Jim Gilliam summed up the atmosphere of the Personal Democracy Forum at New York University this week when he proclaimed, with no hint of irony and no sense of doubt, “The Internet is my religion.”
Gilliam was one among almost 100 presenters and 800 participants of this eighth annual confab of online activists, open government strategists, and technology pundits, including Lawrence Lessig, Andy Carvin, Jennifer 8. Lee, Craig Newmark, and Cory Doctorow. But he was one of the few who spoke about how the comingling of the personal, political, and technological had created the forces for him to remain alive.
A born-again Christian raised in Palo Alto, Calif., Gilliam told the enraptured crowd that he gave up on Jesus after his mother died of cancer and he was struck by the same disease. Yet he survived emotionally thanks to his blog, found his calling as an activist thanks to the Internet, and remains in this world due to online databases for blood marrow and lung donors. Gilliam is the founder of 3dna, a startup building Internet tools “to shake up a broken political system,” and co-founded Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films.
“Today I breathe through someone else’s lungs. I have someone else’s blood running through my veins. I believe in God. And the Internet is my religion. … What the people in this room do is spiritual, it is profound. We are the leaders of this new religion, we have faith that people connected can create a new world,” said Gilliam.
One would think that the last statement would be met with plenty of skepticism. Facebook, Change.org, and the Sunlight Foundation’s Poligraft may be excellent tools, respectively, for organizing protests, circulating petitions, and enabling transparency in political contributions. But are they really tools for spiritual enlightenment? Is God in this cold box?
Gilliam and plenty others say that they are and that s/he is. Among the presentations given by online activists from Egypt, Tunisia, and Nigeria, was a speech dubbed “Generation Mubarak and the Power of ‘I’” by Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy who described how Facebook has given young Egyptians, particularly women, their first experience of self-expression and the courage to see that other “I”s could become a powerful “We” by leaving their homes and joining the protests on the street. “The way the Egyptian revolution will succeed is by continuing the power of I,” said Eltahawy.
Alaa Abd Al Fattah, an Egyptian blogger, software developer, and democracy activist, joked, “The technology I used the most were rocks.” Fattah underscored that the revolution in Egypt has roots in at least 10 years of activism—and more than 30 years if one counts the anti-government struggles of his parents’ generation. But he and others, like Rasha Abdullah, a journalism professor at American University Cairo, said there was no question that Web 2.0 technology enabled anti-government argument and activism and will continue to do so.
In many ways, the Personal Democracy Forum was a tale of two cities, or two factions representing how online technology is changing government from within and without. In city A—let’s call it Revolution City—Internet and communication technologies are helping activists to quickly organize constituents and topple corrupt regimes, although not without great danger. Professor Abdullah noted that just a few days ago the Syrian government blocked public Internet access, and she was among several speakers who argued that the United Nations should make Internet access a human right.
In city B—let’s call it Bipolar City—the vast majority are using their Internet freedoms to watch porn and post pics of themselves, with a very small minority coming up with highly innovative projects and tools to improve civil society and democratic governing—projects and tools one prays will find decent market share.
Among the innovations presented at Personal Democracy Forum 2011:
• The Voting Information Project, a Pew-Microsoft partnership that aims to provide timely, accurate Election Day information.
• UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s open data project, which has started the process of making all government spending projects above 500 pounds available online.
• Ediplomacy, an applied technology think tank for the United States Department of State.
• The Public Online Information Act, which NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said is designed to mandate US public government documents be made available and searchable online.
• Sunlight Foundation’s Inbox Influence, which allows Gmail users to see the political contributions of the people and organizations that are mentioned in their emails.
• FreedomBox, hardware proposed by Columbia University Law Professor Eben Mogen that empowers Internet users to engage online in a manner that suits them, not the telecom companies, Facebook, or the government.
The list could be much longer, which shows that 2011 is a watershed moment for work at the intersection of politics, government, and technology. One has to hope that people’s interest in social consumerism sites like Groupon can pave the way for engagement in social activism sites like Change.org. But as Erica George tweeted during the conference, Groupon actually grew out of The Point, a website that applies a “tipping point” concept to group action, particularly political campaigns. The Point is not well known; but Groupon has 70 million users and a supposed valuation of $25 billion.
Read more stories by Tamara Straus.