I’m at the wonderful Re:publica conference for a single day, racing home to teach tomorrow… and thus far I’ve given a keynote and done over 12 interviews, so I haven’t gotten the whole feel of the conference yet. Still, it’s one of the most wonderful and high energy venues I’ve ever spoken at, and I’m having a great time.
My talk this morning focused on civics in the age of mistrust. The organizers (wisely?) put a different title on it, but the audience clearly got the core idea: we’re at a moment in time where mistrust in institutions is at a very high level, and any approaches to revitalizing public life or fixing civics needs to start from understanding mistrust and harnessing it productive.
At some point soon, I hope to annotate my speakers notes, likely on FOLD. But here are the rough ones now, for those who missed the talk, or for those who are interested and want to know what I meant to say.
I want to begin my talk by showing you a christmas gift I received in 2012 from my friend, journalist Quinn Norton.
I received the postcard a few weeks after she published an essay that was both brilliant and troubling. It was titled “Don’t Vote” and it was, in part, an apology to her great-grandmother, who had marched in the streets to demand women’s right to vote, the right Quinn was now urging us to stop exercising. She writes “I have decided that I am on strike as a voter, until voting means something.”
Quinn is opting out of voting not out of ignorance, but out of knowledge and frustration: with gerrymandering, with legalized corruption, and with her growing sense of impotence at changing these problems through the ballot box. She closes the essay by urging us to “let your body be your ballot” – to make change in how you act in the world, what you stand for, for how the organizations you work with or companies you work for treat people.
Her postcard is a much simpler statement: it’s an elegant essay reduced to a cartoon. The picture is of a brick with a logo that’s unmistakeable to any American voter – it’s the sticker you receive when you vote. It’s like the ash they smear on your forehead on ash wednesday – visible, public evidence that you’ve done your civic duty. The postcard is a cartoon, not a concrete suggestion: it’s not an encouragement to riot so much as it is a reminder that participating in a system that’s badly broken is an endorsement of it
Quinn wrote her essay after spending much of a year reporting on Occupy, while embedded within the movement, visiting 14 of the camps, and wrote a moving eulogy for Occupy in Wired. In her reporting, she is clear that she was in, but not part of, Occupy, covering it as press and treating it with the seriousness that it deserved, as clear evidence of people dissatisfied with how systems are working and looking for ways to change them, or replace them with something different.
I pinned Quinn’s brick above my desk so that I would look at it every day.
represented a tension between two sorts of civic engagement that I have been losing faith in: electoral, representative democracy and public protest.
I’m certainly not the only one losing faith in democracy’s ability to make change. We are seeing falling voting rates in the United States, with 2014 registering the lowest turnout in history for a US congressional election.
And the US is not alone. 2014 also saw the lowest turnout for an EU parliamentary election, and while EP elections always have lower turnout than national elections in Europe, both have been trending down in Europe since 1979, much as they have been in the US.
Lots of reasons have been offered for why participation in voting is decreasing. Many of these explanations blame the ignorance or laziness of voters: if only we weren’t so distracted by our phones and the internet, if only we weren’t so lazy, we’d take part in our critical civic duty. But this argument misses the critical fact that while participation in elections is shrinking, we’re experiencing a golden age of protest. And say what you will about people who take to the streets to protest their government, they may be many things, but they’re not lazy.
Protests are an essential part of democracy. They can be deeply effective as a way of demanding immediate change from those who are in power. Last week, my country watched people come out into the streets in Baltimore, NYC, Boston to protest death of Freddie Gray, a young man fatally injured after he was arrested by local police. After a week of protests, six police officers are now facing murder and manslaughter charges. Certainly doesn’t always work, but it can be powerful in forcing institutions to do the right thing
Protest gets more complicated when you’re not protesting a single incident and demanding a response, but protesting against a larger system that’s broken.
2011 was a pivotal year for protest with the arab spring protests, a wave of popular protests legitimately seeking to change oppressive governments. They’ve had a mixed outcome, as governments have gotten better at fending them off. The current tally gives us one clear success (Tunisia), three civil wars (Syria, Libya, Yemen), violent repression (Bahrain, Sudan), and the deeply complicated case of Egypt, where a successful revolution led to election of Islamist government, popular protests led to a military coup.
We’ve learned that protests are good at counterpower, at ousting a surprised and unaware government, but that protests have a much harder time building governments than toppling them. Even though it’s philosophically more easy to be excited about protests leading to revolution in monarchies than in democracies, by the middle of 2011, democratic movements in Europe, North and South America had picked up the spirit of the Arab Spring and turned it into an anti-politics movement – protesting against repressive and disempowering systems, not against singular injustices.
