Personal Democracy Forum

So, yesterday I attended the Personal Democracy Forum in NYC. Overall I give it an “eh,” but I think it accomplished pretty well what it set out to do. It’s just that I was hoping for something a little bit different. I arrived late (thanks to Amtrak delays) and left early, so it was quite an expensive few hours for GovTrack.

The part of the conference that I attended can pretty much be summed up as “lots of people blog, and they blog about, and affect, politics.” It was very retrospective.

There was an interesting study (by Pew Internet and BuzzMetrics) presented about the correlation over time between what the bloggers of various types are talking about, what the mainstream media are talking about, and what message board posters were talking about. One thing that was interesting was how the Bush campaign, or conservative bloggers I forget which, apparently blogged more about ‘Kerry topics’ than Kerry bloggers did, toward the end of the campaigns last year. But, who knows how they defined ‘Kerry topics.’ This is all interesting for sure, but one needs to read the actual study to draw any conclusions from any of it.

Doc Searls presented to the audience (quite a large audience by the way) why we should be talking about the Internet as a place rather than as a conduit for information exchange. Places, he argued, are seen as deserving free speech protection, while conduits are more easily regulated. This was the closest to the type of talk I was interested in.

The problem was that he started his talk by waving around words from a completely different field, but one I’m quite familiar with: linguistics. He couched his talk in the notion that our thoughts are constrained by the words we have in our language. For instance, we’re forced to talk about politics in terms of the metaphor of war because those are the words we have. It is true that we use war terminology for politics (the current ‘battle’ for the ‘nuclear’ option, for instance). This led to his conclusion that by reframing how we talk about the Internet (as a place), we can affect how people will think about it (as something not to be regulated).

First off, that language constrains thought is called the Worfian hypothesis and it has never ever ever had any good supporting evidence that it is true. That is, no one has ever shown that our language constrains how we think. I agree with Searls that we can affect policy by how we talk about the issue, but this is not the case because of the linguistic reasons he mentioned at the start.

Secondly, just as we talk about politics in terms of war, we talk about war in terms of games (winners and losers), or, wait, is it games in terms of war? He claimed that we talk about national issues in terms of a giant family. But, do we never talk about family in terms of politics? I’m sure many mothers and fathers have said “This is not a democracy” to their children. It’s not fair to say that the metaphor behind politics is war any more than it is to say that the metaphor behind family is politics. We use the metaphors when we need them, but they don’t define or constrain how we talk about things.

Of course I would have like to see more discussion on forward-looking ideas, like

, integrating blogs and the Semantic Web, b, and on.

I do want to give props to the Sifry brothers. Micah was the face of the conference. David, who started Technorati (I can’t say anything good about David/Technorati without the disclaimer that I won a prize from Technorati), made a very entertaining presentation.

During lunch and after I did a little networking. I met a bunch of interesting people. (Jeff Mascott, who presented with me and Dan Bennett back in March, was there. Evidently someone from ParticipatoryPolitics was there — I would have liked to meet him, but ah well.) The networking bit was a lot of fun for me. I hopped from table to table meeting people and talking about various things. (Pretty out of character for me to do that.)

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on the agenda for next year’s PDF, although I do hope the focus is, as I said, more forward-looking.