The New Political Actor

1.0 The problem is simple to see, but hard to get your arms around:
there’s a lack of interest and involvement in civic life by young

There are, of course, some bright spots, here in the United States
of America and around the world.  Right here in Boston, we’re home
to City Year, the definition of local civic activism by young idealists
as they come of age.  Citizen Schools puts young professionals to
work as part of a campaign for greater after-school engagement of
school-age children.   Some of the brightest spots are
communities and people using new technologies — which is the story I
want to talk about today.

By and large, though, the prospect is bleak. 
My generation does not take civic engagement all that
seriously.  Take voting, for instance: an FEC study has shown a
decline in voting among 18-to-24 year olds from 50% in 1972 to 32% in
2000 (man, did we get what we deserved).  More broadly, we as a
people have become further and further removed
from those who represent us, and the result is apathy.  I worry
that we have forgotten that
the system of government that we chose, and have defended repeatedly,
with such fanfare — and at such cost — relies completely upon an
engaged citizenry.  (Maybe there was no golden age of citizen
activism; maybe it has always been a fiction; but a pleasant one at

We face a related problem: that the United States is increasingly
isolated from our neighbors in the rest of the world.  Though
distances between us are shorter, and ideas and commerce and people
flow between countries, and through companies, faster and more
consistently than ever before in the history of the world, we find
ourselves as Americans with few friends.  And we think little
about what’s happening outside the four concerns of the USA.

2.0 The promise is simple also to see, and to imagine to be very bright
indeed, but much harder to make real: that internet technologies
can transform everything for the better, with politics near the top of
the list.

3.0 In the beginning — say in the mid-1990s — the big idea was
“disintermediation.”  The world wide web, the mother of all killer
Internet applications, made it possible to cut out all sorts of
middlepeople.  The application, primarily, was to sales of goods
from businesses to consumers — what we came to call B2C.  The
next big thing, or probably the thing that should have come first
anyway, was B2B — the sale of goods and services between

The story didn’t turn out quite the way the wiseguys imagined it,
but it is certainly true that internet technologies played a
substantial role in transforming the way business is conducted, whether
between businesses or between businesses and consumers. has grown to be enormous, but it has not put every
brick-and-mortar Borders or Barnes and Noble or corner bookstore out of
business, by any means.  For every eBay, Yahoo!, and Google, there
are probably 1,000 loud failures — in which too many of us owned

In addition to what we can learn from these successful pure-play
internet successes, the bulk of the story has been in the form of
“clicks and mortar” plays: efforts to combine what’s the best about the
new and the traditional.




Activists: has brought together a community of 2 million
people. has joined 1.26 million people in 1,000 cities and
towns. Safer Together, many others, have bucked
the trend and suggested a brighter future.

Electoral Campaigns: Presidential campaigns — John McCain,
Howard Dean, our own John Kerry — have gotten a broader
group of young people involved in politics for the first
time.  The message is that “classical and jazz” is what will resonate.

The new political actor: Consider what Jim Moore’s been doing on the
Sudan crisis.  What Ethan Zuckerman is doing for human rights
around the world, and in Africa in particular.  What Rebecca
MacKinnon is doing for North Korea.  This transition is from
consumers to creators.  Each of them is a pamphleteer.  Their
engagement is just what those who conceived republicanism had in mind
— only with a focus not so much at
home in the back-yard, but abroad.

Reasons to be skeptical.

* There are too few hours in the day.

* Actually, we don’t care and it’s not that important to us. 
(Maybe that will change with the combination of social security and tax
cut bills come due?)

* The divide between those who have internet access and those who
don’t is still huge.  Just over 10% of the world’s population, or
just over 600 MM people, have net access.  Some
generation-skipping, as Dean Kamen discussed yesterday, will happen,
and will speed and make cheaper adoption in some places.  But the
fact is that these resources are still available only to the world’s
most privileged people.

End with mini-DMCA story.

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