Tag Archives: networks

Individualism in the networked world

Evolving thought:

One of the large challenges of the 21st century is going to be reconciling our increasingly networked world with traditional notions of individualism.

The more I look at a networked world – not in some geopolitical sense but on a day to day experience for everyone – the more it appears that many of the core to elements of liberal individualism are going to be challenged. Authorship is a great example of this dynamic playing out – yes Wikipedia makes it impossible to identify who an author is – but even tweets, and blogs and all forms of digital medium confuse who is the original author of a work. More over, we may no longer live in a world of unique individual thought. As Kevin Kelly so remarkably documents in What Technology Wants by looking at patent submissions and scientific papers, it is increasingly apparent that technologies are being simultaneously discovered everywhere, the notion of attributing something to an individual may be at best difficult, at worst impossibly random.

And of course networked systems disproportionately reward hubs. Hubs in a network attract more traffic (ideas/money/anything) and therefor may appear to many others in the network as the source of these ideas as they are shared out. I for example get to hear more about open data, or technology and government, then many other people, as a result my thinking gets to be pushed further and faster allowing me to in turn share more ideas that are of interest and attract still more connections. I benefit not simply from inherent individual abilities, but from the structure of, and my location in, a network.

Of course, socialist collectivism is going to be challenged as well in some different way but I think that may be less traumatic for our political systems the a direct challenge to individualism – something many centrist and right leaning parties may struggle with.

This is all still half formed but mental note for myself. More thinking/research on this needed. Open to ideas, articles, etc…

How to Unsuck Canada’s Internet – creating the right incentives

This week at the Mesh conference in Toronto (where I’ll be talking Open Data) the always thoughtful Jesse Brown, of TVO’s Search Engine will be running a session title How to Unsuck Canada’s Internet.

As part of the lead up to the session he asked me if I could write him a sentence or two about my thoughts on how to unsuck our internet. In his words:

The idea is to take a practical approach to fixing Canada's lousy
Internet (policies/infrastructure/open data/culture- interpret the
suck as you will).

So my first thought is that we should prevent anyone who owns any telecommunications infrastructure from owning content. Period. Delivery mechanisms should compete with delivery mechanisms and content should compete with content. But don’t let them mix, cause it screws up all the incentives.

A second thought would be to allocate the freed up broadcast spectrum to new internet providers (which is really what all the cell phone providers are about to become anyways). I’m actually deeply confident that we may be 5 years away from this problem becoming moot in the main urban areas. Once our internet access is freed from cables and the last mile, then all bets are off. That won’t help rural areas, but it may end up transforming urban access and costs. Just like cities clustered around seaports and key places nodes along trade networks, cities (and workers) will cluster around better telecommunication access.

But the longer thought comes from some reflections over the timely recent release of OpenMedia.ca/CIPPIC’s second submission to the CRTC’s proceedings on usage-based billing (UBB) which I think is actually fairly aligned with the piece I wrote back in February on titled Why the CRTC was right about User Based Billing (please read the piece and the comments below before freaking out).

Here, I think our goal shouldn’t be punitive (that will only encourage the telco’s to do “just enough” to comply. What we need to do is get the incentives right (which is, again, why they shouldn’t be allowed to own content, but I digress).

An important part of getting the incentives right is understanding what the actual constraints on internet access. One of the main problems is that people often get confused about what is scarce and what is abundant when talking about the internet. I think what everyone realizes is that content is abundant. There are probably over a trillion websites out there, billions of videos and god knows what else. There is no scarcity there.

This is why any description of access that uses an image like the one below will, in my mind, fail.

Charging per byte shouldn’t be permitted if the pipe has infinite capacity (or at least it wouldn’t make sense in a truly competitive market). What should happen is that companies would be able to charge the cost of the infrastructure plus a reasonable rate of return.

But while the pipe may have infinite capacity over time, at any given moment it does not. The issue isn’t about how many bytes you consume, it’s about the capacity to deliver those bytes in a given moment when you have lots of competing users. This is why it isn’t the “where the data is coming from/going to” that matters, but rather how much of it is in the pipe at a given moment. What matters is not the cable, but the it’s cross section.

A cable that is empty or only at 40% capacity should deliver rip-roaring internet to anyone who wants it. My understanding is that the problem is when the cable is at 100% or more capacity. Then users start crowding each other out and performance (for everyone) suffers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Indeed this is where the OpenMeida/CIPPIC document left me confused. On the one hand they correctly argue that the internet’s content is not a limited resource (such as natural gas). But they seem to be arguing that the network capacity is not a finite resource (sections 21 and 22) while at the same time accepting that there may be constraints on capacity during peak hours (sections 27 and 30 where they seem to accept that off peak users should not be subsidizing peak time users and again in the conclusion where they state “As noted in far greater detail above, ISP provisioning costs are driven primarily by peak period usage.” If you have peak period usage then, by definition, you have scarcity). The last two points seem to be in conflict. The network capacity cannot be both infinite and constrained during peak hours? Can it?

