What Does It Mean To Be An Internet President?

FDR was our radio president, JFK was our television president and Barack Obama will be our Internet President.

Thumbnail image for Whitehouse.Gov.jpgQuietly at noon yesterday, as the world was fixated on the televised inauguration of Barack Obama, some obscure IT managers flipped a switch (metaphorically) and transferred Change.gov to Whitehouse.gov… While the inauguration spectacle was inspiring and the speech lived up to its promise, Whitehouse.gov is the herald of bigger changes. Government is entering the Internet age and Barack Obama is our first Internet president.

What does that mean?

Each medium has a unique signature (McCluhan would say it’s “message”); a set of characteristics that have a more profound influence on society than the content that flows through it. Television, for example is a capital-intensive broadcast medium requiring a passive viewer. These “pacifying” characteristics are one reason why Al Gore spent time during the Web 2.0 Summit to decry television’s corrosive effect on the democratic process.

Our democracy was constructed well before television (much less the Internet) in an era when the dominant technologies were the printing press and the horse-drawn carriage (Placement of district courts was based on a half-day’s horse and buggy ride to provide each citizen access to court services and the interregnum between presidential transitions took months in order to allow distant presidents to prepare and make the journey to Washington). These technologies invested themselves into every construct of our government.

So how do we re-imagine democracy in the age of networks, where the dominant metaphor is the hyperlink, and the printing press has yielded to the blog; where productivity (open source and crowdsourcing) and decision-making (idea exchanges, prediction markets, online voting etc.) has marked a shift in power from the core to the edge? We are at least a decade away from the answers. Here are a few general principles for democratic government to better serve us in the age of networks.

Listening beats Talking

In the network – listening is a prerequisite to learning. It is the critical precursor of everything we do – the beginning of joining conversations, building trust, learning and developing relationships. In a networked democracy, good government (at every level) will need to find avenues available to listen and respond to its citizens. We saw some of this evidenced at Change.gov (where prosecution of torture was the foremost concern on peoples’ mind) and in Tim Kaine’s video response to questions on the future of the Democratic party.

Open beats Closed
There is more untapped talent outside any organization than inside (government included). Open beats closed points towards two fundamentals: (1) getting beyond a paternal sense of government (what government does for me) and towards a participatory model of government embodied by Mybarackobama.com and subsequent incarnations, and (2) open, standardized data that enable citizens to remix and add their creative energies. Washington D.C. is doing a great job in this arena. The other side of the coin are operations like MySociety and Frontseat.org that are looking to work with data that is already available to improve civic life.

Leadership Counts More Than Ever
Although power has shifted from core to edge, vision and leadership counts more than ever before. Our generation’s notion of leadership will differ from the past (“Chainsaw” Al Dunlop anyone?). Consistent with the medium, leadership does not emanate from one highly leveraged point. It is a call to leadership at all levels of society. It is an open call to participation. In this regard, Obama has been a powerful model for a new generation of leaders ….

What do you think it means to be an Internet President? What do you think are other implications of the Internet and technology on Government and democracy?

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