Meeting of internet minds at forum on democracy


WIRED:IF, AFTER the 1960s, it grew a little funny to talk about peace, love and understanding, it certainly seems declasse these days to talk about the internet being a tool for revolutionising democracy. Yet somehow, the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF), an annual event that has taken place in New York on that topic since 2004, abides. More than abides actually – the event has doubled-down every year, and doesn’t seem to have turned quaintly old-hippy in the least.

The talks are packed, the speakers high-placed and powerful, and the branding rich and generous. The event can boast Jane Holl Lute, chief operating officer of the Department of Homeland Security, Todd Park, chief technology officer of the US government, and the Recording Industry Association of America’s chairman Cary Sherman, with ATT, Microsoft, Google and Facebook paying the bills.

Which, again, is jarring, given the other perhaps more expected attendees. Following each of those characters on the roster are their mirror-universe equivalents. John Perry Barlow, the notoriously copyright-sceptical Grateful Dead lyricist and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, followed Sherman on the stage. Carne Ross, the diplomat who blew the whistle on the British government’s scant evidence regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and now confesses to be more of an anarchist, turns up the day after Lute, who is ex-military. I saw people there who’d identify with the Anonymous collective, notorious for expropriating private information, and they were chatting with folks whose job it is to (legally) open government data.

What is going on here? Watching all of these interactions, I felt myself swing in mood cycles that were mini versions of the internet’s own reputational stock index. It’s pretty inspiring to realise that the powers at the heart of America want to acknowledge the political power of the net, and are no longer alien to it. Park is the embodiment of an empowered nerd, talking about how to make things awesome, wandering around the Federal infrastructure and apparently liberating data and loosening red tape. Barlow and Sherman shared potshots, but also shared a stage, and Sherman’s speech at least made sense in its descriptions of the power of the net for musicians, as well as the threats his organisation sees.

But at the same time, it’s a little chilling to see the net being pulled into the orbit of such powerbrokers. Is it really a revolution when everyone gets along – and the new guard are on suspiciously genial terms with the old?

David Weinberger, one of the grand old men of internet exceptionalism, gave his talk on perhaps the most hopeful explanation for friendliness. As part of the internet backlash, one of the givens is the enormous damage of the “echo chamber”. Instead of being an incredible force for bringing people together, goes the theory, the net has actually just coagulated us into more and more homogenous and radicalised blobs. We only read information from those who are like us. We only talk, online, with those like us. And we can filter and delete any opinions we don’t like from our informational diet. As echo chambers divide, they also reinforce. After a while spending all your time on the net world equivalent of Fox News, you and your colleagues start chasing your own ideological tails, becoming more and more extreme as you become unmoored from reality.

After two or so decades of the internet, it’s hard not to concede some truth to this description. We don’t connect with the world online, we connect with our friends. The algorithms of Facebook and others do seem to optimise to introduce us to what we already know, because that’s what they know we like.

Weinberger, like many of us, has gone from being contrarian about the future promise of the net, to an accepted prophet, back to contrarian again, simply by seeing the positive side. Echo chambers aren’t all bad. We can only communicate, he says, with people who are like us in at least some capacity. We cannot connect with those who are completely alien. In our echo chambers, we can develop a kind of communal curiosity about the rest of the world. The net lets us at least voyage out safely to satisfy our curiosity.

The example of the echo chamber Weinberger gives is Reddit, a site whose users – generally atheistic, sceptical, and I’d add, are largely white and male – do sometimes seem to work to reinforce each others’ opinions. But Reddit also has an “I am a . . . , ask me anything” feature, where various individuals from the outside world come into the community and agree to a selection of whatever Reddit’s millions offer up as queries. From Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman to an air crash survivor, from a Rick Santorum supporter to an ex-con from a maximum security jail, Reddit has connected its users to people very unlike them.

PDF isn’t an echo chamber, if you have Republican party operatives sitting next to Pirate Party coders.

But it makes me wonder, if all of the people the world sees as radical opposites are sitting talking here, what’s going on out there in the world, outside this chamber of political power.

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