Thursday, October 31, 2019

The internet is up to things again: thoughts on

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitken

Way back in the early years of the internet, online political mobilization was studied as a question, a hypothesis, a phenomenon. 20 years ago the following was a novel, while perfectly reasonable, statement in academia: “Well into the twenty-first century, the Internet is no longer an exotic political medium.”
Since, we’ve gone through a bit of an emotional roller coaster. The internet would level the playing field and usher in a new era of democracy and a country-wide public conversation. Now we’re in the era of fake news, website content farms, bots scripted to vote en mass on public consultations, and, worst of all, newspapers’ online comment sections. But there's lots of good stuff, too. Today, it's not even a question; of course the internet can be used for dialogue and community mobilization.

The above is a dramatic, exaggerated, and unreasonably short overview in order to set the backdrop for a project worth note:

Some Thoughts launched with a social media push on that aforementioned 50th birthday. It’s a collection of just shy of 100 articles covering “an idea, policy, strategy, or best practice” for the future of cities, organized into 14 “conversations.”

Contributors span community organizers and activists, not-for-profits leads, think tank analysts, public servants, academics, CEOs, journalists, and beyond. There are names like Jim Balsillie and John Ralston Saul (whose contribution title takes a somewhat “didn’t I warn you all about this in 1992?” tone).

Skipping merrily past any assessment of the conversations themselves and into the meta, I want to describe a few reasons why this project is interesting within that history of the internet as a public discourse platform.

It’s coordinated, but independent

There was a time when Lead Now and might have been the likely bets for observers guessing online political game-changers: getting massive amounts of people to sign petitions with single, one-size-fits-all statements. Or, in the same vein, open letters penned by <10 people, but written generally enough to get general agreement from a large section of the general interest community. Some Thoughts makes no statements of solidarity, nodding instead at the idea that discord and contradiction are a part of the project. However, the collection and the collective networks of the contributors made this project impossible to miss for anyone working at the intersection of technology, governance, and community.

(Perhaps, one day, the  history of governance discourse in Canada may one day point to this coordinated but independent approach and recognize the humble but rugged Civic Access Listserv as a foundation.)

It aims deep, not shallow

While the internet permitted increasingly broad public discourse, it simultaneously encouraged brevity. You can interpret any number of votes, read a fair number of short comments, but full conversations and back-and-forths break quickly at scale. This feature of online discourse is common, replicating a feature of the public townhall, people-get-a-few-minutes-with-the-mic problem described by Dr. Robin Gregory:

"When hundreds or thousands of stakeholders are asked to (a) speak before a panel for ten to fifteen minutes, (b) submit short written statements to a government body, or (c) participate as representatives of identified interests, then the invitation contains an implicit request to be either superficial or one-dimensional."

While Some Thoughts was clearly designed for internet reading, and to encourage people to read multiple essays, it’s hardly one-dimensional. Some of the more academic contributors, for instance, produced short but reference-packed miniature journal articles.

Which, in a way, starts to return us to the public engagement pedigree of the GC: technical, wonky, and long papers submitted in response to proposed changes in federal regulations, every one of which has to be announced via the Canada Gazette and opened for comment.

It rejects the convened space

There’s an idea I think is wildly important for government public engagement, and accordingly I quote it (too?) often. It’s the reminder “that communities and individuals have power of their own that is not conferred on them by the decision-maker.” This project was born out of the public engagement process around Sidewalk Labs in Toronto. For the last few years, organizations and governments have endeavoured to create and foster spaces for public discourse on issues, experimenting with new platforms and formats. However, the “official” spaces will always be situated in the much-less-controllable and much-more-densely-trafficked mass media, social media, and community spaces that already exist around those topics. Some Thoughts in this case, represents a parallel, community-generated but net new space for discourse. It’s not the first such platform, but noteworthy in its reach and execution. 

In sum

If you’re interested in the future of cities, go read and explore. If you’re interested in trends and ideas of how public discourse takes shape and can shape public engagement processes and policy option development, go explore and reflect.

I’m deliberately maintaining an observer stance with this post, but the one opinion I’ll offer is that models that create fuller, more thoughtful, and more constructively combative discourse should be warmly welcomed. We’re still experimenting with the best balance of reach versus rigour in online dialogue.

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