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<nettime> Steven Clift's WSIS speech: Democratic Evolution or Virtual Ci
geert lovink on Wed, 7 Jan 2004 06:41:52 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Steven Clift's WSIS speech: Democratic Evolution or Virtual Civil War?

From: clift {AT} publicus.net (Steven Clift)

Happy New Year.

Below is my speech from Geneva where I shared a panel at the WSIS
with the Foreign Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, Nicholas
Negroponte, and Stephen Coleman from Oxford among others.

As the media hype wagon continues to roar on the use of the Internet
in the U.S. presidential primary, I can't help but reflect on the
collapse of media interest in e-politics after the 2000 presidential
party conventions.

The reality is that many of the emerging "politics as usual" trends
in e-politics may be actually be detrimental to democracy.  I expect
the media to savage the Internet's democratic potential once the two
main candidates are known and their partisans come into conflict

The problem is much worse than Cass Sunstein's "echo chambers" -
instead we will see the echo chambers of the right and left come into
conflict and "leak" into the online lives of normal people.
With very very little invested in positive forms of online civic
engagement by most governments (with only a few exceptions) and
foundations, the demonstrated democratic benefits of the effective
use of information and communication technologies will lose what ever
public appeal existed before those who brought us negative attack
television ads figured out the Internet.

The negative uses of technology in politics will tarnish all attempts
to use the Internet to do good in politics and community.  Everyday
citizen feelings about negative politics will become cemented in the
new medium because the positive experiences so many of you have
worked hard to create haven't been supported at a level required to
go mainstream.

We can't let this get us down. We must act now to save democracy
_from_ the natural course of the information age by making what is
democratically _possible_ with information and communication
technologies _probable_.

Feel free to pass the speech below on to others. I normally take a
very positive approach.  However, as I enter my second decade with "e-
democracy," it is time to make things happen with confidence and a
sense of determination. The stakes couldn't be any bigger - democracy
as we know it is in the balance.

Steven Clift
Democracies Online Newswire
http://www.e-democracy.org/do <- Join 2500+ members from 75+


Links to event video from UNITAR available here as well.

Democratic Evolution or Virtual Civil War?

Remarks as prepared by Steven Clift for the Promise of
E-Democracy WSIS Event, Geneva, Switzerland, December 2003 (Released
online, January 2004)

Join the revolution?

I don't believe the Internet is inherently democratic. To me, most
people and organizations are fundamentally anti-democratic by nature.
Many of those in power and those clamoring for power are self-
centered actors. They operate within the miracle we call
representative democracy. Most accept the idea that democracy is
good, but these actors do little to ensure its strength.

After a decade working directly with e-democracy issues, I've
concluded that "politics as usual" online may be the tipping point
that finishes off what television started - the extinction of
democracy and democratic spirit.

Those hoping for an almost accidental democratic transformation
fostered by the information technology will watch in shock from the
sidelines as their favorite new medium becomes the arsenal of virtual
civil war - virtual civil wars among partisans at all levels.

When I open e-mail from all sorts of American political parties and
activist groups, I see conflict. I see unwillingness to compromise.

Let's be optimists and suggest that the Net is doubling the activist
population from five percent to ten percent. The harsh reality is
that we are doubling the virtual soldiers, an expendable slash and
burn online force, available to established political interests.

As the excessive and bitter partisanship of the increased activist
population leaks into the e-mail boxes of everyday people, I predict
abhorrence of Net-era politics among the general citizenry. I fear
the extreme erosion of public trust not just in government, but also
in most things public and political.

Instead of encouraging networked citizen participation that improves
the public results delivered in our democracies, left to its natural
path, the Internet will be used to eliminate forms of constructive
civic engagement by the other 90 percent of citizens. A 10 percent
democracy of warring partisan is no democracy at all.

Compounding the problem, the billions of Euros in e-government focus
almost exclusively on one-way services and efficiency. Government
makes it easy to pay your taxes online - while doing little to give
you a virtual - anytime, anywhere - say in how those taxes are spent.
Many elected officials are turning off their e-mail for citizens,
leaving it on for lobbyists to reach their staff directly, and
building what I call "Digital Berlin Walls" of complicated web forms.
One-way "e-governments" based on efficiency to the exclusion of "two-
way" democracy are the norm. Unfortunately, most governments are
saying e-services first, democracy later.

In summary, online political strife combined with governments that
are incapable of accommodating our public will present a dark future
for democracy in the information age.

Join the democratic evolution!

Everything I've just said contrasts dramatically from the exceptional
experiences of citizen groups and governments leading the way with
the best e-democracy practices.

Everyday in Minnesota, I experience the power of online discourse
among citizens. I am impressed by online innovations in many
parliaments and government agencies. And I've been inspired by the
online activism of many groups.

However, we have an enemy. It is not "politics as usual." They must
compete to survive. Our enemy is our indifference to our generational
democratic obligations. We have a duty to make the most honorable use
of the unique information age opportunities before us.

We have a choice, we can strategically use ICTs to improve our
communities, strengthen society, and address global challenges or we
can ride the ICT-accelerated race to the post-democratic bottom.

