Douglas Rushkoff on the promise of a digital renaissance, and what may derail it

A great speech for the Personal Democracy Forum, which you should read in full.

Key message: the digital rennaissance is not about blogging and expressing yourself, but about reprogramming social and political processes.

Via Edge.

It starts with a critique of the first Renaissance (and subsequent Enlightenment) and their myth of the individual, a cultural critique worth pondering.

Then Douglas introduces the logic of the new Digital Renaissance, which is emphatically not about the individual and its attendant mythology:

The next renaissance (if there is one)—the phenomenon we’re talking about or at least around here is not about the individual at all, but about the networked group. The possibility for collective action. The technologies we’re using—the biases of these media—cede central authority to decentralized groups. Instead of moving power to the center, they tend to move power to the edges. Instead of creating value from the center—like a centrally issued currency—the network creates value from the periphery.

This means the way to participate is not simply to subscribe to an abstract, already-written myth, but to do real things. To take small actions in real ways. The glory is not in the belief system or the movement, but in the doing. It’s not about getting someone elected, it’s about removing the obstacles to real people doing what they need to to get the job done. That’s the opportunity of the networked, open source era: to drop out of the myths and actually do.

Sadly, we tend to miss the great opportunities offered us by major shifts in media.”

However, we must take note, he insists, reviewing the historical evidence, that earlier media promises were not fulfilled!

Example: “But this isn’t what happened. People didn’t read Torah—they listened as their leaders read it to them. Hearing was a step up from simply following, but the promise of the new medium had not been seized.”

Computers and networks finally offer us the ability to write. And we do write with them. Everyone is a blogger, now. Citizen bloggers and YouTubers who believe we have now embraced a new “personal” democracy. Personal, because we can sit safely at home with our laptops and type our way to freedom.

But writing is not the capability being offered us by these tools at all. The capability is programming—which almost none of us really know how to do. We simply use the programs that have been made for us, and enter our blog text in the appropriate box on the screen. Nothing against the strides made by citizen bloggers and journalists, but big deal. Let them eat blog.

At the very least on a metaphorical level, the opportunity here is not to write about politics or—more likely—comment on what someone else has said about politics. The opportunity, however, is to rewrite the very rules by which democracy is implemented. The opportunity of a renaissance in programming is to reconfigure the process through which democracy occurs.

He then concludes:

It is not for government to create solar power, for example, but to get out of the way of all those people who are ready to implement solar power, themselves. Responding to the willingness of people to act, he can remove regulations developed on behalf of the oil industry to restrict its proliferation.

In an era when people have the ability to reprogram their reality, the job of leaders is to help facilitate this activity by tweaking legislation, or by supporting their efforts through better incentives or access to the necessary tools and capital. Change does not come from the top—but from the periphery. Not from a leader or a myth inspiring individuals to consent to it, but from people working to manifest it together.

Open Source Democracy — which I wrote about a decade ago—is not simply a way to get candidates elected to office. It is a collective reprogramming of the social software, a disengagement from the myths through which we abdicate responsibility, and a reclamation of our role as citizens who participate in the creation of the society in which we want to live.

This is not personal democracy at all, but a collective and participatory democracy where we finally accept our roles as the fully literate and engaged adults who can make this happen.

Here is what some others are saying about such coming open politics: (all the sources are here)

– McKenzie Wark on expressive politics:

There can be no one book, no master thinker for these times. What is called for is a practice of combining heterogeneous modes of perception, thought and feeling, different styles of researching and writing, different kinds of connection to different readers, proliferation of information across different media, all practiced within a gift economy, expressing and elaborating differences, rather than broad-casting a dogma, a slogan, a critique or line. ? ? ? This expressive politics does not seek to overthrow the state, or to reform its larger structures, or to preserve its structure so as to maintain an existing coalition of interests. It seeks to permeate existing states with a new state of existence. It spreads the seeds of an alternate practice of everyday life.

– David Snowden on idealistic vs. naturalistic sense-making

“In the idealistic approach, the leaders of an organization set out an ideal future state that they wish to achieve, identify the gap between the ideal and their perception of the present, and seek to close it. … Naturalistic approaches by contrast, seek to understand a sufficiency of the present in order to act to stimulate evolution of the system. Once such stimulation is made, monitoring of emergent patterns becomes a critical activity so that desired patterns can be supported and undesired patterns disrupted. The organization thus evolves to a future that was unknowable in advance, but is more contextually appropriate when discovered.” (Kurtz and David Snowden, Bramble Bushes in the Thicket)

William James on Meliorism

“meliorism treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become” (William James. Pragmatism. Harvard UP, 1975, p. 137)

“As meliorism takes as its goal to make things better through concerted effort, meliorism is a habit of mind and a mode of practice that aims for realistic optimism rather than passivity, pessimism, or nihilism”

Pessimism is a luxury we can only afford in good times

“Pessimism is a luxury we can only afford in good times, in difficult times it easily represents a self-inflicted, self-fulfilling death sentence. This insight, to me, is real Realism or real Realpolitik, far from blue-eyed Idealism. We have to courageously resist the current tendency to suspect those who work for a better world to be hopeless idealists. This would mean Realpolitik letting disaster happen (by deepening fault lines instead of transcending them), and us not at least attempting to prevent this. Strange real Realpolitik!” (Evelin Lindner, 2004.)

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” (Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A personal history of our times, 2004, p. 208)

Mitch Kapor on Open Politics

“the whole concept of open and equal access to information could do wonders for our politics. Placing information in the open, allowing people to debate both general and very specific aspects of software, and then creating a process for decision-making about implementation could be very important lessons…. There are many other interesting aspects to the open source community that may very well help define new participatory processes that can help us revitalize our democracy.”

Dale Carrico on an emergent technoprogressive politics

“The fact remains that there seems to me to be an exciting, vitally important emerging technoprogressive mainstream in the United States of America and across the planet knitting together what might initially have seemed to be disparate concerns into an ever more unified, ever more popular, ever more emancipatory movement, conjoining

(a) democratic and anti-authoritarian education, agitation, and organizing via peer-to-peer networked formations,

(b) research, funding, and institutionalization of decentralized and renewable energy provision,

(c) advocacy of universal informed nonduressed consensual recourse to emerging genetic and prosthetic medicines,

(d) championing universal education to promote critical, literary, scientific, and civic literacy,

(e) defending the right of women to avoid or end unwanted pregnancies as well as to make recourse to ARTs to facilitate wanted ones,

(f) circumventing technodevelopmental wealth concentration via automation, outsourcing, and crowdsourcing through the advocacy of a non-means-tested universal basic income guarantee,

(g) overturning militarist budgetary priorities, regulating the trade in and use of arms of all kinds, dismantling private armies and policing forces, repudiating the ongoing automation and abstraction of death-dealing, and

(h) turning the tide of confiscatory intellectual enclosure by encouraging access to free creative content through public subsidy of citizen participation in networks, universal public access requirements for research funded by the public, limiting current legal copyright terms, widening fair use provisions, radically circumscribing state, corporate, and academic practices of secrecy, and repudiating the legal fiction of corporate personhood.”

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