Saturday, I participated in the ‘Purple Participation’ workshop at Beyond Broadcast ’07.
Some of the other people who where there may disagree with me, but I found it particularly interesting, that when we asking ourselves what we thought would make participatory politics more feasible in the future, the technological requests where modest calls for more dynamic maps to localize participation, more stuff for phones, and better meta-tools for sifting through existing data. The social requests seemed, on the other hand, enormous.
Many of us called for nothing less than a more popular form of politics, a re-invigoration of the idea that collective action in concert is meaningful and matters, for flexible forms of politics that make it possible for those (parents, working people, generally busy people!) who only have 30 minutes at an inopportune time of the day to get involved as well – Chuck DeFeo was one of our workshop coordinators, and the main point he kept hammering home was that technology does very little on its own apart from lowering the barriers to entry into politics. Given that those have already come down from the time when you had to take an evening out of your calendar to attend a meeting to take part, how can those who wants to facilitate more participation now a) lower the social barriers, rid politics of its jargon, its introvert character, its demands of ‘either you’re in or you’re out’, and b) make clear that not only are the costs coming down – the stakes can also be higher: politics matters whether you want to stop the government, improve it, or circumvent it to do your own thing, you matter when it comes to doing these things, and the others matters because you can’t go it alone. Right?
And what would the costs be of doing this? Are the dangers of participation amateurish politics, the kind of mob rule and irrationality that everyone from Aristotle over the founders to the critics of everything from the French to the Cultural Revolution? I certainly do not believe this to be the case, especially if the baseline is the kind of politics an almost exclusively representative (and at many levels decidedly un-participatory) democracy gives us today, but I want to keep the skeptics in mind, especially since the consensus that existed within the workshop’s little bi-partisan bubble of enthusiasm for participation is certainly not shared by all the movers and shakers of institutional politics, where even such a basic form of participation as the vote is often only grudgingly and unevenly extended (cf. Spencer Overton’s book on this)
I came away from the conference with a reinforced skepticism towards technological utopianism, and a sharpened curiosity when it comes to the question of how technologies with participatory potentials can be embedded in a participatory organization of political action that suits the busy and fragmented lives of ordinary people in the world of today.
So the big challenge is not, it seems to me, to reach new levels of technological sophistication, to produce the 3rd generation cell phone version of interactive technology. Instead, it is to overcome the social and institutional barriers to participation and in terms of technology to find the political equivalent of the text message or speaker phone – the simple, useful tool that can simultaneously fit our lives and be used to change them for the better. I have no clue what this would be, but I know I am looking for it…