The Rise of Open-Source Politics

Summary of: The Rise of Open-Source Politics

Author(s) / Editor(s)

Internet facilitated tools and practices reached critical mass in the 2004 elections enabling ordinary people to participate in processes that had been closed to them by top-down political organizations.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
The Nation
Date
November 22, 2004

Findings

  • In the 2004 elections, Internet tools enabled ordinary people to participate in political processes formerly closed to them.
  • Technology is leading to the rebirth of a type of mass participation common in the first half of the 1900s that had been replaced by professionally run, top-down advocacy organizations.
  • Top-down groups were abetted by mass communications technologies like television. Increased access to web-based social software tools encourage bottom-up participation by peers with presumably increased transparency and accountability similar to what happens in open-source software development communities.
  • Open-source politics is a long way off because of the resistance of the political establishment. In “open source” software development communities, any participant can see, critique, and improve the underlying code. Peer review permits steady improvement. In open-source political groups, planning and implementation of policies would be transparent and open to critique and improvement, an inherent threat to entrenched ego-centric, top-down organizations. However, the old order may have no choice in the matter.
  • Because of the “digital divide” and the amount of time spent online, Internet facilitated political participation is still largely a white middle- and upper-class phenomenon. However, this may be generational: younger people of all socio-economic groups are growing up with the tools and shaping them to their needs and desires.

Internet facilitated tools and practices reached critical mass in the 2004 elections enabling ordinary people to participate in processes that had been closed to them by top-down political organizations.

Old-style political organizations had evolved, abetted by mass media like television, into groups controlled by insiders. The mass participation that peaked in the early part of the 20th century was replaced by an increasingly uninterested, disenfranchised mass and a smaller group of wealthy special interests.

TV took politics away from the grassroots; the Internet could give it back. The people receiving the intended messages could be involved in creating them.

There are varieties of emerging tools in the political ecology: large, top-down organizations like MoveOn.org co-exist with multilayered communities like DailyKos in which peer moderation and rankings lead to the emergence of trusted sources.

Established political parties are behaving like dinosaurs, viewing the new media as tools for more efficiently doing their old work: the Internet is just a new place for a more sophisticated kind of direct mail. They are missing the true significance of the emerging tools and processes. With this attitude, they are likely to become extinct.

Old style, top-down political organizations are afraid of losing control. They are threatened by the dis-intermediation (the removal of middlemen) enabled by the new tools and visible in other commercial domains on the net.

The growth of web based social networking tools and techniques similar to those used to facilitate open source development environments are leading to peer political networks with transparency and accountability.

The Internet currently offers an ecology of interacting and competing groups on both the left and right. These currently range from the traditional party based groups through newer, still top-down groups like MoveOn.org through multilayered communities with peer evaluation and the emergence of trusted users. An example of the latter, DailyKos, has become a very efficient collaboration engine for pooling money for candidates and for rapid fact-checking, news dissemination, and brainstorming.

This evolution is generational. As younger people accustomed to life on the net and the use of social networking tools reach maturity, the replacement of the old ways of doing things will become easier.

Open-source politics is a long way off because of the resistance of the political establishment. In “open source” software development communities, any participant can see, critique, and improve the underlying code. Peer review permits steady improvement. In open-source political groups, planning and implementation of policies would be transparent and open to critique and improvement, an inherent threat to entrenched ego-centric, top-down organizations. However, the old order may have no choice in the matter.

Because of the “digital divide” and the amount of time spent online, Internet facilitated political participation is still largely a white middle- and upper-class phenomenon. Messages tend to circulate through existing social networks. However, this may be generational: younger people are growing up with the tools and shaping them to their needs and desires.