Clay Shirky on how the Internet will one day transform government

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Clay Shirky has done it again. In a fascinating TED Talk, Shirky examines the impact that collaboration tools developed for and by open source communities will have on the way citizens participate in public life and how they can steer the political processes.

By analyzing the way modern tools such as Git and social sites such as Github empower large scale open source communities to engage in collaboration without coordination, Shirky hints at the impact that these tools are already having in the way large scale organization are engaging with the public.

In particular, Shirky cites the example of the New York State Senate and their embrace of open government through the development of publicly available software tools that empower citizens to have access and provide input on legislation being drafted by the Senate. Capitol Camp 2012, a hackathon and unconference, will be held In Albany this November to discuss how technology can foster a more transparent, efficient, and participatory government for all New York State citizens.

More examples:

  • Germany is publishing its laws in Github.
  • The State of Utah is making its legislation available in Github with the curious implication of being able to see the DIFFs on how the Laws are being amended over time.

The ability to make DIFFs is something that open source developers have taken for granted for many decades, but that turns out to be revolutionary for legislators and for the public who is affected by these laws.

Shirky says:

No democracy anywhere in the world offers this feature to its citizens for either legislation or for budgets, even though those are the things done with our consent and with our money. 

He closes his talk with: 

A new form of arguing has been invented in our lifetime. In the last decade, in fact. It's large. It's distributed. It's low cost, and it is compatible with the ideals of democracy. The question for us now is: Are we going to let the programmers keep it for themselves or are we going to try and take it and press it into service for society at large?

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Luis Ibáñez works as Senior Software Engineer at Google Inc in Chicago.

1 Comment

Thanks for bringing this one to my attention. Clay Shirky has a forceful and persuasive style that raises the profile of open, transparent and collaborative capabilities. As he points out the potential of DVCS (distributed version control system) is obscured by its software development background. While the value of public political and legislative participation cannot ever be understated, it does omit the potential for DVCS to contribute to a plethora of social, commercial, and community activities that are neither technical or civic. Essentials of Collaboration - Version Control highlights three case studies that would benefit from immediate adoption and use.

What is important here, however, is the practice of contributing and trusting to virtual communities. The Open Source community is a shining example of this for well over a decade. We need to cross pollinate other communities with the power and the fulfillment that comes from successful collaboration. We can accelerate the political and legislative collaborative efforts if we have seasoned practitioners beyond the realms of IT.

I agree with Shirky's comment that this is a major change, and yes it will provide new and louder ways to argue. But the benefit comes from being able to record contributions, to merge as optimally as possible and also to track back to earlier decisions when new information becomes available. We do have a new set of tools, lets not wait 160 years for the equivalent of the scientific journal, we just need to GIT going in whatever collaborative efforts we encounter.

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