Craig of Craigslist: Building an "Immune System of Democracy"

By James Fallows

As far as I can tell, the Aspen Ideas Festival has not yet put up a video of this morning's session on "Is Transparency Critical?" Despite the somewhat opaque topic, I think anyone interested in info-tech, or in government+politics+media, will find it worthwhile when it goes up -- especially with a few of the viewing tips I am listing below.

The session was moderated by the Atlantic's new tech writer/editor Alexis Madrigal, who asked questions of Vivek Kundra, the first-ever Chief Information Officer of the United States, and the eponymous Craig Newmark of Craigslist and here.

Kundra had lots of worthy and provocative info about the unprecedented amount of data the federal government is making available -- starting with the overarching Data.gov site and including, eg, the extraordinary interactive map of the BP Gulf spill and its consequences. He also pointed out the main constraint the government has in continuing to make new data flows public: concern about the "mosaic effect," ie the potential for criminals or worse to learn too much about individuals by piecing together disparate pieces of information.

bob-newhart.jpgTo me the real surprise was Craig Newmark's performance. In part this was due to his sustained extreme-deadpan humor, of the classic Bob Newhart school. (Bob N to left; Craig N below.) Partly it was because of the repeated emphasis on public/political issues that ran through his remarks. Two illustrations:

- A big leitmotif of many Aspen discussions has been what I consider surplus pessimism and "what you have you done for me lately?"-ism about performance of the federal government in general and the Obama Administration in particular. Chapter and verse on that later. (See a discussion of "The World's View of America" for a sample.) At around time 9:00 (nine minutes in) of the "transparency" discussion, Newmark lays into that perception:

I'm a pretty impatient human. I do want to see more. But the fact of the matter is, this Administration has exposed more about the way it really works than any government, as far as I can tell, in all of human history. You'll sense my frustration that the word on that is not getting out. By exposing data, by fixing a lot of business processes, by using the technologies of the private sector, a lot of things are being made to work in Washington, and no one is talking about it.

200px-Craig-newmark.jpg

- Starting at time 26:00 of today's session, Newmark starts talking about how disinformation, non-factual "facts," hyped-up smears, agitprop, and other aspects of modern public affairs are distorting our ability to deal with both public and private challenges. Having dealt with such issues for decades in standard media/politics terms, I found it fascinating to hear someone from a tech background -- Newmark's shtick includes his role as "nerd" -- approach these problems as systems failures, amenable to correction.

Through the second half of this session he goes into some detail about the tools of social media, including those that made him famous, could be applied "to build what I am now calling the Immune System of Democracy," a term he said he was "premiering today." There is more to his pitch than I have time to relay at the moment, and there are many more implications in the long run. If he could make a fraction as much difference in the public realm as he has already made in public behavior.... Anyhow, check out the session when it's up.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/07/craig-of-craigslist-building-an-immune-system-of-democracy/59395/