In Spain, the Indignados movement brought people into the streets, starting on May 15, 2011. Activists protested unemployment brought on by austerity policies, lack of opportunities for young people, and a general sense that Spain was being run on behalf of a wealthy elite at the expense of ordinary citizens. While the movements in the streets ended within a year, some supporters of the movement have build the political party Podemos, which is the second largest in Spain by number of members, but finished 4th in recent elections with only 8% of the vote.
The Occupy movement, began in NYC on September 17, 2011 with Occupy Wall Street. The movement focused on inequality, financial corruption, housing and college debt burdens, and had some measurable successes on local scales, fighting eviction and buying back outstanding debt. It has brought discussions of inequality into the political dialog in the US, and has helped establish a template for protest globally, with movements like Occupy Central in Hong Kong adopting tactics and rhetoric… but even its most ardent supporters will concede that the movement has not led to major changes to the US political or economic system.
These protest movements throughout Europe, North and South America have demonstrated huge energy and enormous popular support. But it’s hard to point to tangible, systemic changes that parallel the scale of mobilizations that have taken place. This may point to a paradox of these broad, anti-political protests in democracies. Unless you’re going to overthrow a democratically elected government, the likely outcome of a protest is that you’re going to get invited into government to try to fix things. And as activists throughout history have figured out, fixing the problems of inequality, corruption and lack of opportunity is a lot harder than motivating people to protest against them.
I want to offer two other reasons to be skeptical of systemic change through protests.
Zeynep Tufekci is a brilliant scholar of social change and of protest. She conducted fieldwork focused on the Gezi Park protests, which brought at least 3.5 million Turks into the streets of 90 Turkish cities from May to August of 2013. Zeynep reports that the rallies featured an incredibly diverse group of protesters – from ultranationalists to gay and lesbian rights activists – and that they fell apart very quickly. While they were dramatic, they were also incredibly ineffective. The one shared objective of the movement – ousting Erdoğan – failed utterly, as Erdoğan was elected president in 2014 without need for a run-off.
Why? Zeynep argues that it’s much, much easier to bring people out to protest than in years before – you can organize on Facebook, report on Twitter, livestream on UStream and now on Periscope. Combine all these channels for mobilization with a message behind the protests that was maximally inclusive – quoting a poem by Rumi, the movement’s motto was “Sen de gel” – You come, too! But in years past, took months of organizing behind the scenes to bring 50,000 people in the streets. Bringing 50,000 meant that you’d held meetings with different groups and made deals and compromises to find a common agenda. Now you can bring out 50,000 people by announcing what you’re against and inviting people to join you. But when the authorities crack down, or when it comes to turn from mobilization to making demands and setting an agenda, movements split and dissipate much more easily – and political leaders know this, and are less threatened by a million in the streets today than they were by 50k a decade ago. What we may be building in the wake of the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests, Zeynep warns, is a form of protest that can mobilize but can’t set an agenda or build a movement.
If that sounds like bad news, here’s some worse news from another scholar, Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, in Sofia, Bulgaria.
He worries that even if protests like the Indignados or Occupy succeed in ousting a government, much of what protesters are asking for is not possible. “Voters can change governments, yet it is nearly impossible for them to change economic policies.” When Indignados grows into Podemos, Krastev predicts that it’s going to be very hard for them to truly reverse policies on austerity – global financial markets are unlikely to let them do so, punish them by making it impossibly expensive to borrow
Krastev offers the example of how Italy finally got rid of Silvio Berlusconi – wasn’t through popular protest, but through the bond market – the bond market priced italian debt at 6.5%, and Berlusconi resigned, leaving Mario Monti to put austerity measures in place. You may have been glad to see Berlusconi go, but don’t mistake this as a popular revolt that kicked him out – it was a revolt by global lenders, and basically set the tone for what the market would allow an Italian leader to do. As Krastev puts it, “Politics has been reduced to the art of adjusting to the imperatives of the market” – we’ve got an interesting test of whether this theory is right with Syriza, a left-wing party rooted in anti-austerity protests now in power, and facing possible default and exit from the Eurozone this month. What Krastev is saying is really chilling – we can oust bad people through protest and elect the right people and put them in power, we can protest to pressure our leaders to do the right things, and they may not be powerful enough to give us the changes we really want.
If you’re feeling depressed at this point in the talk, that’s a good thing – it means you’re listening. But it also means that you may be looking for a new way forward, a third path between elections and protest. And for a lot of people – particularly for people like those in this room – we’ve hoped the way forward is through technology, through the mobile phone and the internet and the ways they might make engaging with society more fair, more participatory, make governments more responsive and closer to the will of the people.
