Among the numerous talks at this year’s Personal Democracy Forum, one word that stood out was “Power” (not the kind that is currently keeping your computer on). Power, in Civic Tech, was discussed as both an impediment to achievement, as well as a by-product of having the right tools at your disposal. Below, several compelling perspectives:
Let’s Talk About Power
Eric Liu’s excellent first-day talk framed this discussion, defining Power, simply, as “a capacity to have others do what you would like them to do.” Civic Power, therefore, is that capacity “as applied to the common good” or the many. This leads to the core question of civic Power, which is, for the many, “who decides?” Eric thinks we should strive to Democratize our understanding of how Power works, and be responsible with the pile of tools, skills, and ideas we have in our possession. This is especially important in Civic Tech, where we have the opportunity to design tools for the public good, and often, to choose how they are used and distributed.
Knowledge is Power
Both Harold Feld and Dave Troy gave incredible presentations about the internet and social media as public utilities, although approached from two very different angles. Harold discussed Verizon’s attempts not to rebuild on Fire Island after Hurricane Sandy. He argued that the internet’s powers to offer open communication are as crucial as any other public utility, and it should be made available and affordable to all.
Dave Troy, a social media cartographer, presented a new project called Peoplemaps.org. He used Twitter to create a people map of St. Louis (including Ferguson) that shed light on the segregations in that community in a much more meaningful way than geographic maps alone. Dave used to do this with Facebook, which unfortunately no longer allows access to the API. Many other sites do the same. Even Twitter allows itself to be censored in other countries. These tools also are public utilities, Dave pointed out, and blocking access to them is a direct attack on knowledge.
Tools are Power
Many PDF speakers agreed that having the right tools impacted Power. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (pictured right), Congressional Chair of the House Republican Conference, gave an honest speech about her efforts to integrate Congress with the technology of the future. “Policy makers should be innovators,” she said, but instead, “Congress is more like the DMV than Uber.” She also summarized a recent trip to Ukraine in which the Mayor of Kiev stated, “media is more powerful than bullets” when it comes to revolution.
Danny O’Brien highlighted the successes of the movement to stop mass surveillance with the Patriot Act, but asked “Did we win because we were right, or because we had cool tools?” He ended with this message: “Tools need to be used to distribute Power, not aggregate it.”
Control is Power
Dante Barry’s passionate speech about the Black Lives Matter movement recognized the extraordinary collaboration that has resulted from the open internet. This Powerful platform has led to a Powerful movement, but he warned, “The internet is only as good as the people who control it.” In an age where phones have become defense mechanisms, rules that keep our content in our hands are critical.
Politics is Power
Speaking over Skype, Birgitta Jonsdottir (pictured below), Leader of the Pirate Party in Iceland, detailed her efforts to affect change in her country, which ultimately led to a new political party being formed. “People are always telling us we don’t have the power to change. It’s a lie,” she said. Political movements should not be triangular, but rather a circle of shared Power. “If you don’t become the power, the power can’t control you.”
During a breakout session on Designing the Digital Legislature, New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos also agreed that politics is often the road to Power: “You can have the best ideas in the world, but you still need someone in government to pass the law.” This sentiment was echoed by Santiago Siri, in his creation of the Net Party in Argentina. This is also a theme well understood here at Team Cicero. Our database of legislative districts and elected officials is often used by organizations to advance an advocacy campaign through direct contact from constituents to their legislators.
Power to the People
Jess Kutch’s talk on coworker.org proved what people can do when they have the right tools and skills available to them. In a triumph for Starbucks Baristas, a social media campaign was launched by one woman in an effort to change the corporate tattoo policy. What resulted was not only a win for tattoos, but also a blueprint for how the internet can fuel a movement.
With so many different channels, where does Power come from in Civic Tech? It does not flow solely from knowledge, or tools, or control, or politics. As Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry (organizers and founders of PDF) seemed to know when choosing this year’s theme, it is comes from the people. And as people working within Civic Tech, we should use that power consciously.