And so the kaleidoscope turns, and we see the world anew.
Or do we?
Barack Obama’s inaugurationtoday as the 44th President of the United States of America, marks the end of a remarkable personal and national journey. Arrival at such a destination is a cause for global celebration. But as with all great journeys the arrival is also only a beginning.
Obama is taking a leading role in a world system that is severely perturbed on multiple levels. Such perturbation often proceeds collapse: and can proceed the emergence of a more sophisticated and better-adapted system.
It’s not clear—it never is—to what extent the choice of branching paths is open to us. But it surely behoves us to act as if it is.
My (personal) sense is that we face a mess of complex, interrelated and non-linear problems; sane responses to which lie beyond our existing methods and tools. In essence, we need to re-configure our modes of political thinking and organization to enable us—as local, national, and international communities—to move significantly closer to collective maxima of intelligence (both reasoned and emotional).
For those for whom the analogy is familiar, we’re awaiting The Mother of All Demos in the political realm to match Doug Engelbart’s technological masterpiece 40 years ago (which pre-figured much of the technological landscape that we inhabit and take for granted today). It’s the social dimension of Engelbart’s vision of augmented collective intelligence that lags behind our technological achievements: and it needs to catch up quickly.
The signs are that Obama, and the team around him, are mindful of this. As othershave noted already, one of the most encouraging aspect of the Change.gov experiment was the speed at which the interaction on the site improved iteratively across the transition. The challenge now is how to crystallize this process—to enable genuine and deeply collaborative sensemaking—and how to set this process in motion in the first few months of the administration when the opportunity and receptivity to change are greatest—and when the character of the administration will be forged.
Readers of The Independent and others who have joined in developing the Obama and Gaza maps over the last couple of months have demonstrated on a smaller scale and in vitro that different and radically collaborative models of sensemaking are possible—and we are grateful to everyone who has participated directly so far, blogged about and embedded the maps, and to the BBC World Service’s Digital Planet, BBC Technology and PRI’s The World: Technology podcast for their support in spreading the maps more widely.
Both maps will continue to develop as exploratory exemplars of the kinds of cumulative, comprehensive and distillative sensemaking processes that the web is starting to enable—with the Obama map, in particular, shifting to a focus on the first 100 days.
Deeper challenges remain. The emerging set of collaborative sensemaking and deliberation tools of which Debategraph, is one example, are still nascent, still figuring out the basic principles—still more VisiCalc than Excel. The tools require a basic visual literacy that itself is only just beginning to emerge in society. And the maps, and other sensemaking constructs, require time to build and time for reflection in an impatient and attention-poor age.
But, today, of all days, is a day for optimism. The day on which Barack Obama embodies the realization that long journeys towards distant mountain tops can reach the summit.
As Jimmy observed in his blog on the Huffington Post, mastery of internet campaigning is not the same as delivering government via the web. So it has been fascinating the observe the first edemocratic steps on Obama’s Change.gov site.
The Change.gov process so far has included blogging, YouTube insights and feedback (example below), threaded commenting, and the admirable step of opening up the content on the site via a Creative Commons license—and the volume and variety of the feedback on the discussions around health care (3,701 comments) and the economy (3,563 and counting) illustrate the potential and the challenges involved in processes of this kind.
Sustaining this openness to iterative experimentation will be one of the keys to fulfilling the transition team’s early promise beyond the inauguration. In part, this is because the capabilities of the web are evolving rapidly. YouTube and Twitter, for example, two of the most significant on-line tools used during the campaign, didn’t exist at the time of the last Presidential inauguration (and Twitter was only formally incorporated after Obama declared that he was running for office).
But, more fundamentally, it is because this openness to iterative and collaborative experimentation and improvement is one of the web’s deep lessons and, potentially, contains the means to transform our understanding and experience of governance.
Doc Searls refers to this wider emerging process as the "Live Web", and so, in his honour, we might characterise the opportunity ahead for the Obama transition team as being the chance to the effect significant shift towards "Live Government".
More smart people outside government than within it
For the first time in modern industrial society, governments have the chance to realise the potential embodied in Bill Joy’s observation that there will always be more smart people outside government than within it…
And, in view of the scale and complexity of the challenges faced in the early 21st century, there has never been a more urgent time to realise this latent, distributed potential.
Live Government will take many forms that we can’t see clearly yet; however, two dimensions that seem central to the concept based on current trends are:
(1) Making the data of governance fluid, transparent, mashable and easily discoverable in context; getting the data in front of the people who have a contribution to make, and ensuring that the data is continuously up to date. This trend can be seen in the US in the form the Sunlight Foundation and the recent Apps for Democracy competition—both of which owe something to the pioneering work of the MySociety team in the UK.
(2) Externalising the current policy thinking of government in a open structured form to which people can contribute continuously, directly, precisely, cumulatively, and with a high signal-to-noise ratio. This trend, still comparatively nascent, can be seen in a prototypical form in policy wikis, annotation tools and sensemaking tools (of which Debategraph is an example).
"…we’re inviting the American public to take a seat at the table and engage in a dialogue about these important issues and ideas—at the same time members of our team review these documents themselves."
It will be fascinating to see if the Obama transition team can carry this energised enthusiasm into office.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the development of the map over the last week, and to the people below for helping the map meme to circulate in the blogosphere:
Then tag the post TheIndyDebate. When you do this, we’ll detect the post and start to include your thoughts in the map.
Embedding the map will let your readers watch the map evolve in situ on your blog. And, if you link to or embed the map, we’ll publish a reciprocal link (both here and on the Independent Minds blog) back to your blog.
Over the next 10 weeks, Independent readers and the Debategraph team will develop a series of interrelated debate maps of the key policy and political questions facing Obama as he prepares for office.
Whether it’s tackling the global financial crisis, deciding who to appoint to key cabinet posts, or determining how to proceed on climate change, Iraq or the crisis in the Congo, you are welcome to join us in building comprehensive maps of the political choices open to Obama, the arguments for and against the different options, and the path you think Obama should follow.
You can watch the maps evolve in the build up to the inauguration, or better still register and begin to comment, suggest new issues, rate the options and arguments, and add new options and arguments of your own.
The granular addressability is shown at the paragraph level in this example; however, CommentPress—which is being applied imaginatively to several publicconsultations in the UK—allows the user to define a deeper level of granularity, enabling a finer one-to-one correspondence between the source document and the map.
The hope embodied in this experiment is that in the build up to the Presidential election in November it might be possible exemplify the potential of the emerging web technologies to shift the modus of political debate (a degree or two) away from the calculated cacophony of ephemeral soundbites toward a more considered, constructive and cumulative conversation.
If you are willing to help in the pursuit of this goal—working on the transcripts, mapping and tying together the arguments, highlighting inconsistencies and areas of agreement, and holding the candidates transparently accountable to their words—please join us.
“Barack Obama has promised to tear down the stone wall and dense bushes with which the current administration has barricaded the White House. Good. Democracy without transparency is at best assumed.
And, Obama has promised to take advantage of our new connective technology — the Internets and all its associated tubeware — to enable a level of citizen participation undreamed of since our population outgrew the local town hall.
So, how about if the campaign starts now by opening up the vice presidential selection process?”
…so here’s a debate map featuring some of the mooted VP candidates and the arguments for and against their candidacy. Anyone can add new candidates and new arguments. Anyone can rate the candidates and the arguments for and against. And anyone can embed this (automatically updating) map of the debate on their blog; so that changes made anywhere will be displayed everywhere.