Earlier this week I responded to Beth Noveck's call for more progressive prescriptions in cyberlaw (In Search Of: A Positive Agenda for the Copyfight). Beth has responded, and expanded and clarified what she meant (Cyber-Progressivist Design).
But, the remedy, as I see it (because it's what I enjoy and do best) is not to be found only in pursuing a new legislative agenda. What my earlier post was intended to point out is that technology design itself can be brought to bear to strengthen our democratic culture and its values. By technology design, I am not simply referring to network architecture or an open source back-end. I believe we must exploit the "front end" and the design of the interface to shape social relations. It is the front end, the screens through which we interact, not simply with the computer, but with each other that are the best tools for anyone and everyone to use to encourage more participatory, engaged and deliberative ways of living and working. To foster freedom of expression and creative flourishing, we need to create the tools that enable groups to solve problems, make decisions, resolve conflict and govern themselves. Like law, technology, too, determines the roles and rights available to us. But technology also affords us new opportunities for regulating our own social conditions. Technology can make the rules, structures and practices of the groups in which we work manifest and thereby give rise to social institutions.
But I'd like to say that I think there is a lot of that already going on out there. More could be done, certainly, but I'm having a hard enough time keeping up with the ongoing change as it is. I would also tend to emphasize the changes in the network architecture as critical. The front-end is very important, but the network architecture is at least as important. There would be no browswer (the front end) without HTML and HTTP. There would be no HTTP without TCP/IP. Right now I think the most amazing thing to foster freedom of expression and creative flourishing is lowly RSS, which should stand for Revolutionary Simple Syndication, instead of Really Simple Syndication.
Podcasting wasn't even a term a year ago (Broadcatching on the iPod Platform), yet it has taken off like a rocket and people are innovating in the space on a daily basis. It is hard to imagine how to integrate this extremely promising tool into the front end yet; its changing too quickly. The best we can do right now, I think, is to ride this innovation wave and participate in the experiment. Come up with new, cool ways of using these tools. And progressives are.
BitTorrent wasn't imagined by progessives, yet it is another of the radically transformative network architecture technologies that will change and enable groups in myriads of ways. BitTorrent is ripe for some social hacking, and people are working on it.
Blogging has its own set of developing social organizing tools, trackback, del.icio.us, PubSub, and Technorati, to name but a few. They may be back end, but they are absolutely key to creating social and discussion networks.
Two words: Second Life.
Working on and improving tools such as these is progressive. And I wouldn't hesitate to bet that many of those working on these tools are doing so at least partly out of an impulse to create more democratic social institutions.
There are also groups whose explicit goals are exactly what Beth wants. For example, Downhill Battle has begotten Participatory Culture, which is working on the Broadcast Machine:
Broadcast Machine is software for your website that can publish fullscreen video files to thousands, using torrent technology to reduce or eliminate bandwidth costs. It is free, open source, and designed for easy installation. Broadcast Machine features an intuitive interface, integrated torrent creation, and flexible channel management. It creates a browsable archive of videos on your website, but its real purpose is to be the perfect publishing tool for our video player that comes out in June. Broadcast Machine creates channels that, viewed in the player, give people a TV-like experience.
There is also Participatory Politics
, which states on its front page:
Elections are nice, but we have a chance to go further. Participatory Politics builds software tools and websites that create new opportunities for continual engagement with government.
The more the merrier, I say, but I'm hardly pessimistic that technological innovators are not paying enough attention to creating more democratic social spaces.