I'm an idealist. I want all governments to work in an ideal, uncorrupted state. But I'd settle for the governments which I live under to work in a way that were at least a bit more responsive and transparent. But part of the reason that doesn't happen is because most of the people I see interact with government based upon their feelings about various governmental institutions, rather than the facts of how it actually works. So here are a few key truths:
- Anybody who says "The Government" did something is ineffective at best and just plain ignorant at worst, because there is no monolithic "government" any more than there is a monolithic "The Media" or "The Business". Knowing, and embracing, complexity is necessary for those of us who'd like to change the system.
- Money drives an enormous amount of the actions of elected officials. This is not perceived by most elected officials as corruption, but rather as a simple fact, a fact about which they are neither shocked nor surprised. You cannot shame someone about a fact they readily concede.
- The reason money drives many actions of elected officials is because it's used to get votes, mostly through the purchase of advertising. It's not because politicians are trying to get rich. Politicians are already rich; That's why they can run.
But if these simple statements indicate that the current system is broken, how come this is the one area that's obviously broken that most tech entrepreneurs aren't trying to fix?
So We're All Doomed?
When I say the political system is broken, it might make it seem like I'm some pessimist decrying that the whole thing is hopeless. But I'm not! Because first, I don't think the process of using our electoral system as a multi-billion dollar media subsidy is going to be sustainable forever.
More importantly, the inescapable motivation for the enormous amounts of money saturating our political and electoral processes is that politicians want votes. It's what lets them become incumbents, a fancy political term that means "ruler for life".
Here's the tricky thing, though: Networks, sometimes, can trump money.
Networks Over Dollars
Now, it's not always the case that enormously vested interests with bottomless pocketbooks can be overcome simply by people banding together through newer, smarter, faster networks. But we've seen it work a few times. Early communities that sprung up around blogging and Craigslist were just trying to meet their own needs, but ended up massively disrupting the wealthy, powerful newspaper and magazine industries largely by accident. You know the same story happened to the industry formerly known as the recording business, too. And those disruptions happened without even trying.
When new technology-based networks are still young, they can be massively disruptive without even intending to be. So what would it look like if we disrupted one of these broken-ass, frequently corrupt, largely inequitable networks on purpose? Well, I can think of no industry in better need of that sort of upheaval than our policymaking infrastructure, at the local, state and federal level. We've let many of the organizations that make up these governmental institutions become unmoored, making many decisions not based on fact or effectiveness, but based on decisions shaped by the money chase that elected officials are obsessed with.
Who's Going To Step Up?
The thing is, there is a ton of opportunity in this disruption that's going to happen. Social networks will reshape electoral politics and the world of policymaking in the next half-decade, and it's just a question of who does it, and on what terms. Even in just the few short years since Expert Labs was formed, we've had to change some of our fundamental assumptions; According to the world we were living in when we started Expert Labs, the widespread, incredibly effective and surprisingly rapid protests against SOPA and PIPA should never have been able to happen. Yet they not only happened, they happened without primarily relying on financial sponsorship of alternate candidates as their primary point of influence.
In short, they used the network to overcome the traditional money-based ways of influencing politics.
The funny thing is, I'm not actually demonizing the fact that money and businesses have a role to play in how the political system works. In fact, as Clay Johnson eloquently explained, we should all do well to be more versed in how political fundraising and policymaking intersect. It's absolutely essential to know the ecosystem around web-based political influence if you want to understand its future.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked parts of this evolution is that there are going to be new winners. Not just new candidates getting elected to office (although that's great, too!) but new companies which succeed in building thriving new businesses by serving a more responsive, engaged electorate through social networks online. In fact, I'm proud to advise one of the most prominent and promising of them, Votizen, which just got a pretty formidable set of investors who share my optimism that a better political infrastructure is also a good opportunity for building a business that helps make the world better.
I'm not the sort of person who usually ends up advising companies backed by "hot" Silicon Valley investors. (Or Ashton Kutcher. Or Lady Gaga's manager.) But putting aside my own picky preferences about how the tech industry runs, I want this one to work. I want our tech industry to see as much potential, as much excitement, as much glamour, and far more meaning in fixing politics and voting and policy as they do in fixing the way we listen to music or organize our photos.
Because even after Votizen succeeds wildly in getting people to band together to vote more effectively, with more focus on the issues they care about and the facts that impact those issues, we've got a lot of other work to do. We still have to get the smartest, most creative people in our country involved in the hard work of advising policy makers. We have to get regular folks to understand that the drugs that treat their family members' cancer, the highways they drive on to go see their kids' ball games, the parks they go to on the vacation days that they're mandated to have — all those things are the product of government, even with its current inefficiencies and imperfections. Hell, we have to have every big institution, whether it's government or business or academia or religion, to make itself accessible and malleable by all of us who are affected by their decisions.
Today, though, it's easy to criticize government, or to just complain about it. But bitching about government isn't like bitching about the weather, where we can't do anything about it. In fact it's the opposite — government is made out of the only thing we really can change: Ourselves. So let's get to work.