Too much transparency

Hungary: sorry about our prime minister - billboard

This week, this month, we are living through incredibly interesting times. That such a large chunk of the world population has been forced to move is monumentous. Our reaction to it has been perhaps the biggest test of our values (that much overused word) for several generations.

Some have come out looking better than others. Perhaps an interesting twist in stereotypes and history, the Germans and their leader in particular have inspired by compassion today.

And I assume they will continue to do so. Of course, the situation is much more nuanced than just right or wrong, but it has exposed so many base instincts in so many, so many attitudes, so much of cultural dynamics, and of course so much that never changes – our underlying human instincts.

Transparency, in companies, governments and the press is so often given as a universal positive. But in today’s world do we always have to accept that. An MP who was on the right side of the public opinion (and the evil press, personified by the Daily Mail) could be a pariah today.

Is this really the most effective form of government, formenting as it does a preference for point scoring over genuinely solving problems? Here and in the States, we see these structures causing paralysis, not action amongst those charged with leading.

How about this. Every year, rather than four, we hold a vote in the UK (via Facebook, or something) on whether the government is doing a good job overall. And if they’re not, we hold an election. And then we make debates in Parliament subject to Chatham House rules.

I suspect this is more or less the situation we had before round the clock media and a million lobbies on our leaders.

Might it make a difference?

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20 days for 20 years

I’ve been thinking about what 2009 holds in store. 

At this point, I should of course wheel out all of the great reasons one should not make predictions (especially about the future). Or perhaps I should recall the fictional Magrethea in HitchHikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, a planet which decided to hibernate through Galactic recession – oddly tempting at the moment.

Slartibartfast of Magrethea

What I actually find myself doing is focussing all of my attention on one particular day in 2009, and one that is not that far away: January 20th. Of course, that’s the day that Barack Obama will officially be sworn in as America’s 44th President. 

Barack Obama

Whilst we’d all talked about the way the mass intelligentsia here and in the states had taken to digital media, it scarcely seemed possible that anyone could truly harness these new approaches as a presidential candidate. But Obama did precisely that, collecting hearts, minds and dollars.

It seemed even less likely that Obama would continue post election with either the consensual style he adopted in the campaign, or the digital media he’s used to do it. But still he is sticking resolutely to path which looks likely to remould politics and attitudes to politicians, as much as it looks to bring about the change to the American way of life which was such a centrepiece of the campaign.

And so to inauguration. For the first time in many years, Obama has forgone the massive donations of corporate lobbies and is working to finance the inauguration with the $5 checks of his base which were such a large part – symbolically and financially – of the campaign. We can expect the speech itself to be an even more marked departure. 

The theme is given as ‘a new birth of freedom’, and it is being positioned as a suitable celebration of both the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth and the 22nd Martin Luther King day.

I believe that Obama will not propose, however, any form of back slapping or self-congratulation for his nomination and election. I believe instead he will look to start a more radical redefinition of personal freedom from the perspective of responsibility, and of what it means to be an American. It will be ‘ask not what your country can do for you’ but for a different generation, and I believe with an even greater onus on practical participation.

It’s an interesting idea in a western democracy where we have come to be believe that politicians will gain favour by cutting taxing and increasing entitlements, the right course of action today is to encourage greater participation and contribution from the population, both in shaping the political movement, and in building and supporting communities.

Obama’s success in four year’s time will be contingent upon delivering a real vision of the American dream in action where the US of today performs the miracle of economic and social rebirth, not through handouts and state intervention, but through drive and determination. As Napolean said, the role of the leader is to “define reality and provide hope’.

The new first family change the perception of the US internally and externally just by the symbolic importance of their race. And, the freedom which is being reborn cannot, I believe, be a freedom to shop, a freedom to entitlements, rather I believe the emphasis will be on re-invigorating the spirit of hard work and determination which underwrote the freedom, and hope, of the founding fathers.

And, what better time for this message to be spread in America. As many of the new certainties of the Regan era flounder – the stock market won’t make us all rich (at least not all of the time), America hasn’t solved world peace (especially under hapless and incompetent Bush), jobs cannot be protected by governments from foreign trade.

George Bush

If Obama can achieve this, the amazing success of the campaigns will pale into insignificance.

And where does this leave democracy? If Obama succeeds in reshaping the imperial presidency, around a new need for leadership (post the Bush vacuum, the incompetence and corruption of politicians) around consensus through straight-talk, around a liberal and academic view of the world; then we will see yet another complete upheaval in the concepts of media and a political domino effect around the globe.

