Attention Craig Newmark: Citizens aren't customers

Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, has offered a thoughtful but misguided palliative at CNN to the shortcomings of the age of networked democracy.... if you know how Americans use the Net to talk, you can easily stay in touch with real people.

Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, has offered a thoughtful but misguided palliative at CNN to the shortcomings of the age of networked democracy.

... if you know how Americans use the Net to talk, you can easily stay in touch with real people.

Speaking as a customer service rep, that's the real deal.

I agree wholeheartedly that the Web can be used to improve the democratic system in the United States, but Craig's approach relies on the idea that citizens are customers who must be served and responded to. It sounds good, for sure. Yet it is this perspective that undermines democratic participation, because simply being able to vote "yes" or "no" about ideas—whether directly in some sort of "permanent town hall" or by sending money to a candidate or PAC—is the path of followers, not leaders. Political consultants have excelled at giving people a lot to do, both in face-to-face and social networking politics—without ceding any power to them.

The idea of citizens as customers, which has roots in both parties' rhetoric over the past 30 years, strips the voter of the power to express individual opinion on individual issues in exchange for their rubber-stamped vote for one of two competing mass-media defined big pictures that promise a simple quid pro quo once the election is over. Granted, when politics really functioned at the local level that quid pro quo was powerful, coming in the form of patronage and favors doled out by elected officials and political machines, but the promise today is simply that we'll get good customer service without any other value from government.

How fast I get a tax refund or access to a government form is not a reflection of the success of government. Nor is my ability to vent in public without an expectation that I'll be listened to during non-election years. Instead, we should be throwing the doors open so that every function of government is transparent and citizens can find out how to join the discussion for the other two or four years that the election cycle suspends public participation.

America needs more leaders, who will step up and speak truth to power and on behalf of their ideas rather than content themselves with a biennial or quadrennial vote and then wait to see if they get the service they expected from government. Exposing real power to the people through information technology would be a radical change by contrast.

Polling and blogs are an empty substitute for political participation, as are almost all the excellent, but simply informational, sites Craig Newmark sites his article. They provide the illusion that you are acting without any of the power of action.

The fact that Barack Obama has raised record amounts of money through the Web doesn't translate into change at the policy-making level. It shows people will invest in a dream of change. We need them to create change locally instead.

Craig leads off with: "Like most people, I really don't want to be bothered with politics. On a gut level, it seems to be the province of the popular kids, and I'm a nerd." That's not democracy, but spectator politics. Note that five times as many people watched the second day of the Democratic convention this year than in 2004, according to Nielsen. Remember that 2004 was the year of Howard Dean, and then think about the fact that we have succeeded in engaging more people in the debate but have not seen a dramatic transformation of the issues this year.

Alas, politics isn't something we should be bothered with nor is the successful kid from high school likely to be the successful politician in later life. Those kids don't know the art of compromise then and seldom learn it. And political issues should bother us, they should eat at us and get us to act. Simply waiting for a leader to come along, then to support or follow them, isn't sufficient for democracies, although that's what we are told is all we can expect. Politics is life acting through the community, power flowing based on the ability to convince others that our ideas should be adopted or adapted into policy. It's riotous and ugly, as the old saying about not wanting to see laws or sausage made tells us, but it can be exhilarating, too. Just look at the faces of the people at the conventions who have fought their way to Denver or Minneapolis to support a candidate and negotiate with other factions over the ideas they want represented in public policy.

Every one of the sites Craig Newmark points to in his article do good work. I believe transparency in government is essential, though it should be transparent to citizens by function rather than through acts of information liberation conducted by the Sunlight Foundation. IT could give us real transparency, the ability to look over our politicians' shoulders as they do their work. With the foundation of access, people could become truly engaged with the issues they care about and politicians would be forced to engage those concerns when they were well articulated and energetically promoted. Then, we'd all be politicians and power would be really distributed.