I’m part of the first generation to use and build the world wide web – I dropped out of graduate school in 1994 to help found one of the world’s first social media companies. Like a lot of people who were working on the internet in the mid-1990s, I wasn’t there for the money, because frankly, no one was making money online at that point. I was there because people believed that the internet was going to change the world.
We believed that the internet was going to oust powerful companies that dominated markets with monopolies and make it impossible for other monopolies to take their place, because it was so easy to create new businesses online that no one would ever control the whole market for something as essential as search or online messaging.
We believed that the internet routes around censorship and that publishing online would allow people to speak freely, that censoring the internet was like nailing gelatin to the wall, as President Clinton once said, and that when countries like China encountered the internet, their governments would fall as people learned how they were controlled and manipulated.
We believed that the internet would let people interact with each other in new and honest ways, because no one knew who we were online. In a space where no one knew whether you were male or female, black or white, European or African, we would overcome the prejudices of the offline world and have conversations that were fully inclusive of all perspectives.
We believed that governments didn’t care what happened online, that they weren’t paying attention to it, and that if they were, the internet was far too vast to monitor all of it, and that even if they did, the companies we were using to communicate would protect our privacy, and that we could use unbreakable encryption to protect anything that truly needed to be secret.
In other words, we believed a lot of dumb stuff
It turns out that the internet doesn’t magically make the world a better place. We’re starting to wake up to that now – when the inventor of the World Wide Web launches a campaign to build “the web we want”, a web that’s very different from the one we’ve all built over the last twenty five years, it’s a pretty clear sign that this remarkable technology alone doesn’t transform the world in the ways we might hope
Of all the missed opportunities and wrong turns, the most disappointing may be the way the internet has failed to transform politics and government.
Some hoped that the internet would transform elections, making it easier for exciting new and unknown candidates to build a political base and take power. It works, sometimes – I had lunch yesterday with my favorite German politician, Malte Spitz of the Green Party, and it’s hard to imagine him getting elected without the internet. But it turns out that existing political parties have gotten very good at using the internet to raise money and disseminate propaganda, and to target advertising to persuade us how to vote for candidates who aren’t using the internet to solicit ideas and input.
We hoped that by demanding transparency, we would expose waste and corruption and make government more responsive and efficient. But it turns out that it’s a long path from releasing data sets to exposing systemic flaws in governance, and that it’s a task that requires not just coders, but journalists, artists, storytellers and activists. Even when we’re confronted with a trove of secrets, leaked diplomatic and intelligence documents, it takes enormous work to turn leaks into revelations and into actions. Transparency is a neccesary but not sufficient requirement for change.
We hoped that we as citizens might take on the work of actually crafting and shaping legislation, stepping back from the compromise that is representative democracy to participating directly in writing the laws that govern our societies. And while we’ve had precious few successes, it’s worth celebrating those victories we have, like the Marco Civil Do Internet in Brazil, written not only by professionals, but by a thousands citizens. Ronaldo Lemos and his colleagues at the Institute of Technology and Society in Rio are releasing a new platform, Plataforma Brasiliana, which will make it easier to collectively author legislation, but questions remain: yes, surpremely geeky Brasilians were willing to take time to author laws about the internet, but will anyone show up to write better tax policy?
Micah Sifry, co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, is one of the smartest people thinking about the internet and politics, and he’s recently published a brave and terrific book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet). It’s brave because Micah thoroughly acknowledges that we haven’t gotten what we wanted from twenty years of bringing the internet to politics – indeed, in the US, our politics on a federal level are far worse than they were two decades ago. Fixing this is going to require us to build some tools that are very, very difficult to build. We need to solve the hardest problem in politics – how do you let people deliberate at scale, so that people can work together to build movements, to advocate for issues, to work together with elected officials to bring new solutions into the world. And he’s hopeful that people may be starting to build these tools, looking to people like Pia Mancini, the leader of Argentina’s Net Party, which is building Democracy OS, a set of tools that let citizens vote on policy proposals and work with legislators in the Net Party to promote new legislation.
I think Micah’s right that we need new tools. But I think the problem is even deeper than he imagines. When you ask Americans whether they trust their government to do the right thing most of the time, 24% answer yes. That’s down from 77% in 1964. For my entire lifetime, there’s been only one moment when a majority of the American people trusted the government to do the right thing… and that’s the moment George W. Bush was leading us into a disastrous war in Iraq.
