Hanging with some of the Google Social Impact Team and PDF fellows at a dinner before the forum.
I spent the weekend in NYC as a Google fellow at Personal Democracy Forum. The theme of the forum was Save the Internet/The Internet Saves, and we spent two days thinking, learning and exchanging ideas and experiences about many facets of that proposition. How might people protect their personal data while governments make data more accessible and open? How might we make the Internet more welcoming and safe for all people? How might online networks become more engaged in offline democracy? How might we use the power of networks to protect the networks themselves?
Historically speaking, these questions aren’t exactly novel. Every great shift in our society and its governance has been closely tied to how we communicate — written words led to written laws and written rights, presses led to representative power and protections of expression, image-centric mass media led to civil rights, etc. Each change has carried its share of metaphorical and literal bloodshed as well. Thanks to the Internet, our communication and our identities are more specific and more networked than ever. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that this Internet thing is still pretty new and is fundamentally a mish-mash of duct-taped software. We’re still deep in the middle of figuring out what it all means for society.
There is a very old motto "festina lente," roughly “make haste slowly,” that kept circling around my brain at PDF. Rapid progress is necessary, but it requires diligence. The friction is especially apparent in the juxtaposition of intelligence surveillance with the open government movement, two broadly explored topics at PDF. As part of our government is exploiting ignorance (and afore-linked man-made disasters) of Internet security to gather data about citizens, other parts of our government are exposing more data than ever before to be more accountable to citizens. (It’s essential also to remember that government is itself a messy human network, not a monolith.) We are indeed making haste, but often too quickly to protect individuals or our collective interests. These collisions push us closer to a considered understanding of how to move forward as individuals and as a democratic society in a digitally networked age.
I am hopeful. At PDF, I met smart, active people working to improve access, to make government more responsive to citizens, to educate people on how to protect themselves online, to make a better Internet and to engage online communities for offline action. I am working alongside them on these issues in my communities too. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but I turn to history as a guide here too. As long as people have fought for equality, justice and freedom, society has progressed toward these ideals. The Internet is now both our battleground and our agent in this fight. That’s why net neutrality, privacy and open government are so critically linked though they seem on the surface to be at odds. An accessible Internet, where people may communicate freely and efficiently, is our best check against tyranny and offers our best opportunity to make our world more just and free. We have to save it to save ourselves.
Many thanks to the Google Social Impact Team for enabling me to attend PDF as a fellow, and to everyone who took the time to share their ideas and their work at the forum. Check out what happened at techpresident.com and on Twitter (hashtag #PDF14).