inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #0 of 87: Hal Royaltey (hal) Wed 29 Jun 05 12:37
We're pleased to welcome Jon Lebkowsy, co-author of _Extreme Democracy_.

 Jon is CEO of Polycot, an innovative team of Internet technology experts 
 with broad experience creating and managing information systems for
 businesses and nonprofit organizations. He was cofounder and CEO of one of
 the first virtual corporations, FringeWare, Inc. He is currently President
 of EFF-Austin, a cofounder of the Open Source Business Alliance, the Austin
 Wireless City Project, and the national Social Software Alliance.
 A longtime proponent of online tools for civic engagement, Jon served on 
 the organizing committee for O'Reilly's Digital Democracy Teach-In. He has 
 written about technology for numerous publications, including Mondo 2000, 
 Whole Earth Review, Fringe Ware Review and Wired Magazine.

Our interviewer is Bruce Umbaugh.
 Bruce is a philosopher at Webster University, where he teaches courses such 
 as Epistemology, Critical Thinking, and Ethics for Cyberspace at the main 
 campus in St. Louis and on the Net. His presentations and papers have as a 
 common thread the role of technology as potentially liberating and
 democratizing, on one hand, and as a tool of authority, on the other. The
 first of those, in 1991, defended anonymity in online communications and
 argued for non-authoritarian solutions to the apparent problems it posed.
 The most recent argued that only collective action (not technology) can
 preserve more democratic, fair use of copyrighted material.
 Bruce is also Associate Dean of Arts & Sciences at Webster, which gives him
 a new appreciation of how the lure of the efficiency of administrative fiat
 imperils more democratic tendencies.

inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #1 of 87: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Wed 29 Jun 05 15:15
Thanks loads, Hal.

Jon, this book is quite a document, with an intriguing story all its own.
We'll get to that, I'm sure, in good time, but I wanted to start with
something else that struck me early on in perusing it.

You and Mitch have done something a little funny here. You've assembled a
book of essays more or less about "how the Internet changes everything about
politics." It's a theme that lends itself automatically to breathless
metaphors of tsunami and fire, to claims that this is all without precedent,
and that everything we thought we knew is wrong. But you take the wind out
of all that in the preface when you offer up some social and historical

So (he lobbed softly), which is it: are these participatory technologies
really new, or is this just another step on the long march to the future of
democracy? What's really going on here, and what is this volume really
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #2 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 29 Jun 05 21:37
I don't think the Internet changes *everything* about politics, but I
think it gives us what Jock Gill and other refer to as a
"post-broadcast" politics, which is an effect of the broadcast media
era that evolved through the 20th century. Broadcast politics is about
mass media pouring information (of whatever quality) into our heads,
and when the time comes, we spit out a vote... after which we leave
politics to the professionals 'til the next election season. 

Our book includes some visionary pieces, but there's also nuts and
bolts discussions and practical assessments of computer-mediated
politics. We know that the Internet's influence on traditional politics
began to kick in during the 2000 election; during the 2004 election
season, the Howard Dean campaign pushed that perceived influence to a
new level - but not so much because we had more participation in the
national conversation, which was also happening via blogs, email lists,
etc. The Dean campaign got attention because it was so effective in
raising money online.

(Steven Johnson has a great analysis of the Dean campaign from an
emergence perspective, where he says the campaign was effective at
clustering - "conjuring up crowds" - but not so great at coping -
"being able to respond quickly and effectively to new situations, to
both opportunities and threats.")

There were post-broadcasts components in Dean's campaign and others,
especially where blogs were prominent and heavily commented, but if the
measure of success is how much money you raised to run ads in
broadcast media, you're still in the world of broadcast politics. I'm
waiting to see a campaign succeed though low on money because it did a
good job of building social network support, online and off, and
participated in an ongoing discussion with participants. That might be
doable in the not so distant future.

Extreme Democracy, the concept, is about taking charge of the
political process, making it transparent, emphasizing a deep confidence
in the people and "opening the policy-making process to many centers
of power through deeply networked coalitions that can be organized
around local, national and international issues." When we say
"extreme," we're thinking of extreme programming, small teams making
rapid progress on complex projects. Is this new? I don't think so,
though with computer mediated communication, we have sustained
communication and a high degree of immediacy, and an ability to form
meaningful but fairly loose connections with many people and groups
over time.
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #3 of 87: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Thu 30 Jun 05 07:08
Extreme democracy doesn't have to be direct democracy, I guess. Forty years
ago, say, we began batting around the idea that new communications
technologies would allow citizens to make all the decisions by voting
directly, thereby skipping over elected representatives. But you're
suggesting something different: that communications technology could allow
elected representatives (and candidates for office) to *communicate mroe
effectively* with citizens, thereby raising citizens' influence on outcomes

That's one thing.

