June 20th, 2012

Highlights from the 2012 Personal Democracy Forum

This post originally appeared on The Hive Learning Center Blog at explorecreateshare.org. Reposted with permission.

D.C. Vito, Executive Director of The LAMP. Photo by Colleen Katana.

There are a few conferences that I look forward to as ones that bring together the issues and minds that I feel most akin to, and the Personal Democracy Forum is at the top of the list. The vision of digital media and technology making democracy more accessible embodies what I believe PDF aims to achieve. I got the opportunity to attend PDF 2012, and thus would like to offer my thoughts on my experience.

The conference opened with an amazing presentation by Susan Crawford, who framed what I believe to be the single, most important issue involving the dissemination of democratic opportunities: access. She laid out very clearly the problem of our dwindling telecommunication infrastructure, and pronounced the intentions of major telecommunications corporations to abandon the landline copper cable network. The rationale for this decision, she explained, can be found in market data showing that more and more people in the United States are choosing to relinquish their reliance on the traditional method of communication by wire for that of the wireless/cellular. The choice by the telecom corporations to abandon landlines demonstrates a lack of vision and foresight, and signals a concentration on short-term market gain by allotting increasingly more resources to bolster their wireless networks. The only way to address the decaying infrastructure of the traditional phone system is to deliver fiber optics to every household, but these telecom corporations view that prospect as too expensive. Meanwhile, in Europe, Japan and other parts of Asia, there are massive projects to deliver fiber optics to the home. Fiber optics are the only existing technology able to satisfy projected demands for bandwidth. Chaining Americans to wireless telecommunications threatens not only our ability to compete with other nations, but also the extension of opportunities created by a steady flow of digital information for the millions who are stuck between a copper cable and a wireless network.

Another session that stood out for me was ”Designing a More Writeable Society,” which had Clay ShirkyMark SurmanBeth Noveck, and the Hive’s own Leah Gilliam, who began with the question:

Do students who learn how to code become better citizens?

We were asked to break into small groups of 4 or 5 and discuss this question, and encouraged to truly consider both the affirmative and negative answers. It became clear in my group’s discussion that the notion of youth learning how to construct the very websites, social media portals and games with which they spend so much time would impart a vital message as to how they can engage and take ownership of their larger community. Learning how to build their own sports website, will alter the way they think about their own favorite website, which will impact the way they think of all information they glean from the Internet. This in turn will potentially impact the way they view the real world. For example, once they understand what happens to the garbage that gets picked up every week, they might feel more compelled to do something about the overflowing trashcan on the busy street corner. Next, we were asked to come up with an engaging project that would eventually involve 39 mayors across the country and a well-known celebrity, all with the goal of connecting youth to civics and activism. Although we were only given a short amount of time to come up with projects to pitch to the panel, the results were pretty amazing. Most of the ideas made it to this Etherpad, and I highly suggest you check it out.

All in all, I had a decent experience at PDF. There were some real gems, but there were also some glaring issues that I think a conference aimed at promoting democracy via digital technology needs to address. For one thing, I am still stammered by the lack of racial or socioeconomic diversity among the workshop presenters and the conference attendees. PDF needs to make a concerted effort to address this both explicitly as part of their overall message and mission, and implicitly by doing more outreach and recruitment. I was also personally disappointed by the lack of media literacy-related subjects, as it is my belief that there is no greater way to spread and strengthen democracy than to make sure people understand how much media impact every single facet of their lives.

However, I look forward to the 10th anniversary of PDF next year, and have already marked my calendar. While there are a few things I would change, PDF remains a valuable opportunity for the brightest minds and most pressing issues to converge around the issue of media and democracy.

–D.C. Vito

Follow D.C. on Twitter: @dcvito
Follow The LAMP on Twitter: @thelampnyc

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