It is time to give more than lip service to e-democracy experiments,
research, and best practices.

It is time to bring the democratic intent and values required to make
the demonstrated possibility of the new online medium a universal

Build the democratic evolution!

To make what is possible probable, the time for action has arrived.

The new media, led by the Internet, must be used to help us meet
public challenges. It must be used to transform anti-democratic
states and break apart hyper-partisan and unresponsive politics at
all levels. We must be smarter, faster, and more committed than
"politics as usual."

How" In the next decade, I ask you to join me in three specific

1. The Rule of Law - Mandate the democratic evolution!

By making exceptional and essential e-democracy best practices
universal through the rule of law.

We know most of what works, the technology exists, and great examples
abound. Nothing optional in government will become universal or wide
spread if it remains unfunded or a choice.

Laws must be passed to require that:

A. By 2005 all public meeting notices with agendas and legally public
meeting documents must be posted online not just on a cork board in
some government office.  No electronic notice, no meeting.

B. By 2006 all representative and regulatory bodies must make all
proposed legislation and amendments available online the second it is
distributed as a public document to anyone. Once passed, no law,
rule, regulation, and budget details not freely available online
should be considered enforceable. No transparency ... then no
authority and no money.

C. Next, citizens have a right to be notified via e-mail about new
government information based on their interests and where they live.
Timely notification allows people to act politically when it still
matters. Governments must fund and implement such systems.
Maintaining garbage dumps of government data is choice against
openness and accountability. Any government in a OECD country without
an online personalization and notification system by mid-2006 will be
added to my list of anti-e-democratic governments.

D. By 2007 citizens need access to complete, always up-to-date, local
"MyDemocracy" directories of all their elected officials and
government organizations. No contact data, no power. A global network
of these standardized and networked databases will be a tool from
which we can build 21st century democracy.

Remember, we must develop and pass laws that require these things to
happen.  I see no short cut without resources and legal mandates from
our elected officials.

2. Public Net-Work - Leverage the evolution!

By building the online infrastructure to help citizens and their
governments meet public challenges through a new concept I call
"public net-work."

If e-democracy is primarily about input into government decision-
making, "Public Net-Work" is about stakeholder and citizen
involvement in the implementation of established government
priorities. Leading governments are moving from sole providers to
facilitators of those who want to roll up their "virtual" sleeves and
solve similar problems. Think e-volunteerism instead of e-

The few Public Net-Work projects, like Community Builders New South
Wales and the downtown community policing efforts in Minneapolis, use
many of the same online tools we need for e-democracy. E-democracy
technology investments are really a two for one opportunity - better
input and effective output in the public interest.

3. Online Public Issue Forums - Localize the democratic evolution!

We must establish two-way citizen-based e-democracy forums in every
locality and connect them with one another on a national and global

When I travel through a town, I always envision the community bonds
among people and think about how the online world might help
reconnect neighbors and communities.

In 1994, E-Democracy.Org built the world's first election-oriented
web site. More importantly we built an online forum where Minnesotans
-from across the political spectrum- could discuss real public
issues. We turned the once a year in-person town hall meeting into a
24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year online civic

In 1998 we took our model local. In Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Winona
we use e-mail, the tool of choice among most people online, to
facilitate many-to-many discussions. We build public space online
that has agenda-setting power in real community. These forums work.
They work well. I cannot imagine my local democracy without one. What
about your local democracy?

Citizens cannot wait for governments to build or fund these forums.
By volunteering and working to pragmatically recruit the
participation of elected officials, community leaders, and
journalists they will attract diverse citizens and new voices rarely
heard in traditional time and place discriminatory forms of

On the other hand, governments, media organizations, and civil
society groups cannot wait for spontaneous citizen-led e-democracy
activity. They need to join together and foster new local democratic
institutions "of" the Internet and not just "on" the Internet. Like
the creation of public broadcasting by past generations, something
new must be created for the public benefit based on the democratic
opportunity presented by new technologies.

Whether started by unaffiliated citizens or fostered by those on the
inside who see the big e-democracy picture, an option you can take
home is the opportunity to establish a local E-Democracy.Org chapter
with an effective online forum "of, for and by" your community.

Long Live The Evolution!

What is possible with e-democracy is not probable unless we make it
happen. Our opportunity to use these tools to raise the voice of
citizens, improve representative democracy, and solve public problems
is tremendous. And, what currently appears likely is not
democratically desirable, unless we, unless we build online public
spaces and democratic opportunities online from the center that bring
people together and build the democratic evolution.

(Due to time constraints, I saved some of my prepared text above for
the lively discussion.)

Copyright 2004 -  Feel free to distribute widely. Notification
appreciated, please cc: clift {AT} publicus.net

^               ^               ^                ^
Steven L. Clift    -    W: http://www.publicus.net
Minneapolis    -   -   -     E: clift {AT} publicus.net
Minnesota  -   -   -   -   -    T: +1.612.822.8667
USA    -   -   -   -   -   -    M: +1.612.203.5181

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