OK, Dave Winer, I had a few thoughts overnight about our conversation at dinner last night at the Faith Cafe: I think your question “what’s the next thing we can do in blogging at Berkman?” is also the right question to ask of the cyber world more broadly. What I like about this question is that it asks us to become conscious of what we are doing together, as a community. And how we are doing it. And what our individual roles are or could be. By asking these questions we are promoting a new level of emergent order, moving from the level of the conscious individual to that of the conscious community. We are, in fact, starting to create alternative institutions in cyberspace. A Second Superpower, a blogger-based collective competitor to the New York Times, and an alternative means of nominating and electing an American president. All these institution-building opportunities and more are in play.
A start certainly is the work you and Chris Lydon are exploring and experimenting with. Chris has an amazing and wondrous way with words—spoken words—and an ability to dialogue in real time, unrehearsed, and compellingly with people. So we intuit that there could be—there almost must be—a special role for Chris in the blogging community at large. And Chris has been evolving toward his own unique role—as do all other bloggers across the community. But the difference here—small but profound—is the other members of the community—led by you—are helping him evolve his role—and are helping him to conceive his role with an awareness of the evolution and implicit purpose of the whole community.
Ok, so there is that word “purpose.” I kind of snuck it in. But this is important. When we become conscious we start playing around with scenarios of what we might grow up to be. For example, I think what made Second Superpower interesting to lots of people was that it explored a vision of what we might grow up to become—not a band of little old men and ladies in tennis shoes—but a true world power. Similarly, consider the ongoing discussion/argument/online battling about whether bloggers are a threat to the New York Times, about whether the New York Times should open its archives, about whether professional journalists are deep or shallow, about whether bloggers are deep or shallow. What animates this discussion is a vision emerging in the blogger community: We are like the New York Times. We can, over time, really become better than the New York Times. We can become the second superpower of news. In fact, we might collectively become the first superpower of news.
Why, I also ask, are people so alarmed and excited about the Moveon.org online primary? Because it has the audacity to consider itself a valid “primary.” And a primary before the “real” primaries. And a primary that may greatly affect the underlying reality of politics in this season, which is money raising. Consider the stakes. If Howard Dean “wins” the primary with enough votes to get the Moveon endorsement—51%–the resulting money flows to his campaign will start to equalize the main advantage John Kerry has—which is money raising. And why is this important? In part because political pros know that the “meat world primaries” – the official primaries – have been organized this year to kill off emergent grass roots candidates. But if a grass roots candidate also had money and a national–if emergent–organization, things might go differently…
Traditionally New Hampshire and Iowa primaries allowed for people’s candidates like Carter, Clinton and McCain to establish themselves. And sometimes these campaigns took off—much to the moneyed political establishment’s disappointment. This year there is a “firewall” system of primaries that follows the first two and is intended to favor a non-grass-roots candidate. The firewall is a multi-state, national-scale primary that is thought to be simply too large to be addressed by a traditional people’s organization—and too geographically dispersed for the candidate to appear in person at enough events to make an impact. Thus the money pros are convinced that this national primary cannot be won in any manner other than with expensive broadcast media. And so having money for media—and for expensive top-down field organizations—is thought to be essential. This, by the way, is how George Bush won the Republican nomination in the 2000 election – by raising $60m or more early, and then focusing on intimidating other candidates (e.g. Elizabeth Dole) and finally stopping McCain at the firewall.
This year cyber citizens are tasting new opportunities—opportunities in influencing international relations, in challenging “all the news that is fit to print,” or in electing an American president. A new level of purpose, of consciousness, of differentiation and integration of roles, is emerging in the web world—in cyberspace. And this new order, while not without its own problems as well as triumphs, is markedlty more open, experimental, creative, transparent and honest than those in meat space.
I think cyberspace has four big levels, not just three, where the fight to keep cyberspace open and free is being joined. At the infrastructure level we fight monopoly telcos and software companies and we strive for open networks and spectrum. At the “constitutional” level friends like Larry Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain hammer away at maintaining basic freedoms. And at the application level you and others create blogging sotware and the whole meta-domain of community formation tools, as well as the standards to allow this rich ecosystem of technology to continue to co-evolve. These tools and standards provide a dramatically effective environment for individual and community empowerment. And finally, the action is really heating up at the – what shall we call it? – the level of establishing new institutions that challenge the old order institutions of the meat world. Perhaps we could call this the “institution level.”
At the institution level, cyberspace is markedly more ecological and bottom-up than it’s counterpart in meat space. Institutions in cyberspace are the result of a combination of individual initiative plus individuals “referring” to each other—creates connective tissue. This is very much how biological cells became communities and then became organisms. On top of this emergent order we start to have consciousness–as we also did in biological evolution. First there is the development of pattern recognition—enabled by meta-tools in cyberspace—such that we can see the order that is emerging, and are freed to consider alternative ways things might evolve. And finally we start to experiment with coordinating and co-evolving together, playing with the possibilities of becoming new organisms and ecosystems–new, consciously emergent institutions. And, wildly, giddily, we find ourselves capable of challenging and even supplanting current establishments.
Yes, I can feel the hubris in all this, and the personal constraint. I don’t completely like it. A big part of me loves the freedom in blogging to wake up each morning and reinvent myself in my next post. I don’t want to give this up in order to be cog in some big institutional machine. On the other hand, I (and we) may not have to. I think I can be me and also play an effective role in the whole. And wouldn’t this be a nice alternative to today’s conception of jobs!
Way back in 1968, Stewart Brand wrote in the Whole Earth Catalogue, “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” This sums up our challenge about as well as anything I’ve read since.
Let me know what you think. Let us be both/and, not either/or. Best wishes, fellow institution creators and free individuals!