Transparency, Big Data and Internet Activism

Internet activism—and internet democracy—depend on accessible public meeting spaces online. So why are there so few of them?

| October 2014

  • Internet connections
    Internet activism relies on the web of connections we can make, but is hindered by the lack of online public spaces designed for collaboration.
    Photo by Fotolia/Nmedia
  • The Big Disconnect
    “The Big Disconnect” by Micah L. Sifry is an exploration of internet activism in the age of data-driven politics.
    Cover courtesy OR Books

  • Internet connections
  • The Big Disconnect

Micah L. Sifry tackles the reasons progressive change has failed to manifest with the growth of the internet in The Big Disconnect (OR Books, 2014). Internet activism seemed like the wave of the future only two decades ago, but the Internet’s potential as a tool for progressive change has not quite given rise to sustained political mobilization and participation. The following excerpt from Part 4, “The Way We Look To Us All,” focuses on ways to create online public spaces that cater to internet democracy and internet transparency in ways current social media does not.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” –E.M. Forster, Howards End

The Internet does not have to become one more means for mass marketing and manipulation. It can also transform civic life into something far more participatory, transparent, and engaging. And rather than just work as a tool for petitioning and protest that a few people use on behalf of much larger atomized groups of individuals, it can link problem-spotters with problem-solvers, and make everyday life better in myriad ways.

As Ami Dar, the founder of, a hub for listing volunteer service opportunities, likes to say, “Our problems are connected, but we are not.” That is, most people don’t know who lives near them, or what they may be thinking about important issues. The way Big Data now works, only the managers of giant data-streams have a comprehensive understanding of who is interested in what. For example, Google knows who is searching for terms that relate to the flu, and can use that information to build a model that predicts where outbreaks are taking place. It can even (and does) serve up useful medical advice for such search results.

But if lots of people are getting the flu somewhere because their city has inadequate health services or high unemployment, they have no way of addressing the larger pattern behind these individual complaints, nor does Google make this common interest visible to the people it concerns. Likewise, MoveOn may know that a substantial chunk of its membership wants the group to take on a new issue, but those members have no way of knowing that unless MoveOn’s staff chooses to tell them. Important data flows upward, not sideways.

Internet Activism and the Networked Age

The rise of the Internet as a political platform is also a very mixed blessing for anyone who believes that public discourse thrives best in public places, given how few of the places where most people converse online are actually public. On the one hand, networked media make a different kind of public possible, something the digital media scholar Dave Parry calls “the Internet public.” Those of us who devote at least part of our time to being laterally connected with other people via new media are developing a different expectation about our role in society, one where we can be more active participants in creating and shaping news and culture. Channeling media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Parry argues that the medium through which we communicate changes social relations between people and thus changes the society we live in.