Traditionally politics hangs on the coat tails of the latest corporate successes. Here political America will vastly have outdone corporate American in understanding the potential of the new medium. Of course, the Obama campaign used vast amounts of traditional media. It’s not so much the vehicle of promotion that shifted but the vehicle of engagement.

I think he will do it, and it will radically change the way we think of politics, democracy and America for the next eight years. 

Oh, and Apple will release a slightly lighter 17″ laptop, Microsoft will eventually get a good operating system out, having taken several years of not-very-subtle hinting  to heart, and Google will port Android to PCs and make an even bigger killing.

Now we know what the future looks like

Back to the future

The whole phrase is ‘Now we know what the future looks like, what would we like to do with it?’

For the second post in a row I’m afraid I’m in a rather idealistic mood. But it seems to me, now, that we look at the structure of business and marketing as it’s being done by the market leaders, we look at posts by visionaries like this one, this one and this one, and we think we pretty much know how this is going to shake out…

The question of micro distribution of corporate reputation has been answered. The question of finding value inside organistations through enablement of individuals has been proven. The question of whether we think better separately or together has been answered.

So, my point is this. In the Future (doesn’t really need a capital does it, since it’s only a couple of minutes away), if we assume that we will broadly have a marketplace of ideas where we all now can have our say. If we will have a world where communities of interest can be powerful, and massively devolved. If we will have a world where companies can thive by coming up with powerful ideas and finding ways to communicate them quickly and powerfully. Then what do we want out of that world?

It probably sounds a bit irrelevant but it’s an important question. Because we’re not, any of us, I think really after better mp3 players, nor mobile phones, nor fruit smoothies.

But we also don’t really have the passions of the past. If we live in big cities, at least, we’ve started to see the back of racism, sexism, for the most part, intollerance; what are we worrying about now? Knife crime? I know it’s a serious question but it’s very recent and very media orientated. House prices? Economy? That’s just not intereting, really.

I think it’s about this (you’ll read a transcript of a Clinton interview about finding similarities rather than differences). For all the things that have been resolved, we live in a world where far too many inequalities exist for the wrong reason (there are good reasons for alot of inequalities of course).

But I’m in intrigued about views here.

If we’re all going to be a position where we have all this extra information, all this extra access to cheap, easy, global media, all of this ability to form communities, how do we use this to moderate our behaviour for the better?

And more to the point, what is we actually want to achieve? Or are we all going to turn into Miss World, and look for world peace and happy families.

In the name of democracy

Bartlet vs Richie debate in the West Wing

This post from a chap at LBi starts out as a review of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail but turns into an interesting discussion about the concept of democratisation in internet economy and amongst internet communities.

We talk endlessly about the effect that the internet has on people. It allows anyone with a PC (and let’s shelve for the moment that this doesn’t include most of Africa and big chunks of the Middle East) to say what they like about what they like, out loud. It encouages freedom of speech (except in Turkey). Freedom of speech is part of democracy and we  tend to say that this openness is a ‘democracatisation’ of access. But of course (as the post points out), democracy isn’t actually what the internet does. He’s taking this from work by Esther Dyson:

“The greatest structural impact of the Net is decentralization; things and people no longer depend on a center to be connected. People often confuse that with democracy, but democracy is where the majority rules (…), whereas decentralization is where the masses separate into small groups.”

This may sound like the splitting of hairs. But it’s actually quite a profound difference.

What is it we like about democracy in the first place? I suspect it is that no leader was allowed to wander too far from the crowd. Well it seems pretty fair to assume that’s more the case now than ever before, because huge freedom of speech and access to information provides more systems of checks and balances.

The best definition Google can find me of democracy is:

‘A system by which social equality is favoured. Democracy means “rule of the people”. Democracy includes open discussion, direct voting on significant issues, policy formation in all realms of social life; economics, education, religion and public life.’

But surely what we see online is not consensus arriving through discussion but rather groups forming where consensus already exists. They’re pretty open groups, but they’re also pretty small. There is no need for the centre of all of these groups, there is no necessity of greater consensus or even greater sharing.

This reminds me of a point Andrew Orlowski made at one of the early Chinwag discussions that the perception of disent in online discussion online is misplaced. His way of explaining it, is that you might meet someone with a fundementally divergent opinion at a social event in real life and end up really exploring your differences and remaining civil but that online this doesn’t happen, you just chose to go with another group.

What does all this mean? Well it should make us question the automatic virtue with which all additional online chatter appears to be heralded. It should make us question the automatic virtue of the long tail. Do we really want the ‘unlimited demand’ (as of the cover of Anderson’s book) to be sated? Should we really want it in the name of ‘democracy’?