Earlier this month, I had the fortune to attend the 2014 Personal Democracy Forum in New York. This is a conference attended by people who think about and discuss how technology and the Internet are changing democracy in America. The attendees included activists and policy makers, political practitioners and technologists, thinkers and doers. It was an amazing confluence of ideas and action by groups of people that recognize the internet as a key catalyst for change and inclusion.
This event was a solid forum for learning from both speakers and attendees exactly what matters most to the future of democracy. I heard what they were most concerned about and what they were most excited about. The theme of this year’ conference reflects that dynamic: “Save the Internet/The Internet Saves”.
In terms of “Save the Internet”, PDF coincided with the one year anniversary of the Edward Snowden disclosures (Snowden himself actually addressed the audience live via video from Russia). It is apparent that democracy activists have a very clear perception of our nation’s most fundamental values, and a passionate a desire to return to them in the wake of the NSA disclosures. Topics ran from efforts to challenge government mass surveillance programs, to personal data privacy to strategies for keeping the Internet open as a conduit of expression and community building in uncertain political environments
The second day (“The Internet Saves”) focused on how technology is being used to evolve politics, governance, and civil society for the better. It was a series of non-partisan discussions focused on how the internet is a platform for creating change, building community, and building engines for civic action that would have been tough just a few years ago. The speakers themselves were as diverse as the topics. They included activists, civic hackers, government staff, and experts in policy, economics, and governance.
But for all of the fascinating keynotes, workshops, and discussions, the most fascinating part of this conference was the dynamic of the attendees themselves. In generations past, an “activist” was almost reflexively thought of as one who pokes their thumb in the eye of authority. To the contrary, this generation of activists have a strong desire to work within the framework of governance to our democracy and to advance the situation of all of the world populace.
Many of the activists made it a point that a great way to see a societal change through is to actively participate in the policy making and implementation around that change. They encouraged civic technologists to improve democracy through civil service. Matthew Burton held a keynote that sums up the ethos nicely: By The People: Government Service is a Civic Duty.
This is an ethos that would have shocked the senses of anti-government movements of the 60’s and 70’s, anarchist movements of the 20’s and 30’s, ad infiditum. Today’s ethos is: If you want to improve your government, you work to improve your government. If you want to evolve democracy, you work to evolve democracy. Perhaps it is cliché, but the conference felt very much like Ghandi’s famous quote: Be the change you wish to see in the world.