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PDF2007: Tech Elite Meets, Declares War on Elitism

Esther Dyson (foreground) leads a panel on Navigating the New Media System

The 4th annual Personal Democracy Forum was held recently here in New York. The [list of speakers], including Thomas Friedman, Eric Schmidt, Esther Dyson, Seth Godin and Robert Scoble, was the proverbial Who’s Who of the digerati. They gathered before packed audiences to comment on the role of technology in “flattening” archaic political structures and transferring power to the grassroots — Democracy 2.0, you could say. I attended a few of the sessions and came away with these impressions…

Keynote Conversation
Participants: Eric Schmidt, CEO Google; Thomas Friedman, New York Times

The conference actually kicked off with Lawrence Lessig giving his free culture spiel, but he started talking at the ungodly hour of 8am, so many people (myself included) didn’t show up until 9a when Tom Friedman and Eric Schmidt took the stage for a little chat that might have been titled “Google Batting Practice”, since it consisted mostly of Friedman floating high slow softballs to Schmidt who easily popped them into the bleachers. Example: after giving Schmidt an opportunity to talk about the benefits to consumers of the ever-expanding collection of information on the web that can be used to profile us and better predict our needs, Friedman brought up the risks of over-exposure on the net. In an era when your resume can be trumped as a record of your interests and accomplishments by Google’s all-knowing history of your online traces, available to anyone, how do we protect our identities, and just who are we protecting them from? Schmidt elided the question of Google’s ownership of our online identities by saying that people should be more careful about what they share online. Tell that to eager 20-somethings who live on MySpace. It shifted the issue from guarantees from Google and other search providers about how our information — the product they sell their clients — should be safeguarded into a matter of personal (ir)responsibility. He also forgot to mention [the approach] Google has taken to “overexposure” of its own members in the media — probably because it’s not something most of us could get away with.

Later, in discussing accountability and trust — in an information free-for-all, how do we sort the truth from self-interested misinformation — Schmidt suggested that truth online will be relative, people will pick and choose information that confirms their biases and basically it’s up to the consumer to sort out the wheat from the chaff. It was a facile response that avoided the fact that, for now, the vaunted relevance algorithms are a de facto form of editorial control that can allow a rank rumor to carry the implied imprimatur of Google if enough people link to it. Friedman didn’t dig into that, nor into something even more disturbing: he asked Schmidt how Google deals with autocratic governments that want to brazenly control the dissemination of information. Schmidt said, “painfully, and in each case.” But he also said, “censorship, unless it has some moral basis… most people — just the way humans are built — will say, ‘I don’t know why they aren’t letting me see [censored content]‘” — as a reassurance that censorship will often be self-defeating by drawing extra attention to what is censored. But that phrase “unless it has some moral basis” sounded funny to me, partly because this was a conference about democracy and partly because of Google’s acquiescence to Chinese demands that they filter out content the government deems objectionable. Again, in discussing their actions in China, Schmidt pushed responsibility onto users, who have to struggle to find their way to the information that Google indicates they have censored on behalf of the government.

I suppose one can’t fault Friedman for not putting the screws to Eric Schmidt at a conference his company was bankrolling, but still… people were throwing the word “transparency” around as if it meant something.

Is it Time to Flip the Funnel?
Speaker: Seth Godin

Seth Godin, who has cleverly marketed himself to the anti-marketing, neo-Trotskyite capitalists of Silicon Valley by proclaiming the gospel of “permission-based” marketing (I still chuckle every time I see that), made a rather remarkable appearance at the PDF. Whoever thought to invite a marketer to speak to a conference on socializing the political process either has a wry sense of humor, or (as I suspect) is so inured to the conflation of marketing and politics that already exists in this country that they didn’t see anything funny about asking him to speak.

Godin, as one would expect, gives good presentation. His talk was a very polished multimedia tour-de-force of visual sight gags and audience participation that had the room on the edge of its collective seat as he ripped through his patented neo-marketing mantra: Ideas that spread win. The TV-Industial Complex is in its death throes, the era of blasting messages at people is over, one must now respectfully attract audience to a compelling proposition that they will then adopt and carry forth into the world for you like so many Johns the Baptist infected with an “idea virus”. For the person trying to spread the message, the megaphone gets flipped around and becomes a funnel that they use to collect feedback (and money, votes, etc.) from their consumer-partners. Or something like that.

There was a critical moment in the presentation when the underlying implication of what Godin represents became a bit too clear and it was fascinating to watch. On the same stage where Matt Stoller and Farouk Olu Aregbe spoke earnestly about their efforts at MyDD and Facebook to use social media platforms to actualize their ideals about democratic participation, Brother Godin presented the parable of the Tiffany Box.

What Tiffany’s understands, and what some political organizations and candidates or grass-roots organizations understand is that they’re in the fashion business. That we would like to believe that someone’s going to read our 84-page policy on Social Security — but they’re not. That instead what happens is that they talk about the [Tiffany's] box, the extra, the bonus, the free prize. And you’re either going to get good at that, or you’re not. You’re either going to view it as a sideline, or something that’s at the core of what you do.

Amazing? I think he must have suddenly realized who he was giving his canned spiel to because he hurriedly tacked on, “and I don’t mean to trivialize what’s going on here…” But the cat was out of the proverbial box at that point and the zealous audience of New Media acolytes had to acknowledge that their foray into American politics would bring them into close proximity with the Philistines. Marketing is basically amoral — its methods can be used to promote any message, any product — there is no appeal to righteousness, its valediction comes from the increased margin, or the margin of victory. No matter what is purchased, no matter who is elected. Hearing Godin sing the praises of Ralph Nader’s viral campaigning skills must’ve stung.

Watching earnest young men like Stoller and Agregbe pouring their sincerity out under a banner for an advertising company (Google) was poignant and a bit uncomfortable, but listening to Godin made me feel right at home. I found his talk refreshingly, depressingly realistic.

Still to come: Navigating the New Media System

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