Another thing yhou're talking about is using technology to organize
political movements more effectively. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #4 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 30 Jun 05 10:42
People may have different things in mind when they say "direct
democracy" - for some it's about abolishing the Electoral College, for
instance.  I can't imagine a system of direct voting on all issues and
potential decisions. Representation makes sense - you have people who
dedicate their time and thought to policy. However there's a real
barrier between elected officials and their constituents, partly
structural (access barriers) and partly conceptual (a sense of distance
and powerlessness). In the broadcast era, communication was
increasingly one-way and channeled by 'experts.'

Scale is part of the problem. How many of his constituents can a
candidate or elected official have a conversation with, realistically
speaking? David Weinberger made a good point during the Dean campaign:
of course Dean couldn't have conversations (online or off) with this
thousands of supporters... but they could have conversations with one
another, and those conversations would feed into the campaign ethos.

Rather than saying we organize more effectively, I would say we can
extend more effectively - reach more people faster. I'm actually less
interested in how well we can build political movements, than in how
well we can distribute, not just information, but understanding. If you
send a million emails and get 200,000 signatures on a petition, that's
cool - but it would be so much better if you knew that those 200K
understood what they were signing. 
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #5 of 87: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Thu 30 Jun 05 10:55
Not only reach more people more quickly, but reach people who can make their
own connections among themselves using the many-to-many medium, right? That
is powerful.

You're envisioning a political future of interconnected citizens conversing,
such that their conversations feed into the decision making of
representatives, without the mediation of "expert" gatekeepers on
television. Is that "The Second Superpower" of Moore's piece?

At the same time, you raise the issue of scale. Shirky discusses the
"predicatable imbalance" of rank in his power laws essay. Doesn't that
phenomenon have the effect of reintroducing gatekeepers among the citizen
punditry? If not, why not? If so, how are we better off?
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #6 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 30 Jun 05 16:07
Jim wrote "The beautiful but deeply agitated face of this second
superpower is the worldwide peace campaign, but the body of the
movement is made up of millions of people concerned with a broad agenda
that includes social development, environmentalism, health, and human
rights. This movement has a surprisingly agile and muscular body of
citizen activists who identify their interests with world society as a
whole — and who recognize that at a fundamental level we are all one,"
and goes on to say how Internet technology enables this movement ...
"The shared, collective mind of the second superpower is made up of
many individual human minds—your mind and my mind—together we create
the movement. In traditional democracy our minds don’t matter much -
what matters are the minds of those with power of position, and the
minds of those that staff and lobby them. In the emergent democracy of
the second superpower, each of our minds matters a lot."

The power law distribution keeps coming up, but you have to consider
that there's power in the long tail of the blogosphere - i.e. blogs
that are not necessarily heavily linked individually, but have a kind
of aggregate presence and a fairly large readership, not all at once,
but over time. Besides which, we don't really know how people read
blogs, so we can't be sure what the statistics mean. If I see a blog I
like and add it to my blogroll, but never read it again, that link I've
made is still a factor in that blog's statistical "popularity." If I
like a blog and add it to my news aggregator, that generates ongoing
hits, even if I lose interest and stop reading. 
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #7 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 30 Jun 05 17:46
Sorry, I was called away for a swim! I just nudged the power law/ how
blogs are read subject without giving it a real push. I just can't see
defining an "A-list" without more reliable metrics, and I don't think
people read blogs the way they read newspaper columns. My gut tells me
that people are surfing blogs the way they always surfed web sites,
that they're more likely to read an item or two in a blog here and
there than to read some set of blogs that they come back to on a daily
basis. That's mainstream media thinking.
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #8 of 87: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Fri 1 Jul 05 04:16
Hmmmm. It seems to me that it would be mainstream media thinking (you write
that like there's something wrong with it :) ) to worry about *who* was the
most popular (or influential). For that, yes, metrics would be required. But
I was thinking that underneath the tentative empirical work, the power law
discussion has at its base the hypothesis that there *will be* a power law
distribution to popularity (or influence) in this sphere.

