The shape and substance of our networked world is constantly emerging over time, stretching back over decades. Over the past year, the promise of the Internet as a platform for collective action moved from theory to practice, as networked movements of protesters and consumers have used connection technologies around the world in the service of their causes.
This month, more eyes and minds came alive to the potential of this historic moment during the ninth Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) in New York City, where for two intense days the nexus of technology, politics and campaigns came together on stage (and off) in a compelling, provocative mix of TED-style keynotes and lightning talks, longer panels, and the slipstream serendipity of hallway conversations and the backchannel on Twitter.
If you are interested in the intersection of politics, technology, social change and the Internet, PDF has long since become a must-attend event, as many of the most prominent members of the "Internet public" convene to talk about what's changing and why.
The first day began with a huge helping of technology policy, followed with a hint of triumphalism regarding the newfound power of the Internet in politics that was balanced by Jaron Lanier's concern about the impact of the digital economy on the middle class. The conference kicked off with a conversation between two United States Congressmen who were central to the historic online movement that halted the progression of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate: Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR). You can watch a video of their conversation with Personal Democracy Media founder Andrew Rasiej below:
During this conversation, Rep. Issa and Sen. Ron Wyden introduced a proposal for a "Digital Bill of Rights." They published a draft set of principles on MADISON, the online legislation platform built last December during the first Congressional hackathon.
Both Congressmen pointed to different policy choices that stand to affect billions of people, ranging from proposed legislation about intellectual property, to the broader issue of online innovation and Internet freedom, and international agreements like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA or the Trans Pacific Partnership). Such policy choices also include online and network security: Rep. Issa sponsored and voted for CISPA, whereas Sen. Wyden is to opposed to a similar legislative approach in the Senate. SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and TPP have all been posted on MADISON for public comment.
On the second day of PDF, conversations and talks turned toward not only what is happening around the networked world but what could be in store for citizens in failed states in the developing world or those inhabiting huge cities in the West, with implications that can be simultaneously exhilarating and discomfiting. There was a strong current of discussion about the power of "adhocracy" and the force of the networked movements that are now forming, dissolving and reforming in new ways, eddying around the foundations of established societal institutions around the globe. Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, hailed five of these talks as exemplars of the "radical power of the Internet public.
These keynotes, by Chris Soghoian, Dave Parry, Peter Fein, Sascha Meinrath and Deanna Zandt, "could serve as a 50-minute primer on the radical power of the Internet public to change the world, why it's so important to nurture that public, where some of the threats to the Internet are coming from, and how people are routing around them to build a future 'intranet' that might well stand free from governmental and corporate control," wrote Sifry. (Three of them are embedded individually below; the rest you can watch in the complete video catalog at the bottom of this section.)
Given the historic changes in the Middle East and Africa over the past year during the Arab Spring, or the networked protests we've seen during the Occupy movement or over elections in Russia or austerity measures in Greece, it's no surprise that there was great interest in not just talking about what was happening, but why. This year, PDF attendees were also fortunate to hear about the experiences of netizens in China and Russia. The degree of change created by adding wireless Internet connectivity, social networking and online video to increasingly networked societies will vary from country to country. There are clearly powerful lessons that can be gleaned from the experiences of other humans around the globe. Learning where social change is happening (or not) and understanding how our world is changing due to the influence of networks is core to being a digitally literate citizen in the 21st century.
Declaring that we, as a nation or global polity, stand at a historic inflection point for the future of the Open Web or the role of the Internet in presidential politics or the balance of digital security and privacy feels, frankly, like a reiteration of past punditry, going well back to the .com boom in the 1990s.
That said, it doesn't make it less true. We've never been this connected to a network of networks, nor have the public, governments and corporations been so acutely aware of the risks and rewards that those connection technologies pose. It wasn't an accident that Muammar Gaddafi namechecked Facebook before his fall, nor that the current President of the United States (or his opponent in the the upcoming election) are talking directly with the public over the Internet. One area that PDF might have dwelt more upon is the dark side of networks, from organized crime andcrimesourcing to government-sponsored hacking to the consequences of poorly considered online videos or updates.
We live in a moment of breathtaking technological changes that stand to disrupt nearly every sector of society, for good or ill. Many thanks to the curators and conveners of this year's conference for amplifying the voices of those whose work focuses on documenting and understanding how our digital world is changing — and a special thanks to all of the inspiring people who are not only being the change they wish to see in the world but making it.
Below, I've embedded a selection of the PDF 12 talks that resonated with me. These videos should serve a starting point, however, not an ending: every person on the program of this year's conference had something important to share, from Baratunde Thurston to Jan Hemme to Susan Crawford to Leslie Harris to Carne Ross to the RIAA's Cary Sherman — and the list goes on and on. You can watch all 45 talks from PDF 2012 (at least, the ones that have been uploaded to YouTube by the Personal Democracy Media team) in the player below:
In this talk, Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler (@ybenkler) discussed using the Berkman Center's media cloud to trace how the Internet became a networked platform for collective action against SOPA and PIPA. Benkler applies a fascinating term — the "attention backbone" — to describe how influential nodes in a network direct traffic and awareness to research or data. If you're interested in the evolution of the blueprint for democratic participation online, you'll find this talk compelling.