But it’s not just confidence in government that’s dropping in the US – it’s trust in institutions of all kinds. From the 1960s to now, Americans tell you that they have less trust in newspapers, in churches, in non-profit organizations, in corporations, in banks, in the medical establishment. The only institutions where trust is increasing in my country are in the military and the police (though trust in the police is changing very quickly right now.)
I don’t have data at the same granularity for European nations as I do for the US, and I don’t want to make the mistake of treating European nations as a group, but I want to note that one survey sees several European nations has having a bigger problem with institutional mistrust than the US. Edelman’s Trust Barometer is built annually by asking 1000 citizens in each of 33 nations questions about whether they trust the government, NGOs, business and the media. They found that trust is at an all time low, and that Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ireland all have a lower level of trust in institutions than we are experiencing in the US.
I don’t know what’s causing this increase in mistrust in the US and Europe – I don’t think it’s a single thing, but a combination of factors. Inequality is on the rise, globally, as Thomas Piketty has been telling us, and it’s easy for trust to decline when we feel like very few people are getting rich and we’re getting poorer – whether we blame government, corporations or banks, we lose trust in those institutions. Transparency, for all its benefits, means that we know more about the failings of institutions, about corruption or just sheer incompetence – it’s hard to learn about the causes of the 2008 financial crisis and come out with trust intact in the global financial system and those responsible for regulating it. The professionalization of politics has something to do with mistrust – once we start seeing politicians as a different class of people rather than as people like us, representing our interests, we don’t trust them to have our best interests at heart. I think mistrust can come from a sense of powerlessness – if governments and corporations and the media can’t rally together and make real progress on a critical issue like global warming, are they really as powerful as we think they are?
I fear that mistrust has something to do with globalization, and increasing diversity in our societies. Mistrust began to rise in the US during the reforms of the civil rights era that began ensuring equal rights for African-American citizens… and it’s possible that people started trusting governments and universities less when they were providing services not just to people like them, but to people of other ethnic or national backgrounds. This might be a way to think about euroskepticism and rising nationalism, as some people mistrust institutions that are redistributing wealth across the continent to people they identify as “other”
Political scientist and economists are generally pretty scared of mistrust. There’s a low level of mistrust that you need to have a liberal democracy function: the legislative, executive and judicial branches all look at each other with a low-level of mistrust so that they’re able to act as checks and balances to each other. But high levels of mistrust end up being corrosive. If people don’t trust banks, they don’t deposit money and eventually the bank can’t make loans. If people don’t trust governments, they don’t pay taxes and the government can do less and less. Institutional mistrust is corrosive in large doses – it leads to societies where we interact and trade only with people we trust deeply, like family or tribe.
Many of my friends around the world who are trying to revitalize interest in civics are working to increase the trust in institutions. Whether they’re encouraging people to monitor elections, releasing government data sets or helping cities find and fill potholes, they’re working to lower the cost of civic participation and give people a better chance to have a positive experience with the institutions they’re affected by. I think this work is important and admirable, but I also think it’s not nearly enough to tackle the problems we face today.
The radical idea I want to put forward is that we can’t reverse the rise of mistrust. Instead, we’ve got to figure out how to channel it productively. We have to start treating mistrust, our deep skepticism of the institutions in our lives and in our communities into a civic asset.
I’m seeing at least three different ways people are learning to harness mistrust. In our research at Center for Civic Media, we’re seeing a great deal of civic activism that’s unfolding outside of government institutions. People who have a high degree of frustration and mistrust, but who are finding ways to make change outside of winning elections and passing laws.
In his book Code, Lawrence Lessig observed that there are at least four ways we regulate behavior in our societies. We pass and enforce laws to prohibit certain behaviors; we use markets to make some behaviors expensive and others cheap; we use code and other architectures to make some behaviors technically possible or impossible; and we use norms to make some behaviors socially desirable and others taboo. When we lose faith in some kinds of institutions, say in governments’ abilities to pass and enforce good laws, we see people channeling their desire for change towards code, towards markets and towards norms.
I’d like to see European governments take action to prevent the massive violations of privacy we’ve seen committed by the NSA, but I have very little faith that the American government will make significant changes to prevent the sorts of violations revealed by Edward Snowden. And since I don’t have very much faith in my government to make these changes, it’s exciting to see projects putting their faith in code to make surveillance far more difficult by making use of strong encryption routine. Mailpile, Mailvelope, Tor, Whisper Systems, The Guardian Project – these are all people channeling their frustration and mistrust into making change through code.