If that's right, then it follows that there are going to be new gatekeepers
of a sort. Whether it's as easy to identify them as when there were just
three of them in our living rooms each evening and a few on doorsteps along
the East Coast each morning is a different matter. Or am I missing

On another note -- you guys published this book unconventially. For example,
it's under a Creative Commons license. How did you come to publish as you
have, and why?
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #9 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 1 Jul 05 09:16
There is definitely something 'wrong' with the mainstream media
approach to news and information, which is mostly driven by show biz
instincts rather than a sense of responsibility to give us the
information we need in order to be effective citizens. This is related
to the corporate focus on profit maximization at any cost. Consider
that our media ecology determines what we think and perceive, it's our
reality. News blows some stories out of proportions while ignoring
others that are important, so our perception of the world is skewed. Is
the Michael Jackson trial important? Is genocide in Darfur trivial?

Blogs as citizen journalism may be about firing the gatekeepers and
building our own sense of reality, peer to peer.

We were originally working with a publisher who was cool with putting
the book online and the Creative Commons license. We felt the book was
an important resource, we wanted to publish it far and wide and
stimulate conversation about the topics covered. We had an amiable
parting with the original publisher, though, over what you might call
creative differences. Our editor wanted revisions and cuts that were
more aggressive than we were comfortable making. I understood his
perspective; following his advice would have made for a tighter book,
but we would've lost something that we thought was more important, the
sense of many voices exploring the impact of social technology on

When we parted ways with the original publisher, we put all the
chapters of the book online at, making it
accessible prior to the presidential election but nowhere near as early
as we had hoped, and without marketing. We combined the chapters with
a blog and invited comments, and continued looking for a publisher. I
wanted to have copies of the book for a panel at the Personal Democracy
Forum in New York in May, and someone told me that we should consider
publishing on demand via Lulu has a pretty good service
(though there were glitches), but for a small investment we could be
placed at various online retail sites, which is still in process. The
print version's currently available at

The quality of the printing and binding is quite good, so you can
publish a completely professional volume through Lulu, however you
don't have the distribution and marketing channels of the large
publishers. However we think _Extreme Democracy_ will have a "long
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #10 of 87: Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 1 Jul 05 12:23
(NOTE: Offsite readers who have comments or questions can send email to
 <> to have them added to this conversation)
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #11 of 87: Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Fri 1 Jul 05 13:23
Jon, one of the hallmarks of Internet communities is the ability to create
non-geographic affinities. People with complementary -- not necessarily
identical -- beliefs and ideas can share with and build upon each other
online, even if they live thousands of miles apart. This is not news to
anyone here.

But these non-geographic connections disappear politically, at least at the
representative level. We're stuck with representatives who reflect the
plurality of local residents who took the time to vote. Is there any
possibility of non-geographic representation down the road?
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #12 of 87: J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Fri 1 Jul 05 13:32

I just ordered a copy. Since I'm working with Technorati now (blog search)
I'll be thinking about what role we play in all this.
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #13 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 1 Jul 05 14:39
Jamais: My own short-term focus would be on getting more participation
by more people with better understanding of the process as it stands
today. I'm not thinking we quite transcend our connection to place in
the near term, it's hard for me to see a better way to organize
representation. On the other hand borders are less relevant given our
global infrastructure for communication and connection, so we might
evolve a different approach longer term, I think.

Matisse: Technologies like Technorati are important because they show
us the blogosphere in aggregate, and I think that's where we find the
real power of blogs. A Technorati search shows me two pages of posts
about Sandra Day O'Connor - reading through those I can get random,
diverse perspectives on her resignation, which is so much cooler than
reading what the usual suspects have to say. (Technorati is at, for those of you who aren't familiar. It's a
search engine that focuses specifically on blog content.)
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #14 of 87: J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Fri 1 Jul 05 17:50
Jamais: Capital markets arealready a global form of voting, albeit capitalist,
not humanist in design.
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #15 of 87: Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 1 Jul 05 20:16
Why should we want to read blogs written by campaign managers or
supporters?  What I'm really hoping for (but I'm not holding my breath)
is that with the rise of blogging, we'll get politicians who can
actually write something worth reading about what's going on in
politics, while it's still happening.
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #16 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 2 Jul 05 07:38
Definitely. I think that'll happen as we have more candidates who
really get blogging, and will risk posting their thoughts... assuming
they're elected.  I have faith that voters will support candidates who
speak their minds over those who operate behind a fog of expert
handlers, and I wish I could point to an example, but I haven't seen
one yet. 
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #17 of 87: J Matisse Enzer (matisse) Sat 2 Jul 05 09:55
> I have faith that voters will support candidates who
> speak their minds over those who operate behind a fog of expert
> handlers

