11.27.2007

Open Source Government

They say that discussing politics can be like pulling teeth. So, as long as I'm at it, here are some political musings before I head out to get my wisdom teeth out.

Geek icon RU Sirius of the webzine 10 Zen Monkeys has called for the creation of an Open Source Party in American politics. As a hybrid of libertarian/liberal/paleocon/futurist/other philosophies, the party would stand for such things as making government more transparent and accountable, strengthening civil liberties, and re-tooling items ranging from copyright law to currency to work better in today's and tomorrow's increasingly digital (and post-scarcity) world.

Specifically, the seven platform items are:
1. Let's Have A Democracy (let's figure out secure internet voting and remove the systemic constraints on creating new political parties);
2. Let's Have Civil Liberties and a Bill of Rights (let's repeal legislation that has infringed on our constitutional liberties and rethink the drug war);
3. Let's End the Imperial Foreign Policy;
4. A New "Energy Task Force";
5. Let's Explore The Possibility of an Open Source Monetary System;
6. Let's End Corporate Personhood and Other Rules that Unfairly Advantage Corporations;
7. Let My Web People Go! (let's figure out how copyright should work in a digital, post-scarcity economy).

Though the party is still just "a gleam in the eye and not an extant organization," I think it has a lot of potential-- not only does the party's philosophy seem coherent and communicable, but RU Sirius's position statements read like a laundry list of thoughtful approaches to what may be some of the most important issues of the 21st century. There are a few notable exceptions (enhancement ethics/bioethics?) and I have a few misgivings about the platform (can strong civil rights survive in the age of garage biotech? I hope so, but I'm not sure.). But I think the platform offers a fresh and thoughtful take on what issues are important and I sincerely hope, whether or not the party takes off, that the concepts inherent in the platform make their way into our political discourse.

In the long run, of course, more is at stake in how we deal with Sirius's overarching point of 'openness' than just the singular (albeit important) issues RU Sirius lists. What's at stake is the participatory nature of our government. There's been a trend in America (perhaps western society, perhaps the world) to treat governance as someone else's problem. I think this springs from the weird way our culture, institutions, and indeed, government have emergently co-evolved to compartmentalize, obfuscate, and encourage outsourcing of political activity, rather than there being any sort of explicit conspiracy. But it's led to systemic disconnects between voters and their government. People don't participate in government: they tend to elect least-worst candidates whom they hope will be able to navigate and weather Washington's dysfunctional and corrosive economy of influence, or if nothing else, maybe bring home some bacon. Votes are "fire and forget".

In short, our government sucks. It's not participatory in any significant sense of the term, and it's simply broken in some respects. RU Sirius's point seems to be that, surely in the age of the internet and with the potential openness that Web 2.0 technologies could provide, it doesn't have to suck as badly as it does.

The example that springs to mind when I try to understand how this "open source government" philosophy could be translated into practical initiatives is the Sunlight Foundation. It's a non-profit government watchdog organization named after the disinfectant powers of sunlight. It has notably has created a Web 2.0 mashup that clearly and intuitively lays out the location of every congressional earmark (aka 'porkbarrel legislation'). To oversimplify some, it's a map of who the most corrupt politicians are.

It's just one mash-up. It won't change the world overnight. But this "open source" style of political activism, in allowing voters a clear, intuitive look at the inner workings of government, has the potential to sidestep the vast and layered forces of inertia in Washington. Eventually, the theory goes, if everything about the way government is run is made available, accessible, and intuitive to the public, that's going to normalize how decisions in Washington are made, no matter how many special interest groups want to skew the system in their favor.

All in all, RU Sirius's proposal is based on a powerful and seemingly feasible core idea. I hope it pans out.