Archive for February, 2010

Last week I launched the third in the Stories of Change eBook series I have developed at Ashoka. It’s a really interesting one – 20 social entrepreneurs ranging in age from 14 to their 60s and representing 5 continents think ahead to the year 2020 and the world they would like to see, as well as the steps they are taking this year to move us in that direction. I’ve grown fascinated by this idea of people who “live in the future” lately – people who have a vision for a different world and consciously work to shift events to bring this world into being. This book contains the words of many of these people and it was a real pleasure to gather their stories. I hope you enjoy it also.

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Teabaggers descend on Washington

Photo by mar is sea Y on flickr.

I ran a social media for social change workshop on the weekend for people involved in the AshokaU Changemaker Campus program. During it I was asked a question which often concerns me but for which I have no good answer: how do we reach diverse audiences with our message when so many people’s media consumption is so narrow?

The future of our democracy may rest on finding an answer to this question.

While I’m obviously a believer in the democratizing power of the internet, and I have worked for many years to help realize this power, I am also aware that the ongoing fragmentation of audiences into discrete niches poses challenges to our governance.

It is now possible to curate for yourself an entirely ideologically coherent media diet. You could listen to only right-wing talk radio, watch Fox on TV and read the conservative blogosphere. You can do the equivalent on the Left (although it will be harder to find left-wing talk radio after the recent demise of Air America).

The result of this fragmentation and curation is that Americans on the left and right scarcely seem to live in the same country. The teaparties are a prime example of this, but the numbers actively involved are relatively modest, despite all the attention they are given. Less dramatic but more shocking were the results of a recent survey, commissioned by liberal site DailyKos and conducted by non-partisan polling firm Research 2000, of registered Republicans.

The 2003 Republicans sampled hold some pretty odd opinions. 39% believe Obama should be impeached (for what the poll does not ask). 63% think Obama is a socialist. Only 36% are sure he was born in the United States. 53% think Sarah Palin is more qualified to be President than Obama and 31% think Obama is a racist who hates white people. 28% believe the 2008 election was stolen by ACORN. Truly Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus.

You can see this dichotomy play out on issues after issue, and not simply in terms of different opinions about what should be done but different opinions about what has actually happened.

In a recent poll only 12% of the popular felt they had got a tax cut, and fair enough, the tax cut was small, but an amazing twice that many, 24% of respondents, thought their taxes had increased under Obama. As 95% of the population has received a tax cut all most of these people would have needed to do to prove their conjecture wrong is compare their latest pay slip to one from 2008.

This confusion isn’t rare. Significant chunks of the population think Obama is trying to end private health insurance (when his plan is, in fact, center-right from a policy perspective with no public option), has reduced military spending (it has gone up) is anti-nuclear (he’s in favour) is about to take away the guns (he has said repeatedly that he’s not proposing any new gun control legislation). And on and on including, of course, whether Climate Change is happening or not.

One of the interesting aspects of the DailyKos poll was how uniform the responses were across regions and age groups. Here’s the response to the “is Obama a socialist?” question:

Graph from FiveThirtyEight.com

Remember that this is registered Republicans, so an unusually political group, more likely than most to consume political media. And, I think, for a republican the choice of political media is clear – Fox news and the rest of the right-wing media constellation. It is this shared media diet which produces such a uniformity of belief, and it is the hyper-partisan nature of this media which produces disagreements about what constitutes fundamental reality, such as whether the President of the United States was born in the country.

This is where things get dangerous for democracy. If a society cannot agree on what the issues are, cannot reconcile on a jointly-held view of what’s actually happening and who the actors are, then it will be impossible to come together to face the challenges and opportunities which confront them. When a society cannot agree on what these challenges and opportunities are they have no chance of making the necessary sacrifices to change, adapt and move forward.

Instead we are trapped in a battle of wills, of who can more persuasively describe a version of events, with the media satisfied to provide a platform for “he said, she said” debates.

For those of us who care about the future of democracy it is vital that we seek to build tools that bring diverse perspectives together, rather than the easier task of hosting narrow and self-selected conversations. We must move beyond the converted if our democracy is to stay vibrant, creative and capable of making future-focused decisions based on the best intelligence.

The question of how a society talks to itself in the 21st Century remains to be answered but is crying out for new thinking and approaches. The fragmenting of the media landscape is permanent, but without a capacity to talk together outside of our ideological, demographic and class niches our politics will fragment alongside it and our capacity for effective governance may also disappear.

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Finally got the next couple of episodes of Kiev: City of Love online. If you haven’t spend the last two months desperately hoping for more of Vlad and Kiev you clearly haven’t seen Episode One. I hope you enjoy these next installments:

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Apologies for the lack of updates recently. I’ve been alternatively buried in work and snow as DC has experienced another record-breaking snowfall and the marketing team at Ashoka has been intensely focused on the Tech4Society conference hosted by Ashoka and the Lemelson Foundation in Hyderabad, India, last week.

As we were planning Tech4Society, the fourth and largest in a series of events as part of the Ashoka-Lemelson partnership to find and support social change inventors and innovators, I was determined that unlike the first three this conference would be fully social media enabled. I wanted it to be an example of “distributed eventing”, where the event is more than just what goes on within the convention center and is instead a platform for interaction and dissemination on a much wider scale. In this I think we succeeded beyond anything Ashoka has done before.

