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From transactions to relationships: building power on the Internet

Here’s another piece I wrote for the Rebooting America project:

Twentieth century mass media offered a first-pass solution to the problem of scaling democracy to a rapidly-growing American republic. Whatever its virtues, the solution that radio and television provided is incomplete. Mass media atrophied our understanding of democratic participation, offering instead a politics that mimics the one-to-many structure of broadcasting. In that conception, we citizens participate directly in government through the singular act of voting. It’s a view that draws on a powerful strand of American culture: rugged individualism. But it is not the totality of our political traditions.

If the Internet offers another way to scale democracy to an even larger and more complex society, I believe it will be by pulling on a different thread of our political heritage: community organizing. The genius of America resides in our desire and ability to form associations that, regardless of political intent, can wield political power. From this perspective, groups – not individuals – are the building-blocks of our democracy.

Relationships are the cement of organizations; as it happens, relationships are also the very stuff of the Internet. Where broadcast shows unite yet isolate us from each other, online we are wonderfully fractured yet connected directly together.

Mass media politics turned our ballot into a synecdoche of democracy and fetishized campaign war chests. Such views postulate that American political life comprises nothing more than the sum of many arms-length transactions. Yes, the Internet offers a fundraising goldmine, and perhaps even a new venue for voting. But mistaking the outcome of political power (voting, donations, etc) for power itself is like confusing footage of King’s March on Washington for the Civil Rights Movement.

Really, I think, the Internet will be most powerful as a system that multiplies the scope and reach of our relationships, dramatically enhancing our capacity to form powerful organizations. Whether sharing photos of our cats, spontaneously expressing communal art, or engaging in virtual battle, we are coming together in astonishing ways. Some of these ways are powerful, and some will surely become more so.

Here are some qualities I suspect will remain crucial to politically powerful organizations:

  1. Relationships. Unlike mere transactions, human relationships have the capacity to transform us, but for that to be possible, we must find ways to deepen trust and authentic communication online. As video streaming, virtual reality, and just general user interfaces continue to evolve, I expect the barriers to establishing robust human connections across geography will continue to fall.
  2. Accountability. Fundraising succeeds online because it’s easy to see and measure. We haven’t yet found a reliable way to bridge the divide between offline action and online networks, and until we do, money remains an awkward currency by which we translate commitment into action.
  3. Leadership. Leadership need not rest in a single/singular person, but every organization needs some process for making strategic and tactical decisions.

Among these elements, leadership will perhaps evolve the most dramatically in the shift towards online networks. In the coming years and decades, I expect to see organizational leaders offload more and more of the routinized aspects of their work to an increasingly smart system, and to discover that more of that work is amenable to such offloading. Still, even as their leverage grows, leaders themselves will remain indispensible, offering passion, personal skills, and savvy intuition – a human remainder that cannot be squared into an automated system.

A politics built fundamentally on relationships rather than transactions can (and probably will) also depart radically from our more liberal heritage. If it does, we will go from a politics of isolated individualism to one of hyper-connectivity, a middle-school lunchroom writ large. A wired North Korea may just figure out how to turn social networking sites into the most powerful snitchnet ever.

But before this imagined fall, let us first realize the promise. Today we face challenges of such magnitude that “thinking global, acting local” no longer suffices. If I have hope for 21st century politics, it is because our capacity to extend our organizing powers have grown as well. It will be the great test of democracy whether our power to act collectively has grown commensurate to our challenges.

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