Mesh networks have become an important — and growing — force for carrying connectivity to more citizens around the world. The work of Sasha Meinrath (@SashaMeinrath) at the Open Technology Institute in the New America Foundation is well worth following.
Mark Surman (@msurman), the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, shared a draft of his PDF talk prior to the conference. He offered his thoughts on "movement making," connecting lessons from punk rock, scouting and the Royal Society.
With the onrush of mobile apps and swift ride of Facebook, what we think about as the Internet — the open platform that is the World Wide Web — is changing. Surman contrasted the Internet today, enabled by an end-to-end principle, built upon open-source technologies and on open protocols, with the one of permissions, walled gardens and controlled app stores that we're seeing grow around the world. "Tim Berners-Lee built the idea that the web should be LEGO into its very design," said Surman. We'll see how if all of these pieces (loosely joined?) fit as well together in the future.
There are substantial responsibilities and challenges inherent in moving forward with the historic Open Government Partnership (OGP) that officially launched in New York City last September. Juan Pardinas (@jepardinas) took the position that OGP will have a positive impact on the world and that the seat civil society has at the partnership's table will matter. By the time the next annual OGP conference rolls around in 2013, history may well have rendered its own verdict on whether this effort will endure to lasting effect.
Given diplomatic challenges around South Africa's proposed secrecy law, all of the stakeholders in the Open Government Partnership will need to keep pressure on other stakeholders if significant progress is going to be made. If OGP is to be judged more than a PR opportunity for politicians and diplomats to make bold framing statements, government and civil society leaders will need to do more to hold countries accountable to the commitments required for participation:all participating countries must submit Action Plans after a bonafide public consultation. Moreover, they'll need to define the metrics by which progress should be judged and be clear with citizens about the timelines for change.
Michael Anti (@mranti) is a Chinese journalist and political blogger who has earned global attention for activism in the service of freedom of the press in China. When Anti was exiled from Facebook over its real names policy, his account deletion became an important example for other activists around the world. At PDF, he shared a frank perspective on where free speech stands in China, including how the Chinese government is responding to the challenges of their increasingly networked society. For perspective, there are now more Internet users in China (an estimated 350 million) than the total population of the United States. As you'll hear in Anti's talk, the Chinese government is learning and watching what happens elsewhere.
Masha Gessen (@mashagessen), a Russian and American journalist, threw a bucket of ice water on any hopes that increasing Internet penetration or social media would in of themselves lead to improvements in governance, reduce corruption, or improve the ability of Russia's people to petition their government for grievances.
This beautiful and challenging talk by Mina (@anxiaostudio) offered a fascinating insight: memes are the street art of the censored web. If you want to learn more about how Chinese artists and citizens are communicating online, watch this creative, compelling presentation. (Note: there are naked people in this video, which will make it NSFW is some workplaces.)
Soghoian (@csoghoian), who has a well-earned reputation for finding privacy and security issues in the products and services of the world's biggest tech companies, offered up a talk that made three strong points:
Moffatt (@zacmoffatt> is the digital director for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. In his talk, Moffatt said 2012 will be the first election cycle where persuasion and mobilization will be core elements of the digital experience. Connecting with millions of voters who have moved to the Internet is clearly a strategic priority for his team — and it appears to be paying off. The Guardian reported recently that the Romney campaign is closing the digital data gap with the Obama campaign.
Nick Judd wrote up further analysis of Moffatt's talk on digital strategy over at TechPresident.
Alex Torpey (@AlexTorpey) attracted widespread attention when he was elected mayor of South Orange New Jersey last year at the age of 23. In the months since he was elected, Torpey has been trying to interest his peers in politics. His talk at PDF focused on asking for more participation in local government and to rethink partisanship: Torpey ran as an independent. AsGov 2.0 goes local, Mayor Torpey looks likely to be one of its leaders.
If you're interested in a data-driven analysis of networked political power and media influence, Gilan Lotan's talk is a must-watch. Lotan, who tweets as @gilgul, crunched massive amounts of tweets to help the people formerly known as the audience to better understand networked movements for change.
Jack and Jill Politics co-founder Cheryl Contee (@cheryl) took a profoundly personal approach when she talked about the death and rebirth of the digital divide. She posited that what underserved citizens in the United States now face isn't so much the classic concerns of the 1990s, where citizens weren't connected to the Internet, but rather a skills gap for open jobs and a lack of investment to address those issues in poor and minority communities. She also highlighted how important mentorship can be in bridging that divide. When Contee shared how Yale computer lab director Margaret Krebs helped her, she briefly teared up — and she called on technologists, innovators and leaders to give others a hand up.
I published a storify of Personal Democracy Forum 2012 after the event. Incomplete though it may be, it preserves some thoughtful commentary and context shared in the Twittersphere during the event.