of communications to Congressional offices into clear cross-sections of public opinion. We heard about a new plug-in from the Sunlight Foundation that will instantly highlight the monetary influence affecting any political figure or organization mentioned in your emails. We heard of projects for crowdsourcing air quality readings from smart phones and taking fine-scale aerial photography with a $200 kit dangling from a kite. And we heard, in the stunning words of some of its prime movers, how network tools helped fire a revolution which overthrew a brutal and entrenched thirty-year military dictatorship.

And yet. Here was Anne Marie Slaughter, a State Department veteran, concluding that America needs to be the ‘most connected nation in the world.’ How does that work, exactly? If a hundred million of us ‘connect’ to someone outside the U.S., doesn’t that also mean that there are 100 million people ‘out there’ who are connected to us? Will they only be connected to us? What policies are we going to enact to maintain our edge in ‘connectedness’?

The very idea is absurd. But it highlights an idea which I suspect was taken 4 granted (thanks, Larry Lessig) by most of the conference attendees: all of these tools are designed to improve the exercise of power as it inevitably flows through national governments.

But let me ask the same question in another way: What exactly will these governments do for us?

I am a member of an organization called Avaaz. It’s an international advocacy group. This year I signed my name (in proud slacktivist fashion) to a statement encouraging the Brazilian government to pass a sweeping anti-corruption bill, and another demanding that the Ugandan government reject a bill which would stipulate the death penalty for gay men. I was joined in this by millions of people from all across the globe. I have never been to Brazil or Uganda, and I may never go. But I was moved enough by my conviction of the primacy of human rights that I did my (tiny) part, along with this cohort of people who share that conviction and possibly nothing else – not my language, nationality, profession, class, or religion. Both campaigns were successful.

And while it is inevitably true that it was governments we were pressuring to do our bidding, there can be no doubt that our action embodied a genuine exercise of power. Power is the ability to actualize a change in the conditions of the material world. There may well be men alive today who without us would be dead; there are certainly Brazilian politicians who found their graft exposed and are consequently out of office. But is it just me, or does this look like the birth of a process in which directed campaigns first influence, and then direct, and then replace the representatives?

He’s crazy, you may be thinking. He wants to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Well, there is another elephant that was most definitely in the room in that first morning’s session, which the Egyptian presenters (out of politeness, I assume) did not mention. And that is, that this monstrous man Mubarak, this nasty little thug that they fought so hard and so valiantly against, was supported for thirty years by the United States, to the tune of $2 billion per year. Up there in the grinding wheels of the State Department, by whatever means these decisions are processed, year after year the decision was taken (and not through ignorance or oversight, it was a deliberate decision), that state-sponsored rape, state-sponsored torture, state-sponsored murder, state-sponsored disappearances, state-sponsored repression, state-sponsored corruption, and state-sponsored economic chaos were more aligned with American interests than whatever might emerge from a popular uprising.

The world does not need that bullshit.

There is an old adage, which should be the hallmark of our age but seems instead to have fallen completely out of use: talk is cheap. The only thing cheaper than a word is a fart. If you want to know where a man’s heart is, or a nation’s, don’t listen to a word he says. Just watch what he does.

The United States loves to proclaim itself the champion of freedom throughout the world. Meanwhile, the Chileans, Peruvians, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Fillipinos, Iraqis, Iranians, Yemeni, Bahraini, Egyptians, Tunisians, and Saudis have all had to learn what life is like under the yoke of American-backed autocrats. Many others have found themselves on the wrong side of lopsided resource deals or the delicate ministrations of the IMF. And America (that is, the American government) knows what is at stake if this state of affairs begins to crumble. Just ask Bradley Manning.

And yet, the irony is, Americans aren’t bad people. We’re honest and generous and resourceful and determined. I have no doubt that, if you’d taken 100 Americans at random in December 2010 and said, “here are the conditions in Egypt, here are the crimes committed by the government there, do you believe we should continue to support that government?” 95 of them would say “hell, no.” Our appalling overseas record says more about the dysfunction of our governing institutions than our national character. It says more about the mechanisms of power than the will of the people.

But the Internet is marching on, and the will of the people is getting louder. The will of all people is getting louder. If we Americans embrace this, we will find two things happening: our ‘government services’ will be delivered more efficiently, more effectively, and more justly by networked citizens working around our crumbling and increasingly corrupt government agencies; and America will no longer be the preeminent power on earth. If we don’t embrace it, we will get the latter without the former. That’s the real elephant in the room. The tools we saw demonstrated at PDF will flatten the world’s power differential. They will tip the balance from nations (and their governing elite) to ad hoc networks of like-minded people. And because the U.S. has a smaller percentage of the world’s people than the world’s power, they will erode the mountain we stand atop.

But so what? That, I would like to think, is a teeny-tiny little elephant, skittering around in every breakout session and trumpeting its little trunk, begging to be noticed. What do we get out of being so powerful? Does the domination of great swaths of the globe truly deliver value to the ordinary citizens of the U.S.?

At the end of the Second World War, an exhausted and defeated Japan lay at the mercy of the United States. We could have chosen, at our sole discretion, to install a Mubarak-style strongman whom we could easily control. Instead (and it is not well known in the United States that this is the finest legacy of Douglas MacArthur) we assisted the Japanese in building all the institutions of a liberal democracy. And look what happened. Instead of an unstable, repressive, regional flashpoint that occasionally raises the specter of a trillion-dollar ‘intervention,’ we got one of our most lasting and trusted allies, a major trade partner, and a global economic innovator. All we had to give up was control.

My wife is British, and she was born 20 years after the Suez affair proved that the sun had set on the British Empire. Her life has been just fine. She has traveled through a united Europe that is more peaceful now than at any time in its recorded history. She has visited India and loved every minute of it. The fact that her nation no longer controlled the destiny of the people she met there did not in any way diminish her experience. It enhanced it, because free peoples can be friends in a way that masters and servants cannot. Her travels there happened before anyone knew what the Internet was, but years later, after long silence, she reconnected with some of her friends from that journey. On Facebook, of course.


  • David Joerg says:

    Posted: June 10, 2011

    Very interesting. I was especially interested by the point about America's loss of pre-eminence. I think that has bigger causes, and effects, than the Internet or even the will of the people. Many Americans take America's pre-eminence for granted, which causes them to miss some important things: * What America ought to do to stay successful (eg immigration reform, get our financial house in order, fix healthcare) -- generally be nationally competitive and be serious about adopting best practices among nations. * The past 50 years of economic growth, housing price increase, share price increase etc are unlikely to continue. When someone forecasts the next 30 years of asset price growth based only on America's 50 or 80 years of recent history, you should smack them with a History Stick. And then a Sample Size Stick for good measure. Reply


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    Posted: June 9, 2011


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