That's a really tricky one. Candidates and politicians often represent far
more people than they could ever conceivably have real relationships with, and
so communicating about complex, charged issues is something that might truly
be beyond the acpability of any one human to do on their own. It may be that
we the voters, as a aggragate group are rarely if ever going to vote for
peoiple who expose their personal, idosyncratic thoughts of deeply divisive
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #18 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 2 Jul 05 12:17
I think any high-profile blogger has to exercise judgement, and I
think speaking your mind is different from saying everything that comes
to mind. 
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #19 of 87: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sat 2 Jul 05 13:13
That's an important distinction.

What are the threats to these new technologies as democratizing? With a
rudimentary threat model, we could go about sketching responses and
preventive measures.
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #20 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sat 2 Jul 05 15:31
Here's three issues I thought of right away:

Freedom to connect: net-based democratic technologies depend on open
and accessible networks.  Corporations and/or governments that operate
networks might restrict access and use, constraining speech and
stifling innovation.

Digital divide: when civic engagement and participation in the
political process require access to technology, those without access
are potentially excluded. We're talking about people who don't want to
fiddle with a dang computer, can't buy one, can't get an Internet
connection, etc.

Echo chamber: if we're just forming cliques where we talk to folks we
agree with and ignore other ways of thinking, we're missing the debate
that's an important element of democracy (IMO). Some are trying to
address this problem, e.g. Let's Talk America
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #21 of 87: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Mon 4 Jul 05 07:27
Some of the technology you're talking about could help address the first, to
a limited extent.

With the right organization among us, technology can help on all three.

Happy Independence Day! (What does the flag of Extreme Democracy look like?)
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #22 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 4 Jul 05 08:10
The "freedom to connect" issue relates more to infrastructure than
applications. Might be helpful if we imposed a massive tax when a phone
company buys a legislator!

Funny you should mention the flag... I just got an interesting comment
on my 4th of July post at, which is at 

I suppose an Extreme Democracy map would have a network map on it...
something like this:
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #23 of 87: virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Tue 5 Jul 05 12:23
Aldon writes, from off-Well:

I am not a member of The Well, but Jon Lebkowsky let me know about a
discussion going on about 'Extreme Democracy', a book he and Mitch Ratcliffe
wrote and which I contributed a chapter to.

I wanted to add a few comments of my own to the discussion.  Brian Slesinsky
wrote about his hope that someday, politicians will write good content for
blogs.  I am the BlogMaster for John DeStefano's Gubernatorial campaign ( ).  I write a lot of the content, as do other
staffers.  We try to get Mayor DeStefano to write his own material, but it
is difficult.  Candidates have extremely busy schedules and finding time for
them to write good blog entries is a major challenge.

I suspect that we will see more of this further down the ticket as
candidates for state legislature and municipal offices campaign and perhaps
have more time to write about their campaigns and what is important to them.
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #24 of 87: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 5 Jul 05 15:09
Aldon is among the best of the campaign bloggers; I think we're seeing
the emergence of a new kind of political consultant. Good campaign
bloggers have to be especially clueful about their political
environment, and they have to be excellent communicators. 
inkwell.vue.248 : Jon Lebkowsky, "Extreme Democracy"
permalink #25 of 87: <> (silly) Tue 5 Jul 05 15:09
There's a big difference between "perceived influence" and reality,
Jon.  Howard Dean did not win in Iowa or New Hampshire.  Ultimately,
he was brushed aside.

The online subculture is an elite.  It's a minority, a fraction of
the population.  Mass news media outlets still run the show.

Techniques implemented by Joe Trippi during the Dean campaign will
be used in future elections.  The net and other new technologies
will be used to raise funds at the grassroots level and rally mobs
of supporters--and also for unidealistic purposes such as to end-run
around campaign finance laws.

Multinational corporations own a big chunk of the net and the other
new technologies.  Their mass news media outlets have co-opted blogs
and webspace.


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