10/8/2014 8:41:31 AM

This is one of the most useful important books I have read in the past couple of years, and I am stunned that the publisher has failed to properly present the book for purchase on Amazon. This book should be one of the top ten books across the progressive communities of the world. I rate this book at SIX STARS, which puts it into the top ten percent of the 2000+ non-fiction books with some DVDs (139) I have reviewed at Amazon. This is an *amazing* book of passionate informed truth-telling and in my view, it should be the starting point for a totally new conversation among all progressive minds going into the future. I read this book on the way back from The New Story Summit as hosted by the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. While the book is deeply supportive of my own views on the desperate need of the distributed progressive community for tools and methods that bring together all minds and all information into a coherent whole, attending the summit and listening to the leaders of major progressive organizations including the Global Eco-Village Network and Transition positioned me to better appreciate this book by Micah Sifry. QUOTE (34): "...has not made participation in decision-making or group coordination substantially easier." QUOTE (49): "We can save the body politic, but to do so we must remember that the purpose of democracy isn't only for each of us to have our say, but to blend individual opinions into common agreements. ... We need a real digital public square, not one hosted by Facebook, shaped by Google, and monitored by the National Security Agency." QUOTE (159): "Many weak causes do not add up to a stronger movement." QUOTE (161): "First, we need to insist on tools and platforms that genuinely empower users to be full citizens. And second, we have to take back our own digital agency." There are two bottom lines in this book, at least for me: 01. The progressives are massively fragmented, all insisting on using "their" hashtags, focusing on "their" issue, going after "their" funding, and obstinantly refusing -- perhaps even spiritually unable -- to come together in a larger umbrella process that includes a strategic umbrella for deliberative dialog, integral ethical evidence-based decision support in a holistic analytic framework, and constructive collaborative action across all issues all the time. 01.Facebook, Google, and Twitter particularly, but all existing Internet sites, networks, tools, and all related peripherals have "sold out" and failed to attend to the public interest -- the public need for tools empowering communities to form, deliberate, and take action. While I have been saying this for some time, coming at the challenge from the point of view of a professional intelligence officer, the author of this book, Micah Sifry, is vastly more knowledgable and credible in relation to the progressive movement and the Internet domains that it uses and inhabits, one reason why I rate this book at six stars -- for the complacent progressives whose idea of a success story is a marginal climate change march that will change nothing, this book is a wake-up call. It's not about climate change. It's about coming together as a community able to (these are my four constructs and my interpretation of the author's vision) integrate individual and communal spirituality, investigative inquiry, deliberative dialog, and action. Among the insights that I drew from the book and marked down on the flyleafs: 01. Analytic tools as they exist today increase the power of the two-party tyranny, NOT the power of the individual. The author pointedly observes that most "lists" are "owned" and increase the power of the list owners while refusing any power sharing or horizontal access to the members of the list. 02. Congress ignores all electronic communications -- all the polls, all the emails, largely worthless. 03. Advocacy organizations are going through the motions -- they are neither creating compelling actionable intelligence (my word, understood by some as decision-support useful in educating the public), nor are the orchestrating human beings, attention, money, time, or energy in any meaningful way that changes the power structure, how big money is invested, or the sustainability outcomes of our future generations. 04. "Big Listening" is the term the author uses, the first big step that is anti-thetical to Big Data, Big Email and Big Politics. 05. Need Smart Citizens, not Smart Cities. 06. Need Horizontalism, tools to break down all barriers, rather than progressive variation of Verticalism. 07. Internet is better at gathering STOP energy than it is at gathering GO energy. As now structured, the Internet is "contributing to the hollowing out of local, cross-ideological community interaction" (47). 08. Obama 2008 took the Internet to the next level in terms of mobilizing mass support, and then "knee-capped" (citing Jessica Shearer, a labor organizer) their grassroots after victory. The author has identified a large number of individuals and websites and capabilities that are important small pieces of a larger mosaic, but that are all, without exception, failing to be part of the larger solution. Buy the book to consider each of those in detail. A few of the books mentioned by the author include: Collective Action in Organizations: Interaction and Engagement in an Era of Technological Change (Communication, Society and Politics) Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (The Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture Series) Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake DemocraticPolitics The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy (Oxford Studies in Digital Politics) The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy Missing from the author's construct is a grasp of the tri-fecta of citizen network empowered represented by holistic analytics (all threats, policies, and demographics under view together); true cost economics being visible for every product, policy, behavior, and service; and open source everything engineering. He is simply intuiting the gap. Add those three things to an Autonomous Internet (see the Roadmap at the P2P Foundation) and you have a non-violent revolution. There are so many other books I have reviewed that I would like to link in, but with a ten link limit that is not possible. Instead I offer up the book in my signature line that is also free online with all links active, and my varied lists of lists of book reviews at the Review Page of Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog. Micah Sifry has gifted us with a powerful story, a story that should seize the heart of every activist and eventually be grasped at the intellectual level as well. If there were one book I would want to give out to all the complacent self-centered progressives I know or do not know but want to engage, this is that book. Best wishes to all, Robert David STEELE Vivas INTELLIGENCE FOR EARTH: Clarity, Diversity, Integrity, & Sustainability

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