I’d like an international binding carbon tax, but it’s hard to have faith that the UN and other international institutions will find balance between countries like China and India, that want to give billions of citizens a better lifestyle, fossil fuel producing nations, and nations like mine where a remarkable percentage of people aren’t convinced that human beings have a role in causing climate change. But even if I’m skeptical of governments and international institutions, I can look to the market, to companies like Tesla, trying to build beautiful and exciting electric cars, and to entrepreneurs around the world working to make solar power not only the most sensible way to produce power, but the cheapest.
Many of the hardest problems we face worldwide are problems of human rights, of protecting the rights of minorities from the actions of majorities. It’s critically important that we legislate to protect the rights of all people, but it’s not enough when we lose trust in the institutions designated to protect those rights, as is happening with Americans and our police forces today. Protecting the rights of minorities, whether it’s African Americans in my country, or the Roma in Europe, requires us to change norms, to address our basic beliefs. Around the world, we’re seeing people working to change norms by making media and building movements – the #blacklivesmatter movement has created a narrative that is forcing American law enforcement to face that they’ve got a real and persistent problem with racial bias and may be the first step towards making real change.
So one way to harness mistrust is to try new theories of change, to look for ways we can make change through markets, code and norms. Another way to harness this mistrust is to become engaged, careful critics of the institutions we mistrust.
Luigi Reggi was working for the Italian government, building a massive open data system so that people could see where EU funds were being spent in his community. He built a gorgeous open data portal, but found that not only did most people ignore the data he worked to present, but they also had a general sense that Italy wasn’t getting its money’s worth from these EU projects. So, working outside the government, he started something new. Monithon is a project that invites people to monitor an EU funded community project, to ask hard questions about whether the project ever got completed, whether it’s working well or at all, whether the project meets a community’s needs. Their biggest partner is Libera, a group that works to identify and resist the role of the mafia in Italy, and they’re mobilizing not just seasoned activists to monitor the effectiveness of EU projects around Italy, but high school students, who are now taking on evaluating these projects in their community as a hands-on lesson in citizenship.
I call this idea “monitorial citizenship”, and my students and I have been working on ways we can make it work at scale, inviting thousands of people to take on the task of monitoring their government not just as a one-time thing, but as essential and important a task of citizenship as voting. We’ve launched a project in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where the mayor, Fernando Haddad, started his term by publishing 100 concrete promises – I’ll put this many streetlamps in this neighborhood, build this many new low-income housing units. He held elections for over 1000 citizen monitors whose job it is to see that the mayor lives up to these goals. And we’ve built a tool that lets citizens meet and decide what infrastructures they want to monitor in their communities – schools, playgrounds, sidewalks – and quickly build a survey that anyone with a smartphone can take. The data they collect – the photos, GPS locations, questions they answer – get posted to a shared map which can be shared with the government or with the press, or used by the community to self-organize and take on these challenges directly. We launched it three weeks ago in Sao Paulo and it’s popular enough that we’ve expanded projects into nine Brazilian cities, working with neighborhood and community groups.
Here’s the interesting thing about monitorial citizenship – sometimes you find that your mistrust of institutions is deserved, and you’ve got data to back up your suspicions. And sometimes you discover that the people who represent you are doing a better job than you’d imagined. It’s a model that can turn mistrust into advocacy for change or can lessen mistrust, and it works as well if you’re auditing the promises a company, a university or a government makes.
Some of the most exciting mistrust-fueled work I’m seeing looks at the idea that we could eliminate institutions altogether, building systems designed from the ground up to be decentralized. One of the first times I was in Berlin, more than ten years ago, I watched the folks from Freifunk build a mesh network that spanned the entire city, a network with no single point of failure and no single internet service provider in charge of it. This same impulse, to build systems that have no center, is what’s animating the interest in Bitcoin, a currency that doesn’t force us to trust central banks or currency policies, whose faith is in algorithms and distributed computation, not in the institutions that failed so badly in 2007.
These three approaches – building new institutions, becoming engaged critics of the institutions we’ve got, and looking for ways to build a post-institutional world – all have their flaws. We need the new decentralized systems we build to work as well as the institutions we are replacing, and when Mt. Gox disappears with our money, we’re reminded what a hard task this is. Monitorial citizenship can lead to more responsible institutions, but not to structural change. When we build new companies, codebases and movements, we’ve got to be sure these new institutions we’re creating stay closer to our values than those we mistrust now, and that they’re worthy of the trust of generations to come.
What these approaches have in common is this: instead of letting mistrust of the institutions we have leave us sidelined and ineffective, these approaches make us powerful. Because this is the middle path between the ballot box and the brick – it’s taking the dangerous and corrosive mistrust we now face and using it to build the institutions we deserve. This is the challenge of our generation, to build a better world than the one we inherited, one that’s fairer, more just, one that’s worthy of our trust.