The Personal Democracy Forum celebrated its 14th year in New York City on June 8-9, 2017. I was honored to be the visual listener for the second year in a row. Last year, I worked large-scale on big sheets of paper. This time I sketched visual notes on my iPad. But the process was similar—absorb, process, and visually represent two days of thought-provoking keynotes about the intersection of democracy and technology. In the midst of an unprecedented year in politics, conference participants discussed this year’s theme: What We Do Now.
After Andrew Rasiej welcomed all, Micah Sifry posed the challenge of maintaining our bearings when political realities seem to have changed radically and gave a shout-out to Danielle Lee Tomson, who did so much to curate the conference. Dan’l Lewin of Microsoft spoke on the importance of creating access to information technology for everybody on the planet. And then we dove into the keynotes!
Regina Schwartz, the director of the Public Engagement Unit at the NYC Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, gave a talk on “How 21st Century Government Can Heal What Ails Us.” She described how NYC is forging a closer relationship with its residents with high-touch outreach. The goal is that every New Yorker will feel they can impact government and that they have a working relationship with government.
Mark Cridge’s talk, “Civic Tech in a Time of Kakistocracy,” yielded one of the most pungent images in my visual notes, a steaming heap of dung. But back to the talk—Mark emphasized the need for more civic and less tech to create useful projects with local partners around the world in a time when people trust government less.
Tommy Leung and Nathan Perkins, the co-creators of CountLove, shared their visualizations of the number, type, and size of protests throughout the USA from the beginning of the Trump presidency until now. The visuals revealed the diversity of issues and the widespread occurrence of protests, in blue and red states alike, over the last 6 months.
An Xiao Mina, technologist, writer, and artist at Meedan, gave a timely talk about the current visual culture of protest, “Internet Culture and Protest Culture.” She explored how real events trigger hashtags which trigger digital memes which then manifest as physical artifacts and then migrate back online.
Ezra Levin, the co-founder and executive director of Indivisible, described the evolution of Indivisible, from one Google doc to over 6,000 groups around the country. Can they drive bottom up change locally? Can they coordinate with each other to help drive a national agenda? Can they organize to create lasting change? These are the challenges and promises of Indivisible.
Shannon Coulter, co-founder of #GrabYourWallet, discussed “From Power Grab to #GrabYourWallet: How a Late Night Tweetstorm Became a Movement.” With an estimated 2.2 billion dollars in annual spending from female Clinton voters alone, consumer boycotts have tremendous potential to influence corporations.
Jessy Tolkan, the executive director of Purpose, wondered if we are primed for “Seizing the Moment.” After a trauma, people, institutions, and nations can respond by spiraling downward or flourishing. How will we respond to the recent election?
Jonathan Smucker, director and fo-founder of Beyond the Choir, explained “How to Not Be an Activist,” by delving into the surprising history of the word “activist.” He argued that calling oneself an activist creates a counterproductive separation between the activist and other people, a separation which leaves other people off the hook for being engaged citizens.
Becky Bond, co-founder of Knock Every Door, explained how the Bernie Sanders campaign outperformed expectations by empowering volunteers, taking “low information voters” seriously, and going big, both in vision and outreach. To quote Bond “The revolution will not be staffed.”
Faiz Shakir, national political director at the American Civil Liberties Union, described how a venerable old organization has adopted “Mass Organizing With a Legacy.”
Lori Brewer Collins, the founder and president of Cultivate the Karass, told a story of what it takes to help people take off partisan armor in her talk, “On Becoming a Loyal Antagonist.” She encouraged us to get out of our comfort zone and engage productively with people outside our political tribe and “put a few stretchmarks on your soul.”
Emily May, co-founder of Hollaback, posed a difficult question: “When Everything Hurts, Is Healing Even Possible?” She examined the impact of trauma in the life of all too many Americans, and the way that politics helps fracture a traumatized America even more, even within loving families. Without retreating from her political beliefs she wondered, “Can I ask people to see me in my dignity if I don’t see them?”
Jose Antonio Vargas, founder and CEO of Define American, is an undocumented immigrant living in the spotlight. In his presentation “On Citizenship,” he delved into the fraught and complex issue of immigration in the U.S., and finally defined citizenship as showing up and doing your best to engage with shaping your society, whatever your immigration status.
Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, made a case for “Why the Fight for Net Neutrality Matters More Than Ever.” He explained that net neutrality and freedom of speech are inextricably linked and urged us to participate in the upcoming Net Neutrality Day of Action on July 12. “It’s getting medieval out there,” said Wu.
Mike Masnick, the founder and editor of Techdirt, spoke from bitter experience about “Fighting the Free Speech Chill.” Techdirt is currently being sued for $15 million dollars for voicing an opinion that a particular person did not invent email. Masnick’s talk was one of the most emotional moments in a conference full of emotion.
Rachel Weidinger, an artist and organizer, talked about “Digital Security and First Aid,” looking at the trauma digital surveillance can wreak on communities and individuals, and using the metaphor of first aid to catalyze healing conversations to help people cope with what she calls the long emergency we are living now.
Karine Jean-Pierre, senior advisor and national spokesperson at MoveOn.org, discussed “Preparing for the Predictable Emergency.” She posited that the president is bigoted, unhinged, and ignorant, and as such will react to a real emergency in ways that create mass violations of human rights. She stressed that action in the first 48 hours of an emergency are critical and urged us to devise a plan for what we can do in that crucial initial phase of an all too predictable emergency.
Zeynep Tufekci, associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shared her thoughts on “Surveillance Capitalism and Authoritarianism: A Match Made in Silicon Valley.” She made the case that 21st century persuasion is qualitatively different than what we experienced in the 20th century. Persuasion can be uniquely tailored to individuals now, giving subtle nudges that can markedly influence, among other things, our voting behavior. Throw in the unpredictable variable of artificial intelligence and sell to authoritarian regimes and we have a scary recipe for social control. But we still have time to shape the future if we can open up and regulate the collectors of big data.