Yesterday, TechCrunch ran a piece on why innovation has no place in fixing problems in our democracy, like the shutdown. I say, if 3,000 independent big rig truckers with a Facebook page can organize to gridlock Washington DC–literally!– to protest the shutdown, are we really going to just throw our hands up? Thousands of profiles on AngelList include “democratization”, and we can’t do anything to democratize democracy?
In Silicon Valley, where others see pain, we see opportunity. Think of all the amazing example how we harness the adoption of new communication technologies to empower consumers. Google organizes the worlds information at our finger tips. Amazon and eBay let us conveniently buy anything from anywhere with the click of a mouse. Facebook and Twitter let us exchange photos and updates with a swipe on our iPhones. Politics may lag, but it is not different in kind.
So, how can citizens harness technology to impact their government?
- Make informed voting decisions. Politicians respond to electoral pressure. The best way to ensure that politicians make decisions that are informed is to make sure that the electorate is informed. Where do the candidates stand on the issues? Technological innovation can ensure that there is no excuse for not knowing!
- Make their voices heard. Extremist voices are dominating the conversation in Washington. That can only be counteracted if the voice of the moderate middle express their opinions too. Technology can help politicians hear from the majority, not just the radical fringe.
- Understand different points of view. Much of the polarization comes from the fact that we are increasingly living in echo chambers of our own devising, from customized feeds to hyper-targeted media. Technology helped create this problem, but technology can also help solve it, by creating spaces that prioritize exchanging diverse viewpoints, rather than reinforcing existing ones.
- Take action. As the big rig truckers show, technology can be an incredibly effective tool for organizing grassroots action. Developing tools that allow more people to catalyze and take part in such actions means less power for well funded fringe groups and more power for the people.
Technology can make all these tasks of a good citizen easier and more effective. This government shutdown should be a wakeup call, not a free pass. The opportunity is enormous, so what are you doing to help innovate our democracy?
Disclosure: I am a founder and trustee of e-thePeople.org, a non-partisan, non-profit whose mission is to leverage new communication technologies to make it easier to be a good citizen.