In the lead-up to the conference we held a “Blog Your Way to Hyderabad” competition to select the official blogger of the conference. The winner would get an all-expenses trip and all-access pass to the conference and be given the reins of the AshokaTECH blog and Twitter account during the event, to keep the world informed of the conversations, examples and insights being shared. This was a gutsy move on Ashoka’s part, giving an unknown person the responsibility of being the main conduit of information to the world about one of our most important gatherings. In every respect, however, the bloggers competition was a huge success. We received a number of excellent entries (all fo which served to spread the word about the event in the lead-up) and with the help of an outside judging panel of experts chose Elliot Harmon, a full-time blogger with TechSoup, as the winner. This was a fantastic win-win: we secured the services of a professional and experienced blogger and TechSoup was essentially able to send a correspondent to the event, something they never otherwise would have been able to do, doubling the audience and impact of his updates. You can read through all of Elliot’s blog posts from Hyderabad (and the other coverage) here.

Not everything went to plan however (it almost never does): I spent much of my week organizing a conference call exclusively for bloggers featuring two Ashoka Fellows live from the event, only to be defeated by technical difficulties on the day. Still, I think this is a promising model of blogger engagement (and will, in fact, be trying again tomorrow on the occasion of the launch of Ashoka’s new Globalizer initiative). We also sent a videography team to Hyderabad but were unable to upload their videos in real-time due to the bandwidth limitations on-site (it apparently took five hours to upload this one video).

The final stage of the Tech4Society social media strategy is to share the learnings gained from the event. We will be doing this by hosting a forum on SocialEdge and holding the next of our monthly #SocEntChat Twitter chats on March 3 on the topic of “Technology, invention and social change.”

Overall this was another huge step forward for Ashoka in how we utilize social media to increase the impact of our work. Social media helped make Tech4Society a more global event which extended well beyond it’s geographic location and those able to attend in-person. People from all of the world joined the conversation on Twitter and read in near real-time about the work being presented on the blog. Over the next week we’ll be uploading a series of videos to further share this work. And this is the most important thing social media is allowing us to do: shine a better spotlight on the incredible and important work of Ashoka Fellows. As one of my colleagues said in reflecting back on our work in this area, “the world can’t adopt and help what it doesn’t know about.”

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My favourite new act discovered this week: Save the Robot. Really fun and creative full-on and progressive psy Save the Robot is a collaboration between heavyweights Alien Project and Quadra. I only found them this week but they’ve got two albums out already on the TIP World record label – 2005’s Battle of the Mind and last year’s Love Machine.

Follow those album links to have a listen, here are a few stand-out tracks:

Love is always free (Open Air Remix):

Battle of the Mind:

Communicate (epic remix of Coldplay’s Talk):

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Photo by Scott Ableman, flickr

My Dad always used to say to me, “Tom”, he’d say, “America is ungovernable.” Dad’s talking nonsense again I would think to myself, of course America is governable. I mean, it’s being governed isn’t it?

Now that I’m living here I can say: only barely. Dad was right, America is an incredibly difficult country to govern. Their three “separate but equal” branches of government, one of them split into two houses, and dominated by a two-party system at once rigid and chaotic, makes meaningful progress on difficult issues the exception rather than the rule, a product of circumstances which occur infrequently.

The Democratic and Republican parties dominate American politics to an even greater extent than any two parties in Australian, England, France, Germany or Canada. But they are generally, despite impressive Republican unity in opposing everything lately, a unruly bunch, and only periodically vote along party lines.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I appreciate very much the greater diversity of opinion this allows. The health care debate has been a nightmare to watch up close but on the Democratic side at least there has been a robust debate about which model to pursue in what why. One the other  hand, they couldn’t get the bloody thing done.

It’s been an amazing and dispiriting experience to observe (initially from afar, then up close) a seemingly-endless election campaign fought on a variety of issues, one of which was healthcare reform, and a landslide victory for the progressive in that election, only for the country to tear itself apart for a year following that election over the same issue they had been debating for the previous two years.

Despite my intense frustrations with the political dynamic in Australia when one party wins in a landslide campaigning on a set of policy reforms most of those reforms generally happen. Mandates are real. And if we hate these changes once implemented (or resent the delay in implementing them) we vote them out next time around. The cycle of (political) life. But here winning an election is no guarantee of anything. The president has only limited control over domestic policy – legislation must be introduced and passed in houses of Congress, and now, absurdly, both parties seem to accept the notion that it takes 60 votes in the Senate to get anything meaningful done.

Which is why America is generally ungovernable. Legislators put themselves above the parties. The process is unwieldy and prone to delay and obfuscation. The American political system seems designed to make it exceedingly hard to get difficult things done. It requires a rare combination of factors to allow changes on any scale to be affected, and it is beginning to look like the present moment, as hopeful as it seemed a year ago, might lack one or more of these factors.

Thinking back over the past 100 years of American history I can think of only two presidents who passed significant progressive domestic reforms: FDR with the establishment of the welfare state and LBJ with civil rights. (Clearly the fact BHO doesn’t roll off the tongue is part of what is holding Obama back). In both cases there was a society under stress, from the Great Depression and the ructions  of the 60’s and assassination of Kennedy. In both cases America had significant external challengers, being at war or on the brink of war. In both cases there was passionate opposition from the right, who warned of ruin and socialism. So far so familiar. But also in both cases there was an equally-passionate and organized mass movement pushing from the left, advocating and demanding needed reforms. It’s this last factor that is missing from Barack Obama’s America.

This might be, in part, a product of the success of the Obama campaign itself. To an unprecedented degree it dominated the debate, monopolizing donations, volunteers and attention. This helped create a historic campaign but it also left the left wing groups outside government weaker than they would otherwise have been. Without an effective-enough or large-enough left flank to push him and perhaps more importantly the Congressional Democrats the perceived “center” of the health care debate has moved relentless rightwards, to the point where what eventually became a center-right reform is still being discussed as being “too far left.”

Ironically success at campaigning has created a weakness for Obama in governing. Not that it was easy to begin with. It’s not designed to be.

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