Now, it may be that there is more network capacity in Canada then there is demand – even at peak times – at which point, any modicum of sympathy I might have felt for the telcos disappears immediately. However, if there is a peak consumption period that does stress the network’s capacity, I’d be relatively comfortable adopting a pricing mechanism that allocates the “scarce” amount of broadband pie. Maybe there are users – especially many BitTorrenters – whose activities are not time sensitive. Having a system in place that encourages them to bittorrent during off-peak hours would create a network that was better utilized.

So the OpenMedia piece seems to be open to the idea of peak usage pricing (which was what I was getting at in my UBB piece) so I think we are actually aligned (which is good since I like the people at OpenMedia.ca).

The question is, does this create the right incentives for the telco’s to invest more in capacity? My hope would be yes, that competition would cause users to migrate to networks that provided high speeds and competitive low and/or peak usage time fees. But I’m open to the possibility that it wouldn’t. It’s a complicated problem and I don’t pretend to think that I’ve solved it in one blog post. Just trying to work it though in my head.

 

 

 

Egypt: Connected to revolution

This piece is cross-posted from the Opinion Page of the Toronto Star which was kind enough to publish it this morning.

Over the weekend something profound happened. The Egyptian government, confronted with growing public unrest, attempted to disconnect itself. It shut down its cellular and telephone networks and unplugged from the Internet.

It was a startling recognition of this single most powerful force driving change in our world: connectivity. Our world is increasingly divided between the connected and the disconnected, between open and closed. This could be the dominant struggle of the 21st century and it forces us to face important questions about our principles and the world we want to live in.

Why does connectivity matter? Because it allows for free association and self-expression, both of which can allow powerful narratives to emerge in a society beyond the control of any elite.

In Egypt, the protests do not appear driven by some organized cabal. The Muslim Brotherhood — so long held up as the dangerous alternative to the regime — was caught flat-footed by the protests. The National Coalition for Change, headed by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, seems to have emerged as the protesters’ leader, not their instigator.

Instead, Egypt may simply have reached a tipping point. Its citizens, having witnessed the events in Tunisia, came to realize they were no longer atomized and uncoordinated in the face of a police state. They could self-organize, connect with one another, share stories and videos, organize meetings and protests. In short, they could tell their own narratives to one another, outside the government’s control.

These stories can be powerful.

In Egypt, a video of an unknown protester being shot and carried away has generated a significant viewership. In Iran, the video of Neda Agha-Soltan dying from a gunshot wound transformed her into a symbol. In Tunisia, videos of protestors being shot also helped mobilize the public.

Indeed, as the family of Mohamed Bouazizi — the man who by setting himself on fire out of frustration with local authorities, triggering the Tunisian protests — noted to an Al Jazeera reporter, people are protesting with “a rock in one hand, a cellphone in the other.”

This is what makes movements like this so hard to fight. There is no opposition group to blame, no subversive leadership to decapitate, no central broadcast authority to shut down. The only way to stop the protests is to eliminate the participants’ capacity to self-organize. During the Green Revolution in Iran, that meant shutting down some key websites; in Egypt, it appears to mean shutting down all communication.

Of course, this state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. Too much of the Egyptian economy depends on people being able to connect. The network that makes possible a modern economy also makes possible a popular uprising.

At some point Egypt will have to decide: disconnect forever like North Korea, or reconnect and confront the reality of the connected world.

For those of us who believe in freedom, individuality, self-expression and democracy, connectivity is among our most powerful tools because it makes possible alternative narratives.

From East Germany to the Philippines, Iran to Tunisia, connectivity has played a key role in helping people organize against governments that would deny them their rights. It’s a tool democracies have often used, from broadcasts like Radio Free Europe during the Cold War to the U.S. government’s request that Twitter not conduct a planned upgrade to its website that would have disrupted its service during the recent Iranian Green Revolution.

But if we believe in openness, we must accept its full consequences. Our own governments have a desire to disconnect us from one another when they deem the information to be too dangerous.

Today most U.S. government departments, and some Canadian ministries, still deny their employees access to WikiLeak documents, disconnecting them from information that is widely available to the general public.

More darkly, the government pressured companies such as Amazon and Paypal to not offer their services to WikiLeaks — much like the Iranian government tried to disrupt Twitter’s service and the Tunisian government attempted to hijack Facebook’s. Nor is connectivity a panacea. In Iran, the regime uses photos and videos from social networks and websites to track down protestors. Connectivity does not guarantee freedom; it is simply a necessary ingredient.

The events in Egypt are a testament to the opportunity of the times we live in. Connectivity is changing our world, making us more powerful individually and collectively. But ultimately, if we wish to champion freedom and openness abroad — to serve as the best possible example for countries like Egypt — we must be prepared to do so at home.

David Eaves is a Vancouver-based public policy entrepreneur and adviser on open government and open data. He blogs at eaves.ca

On Policy Alpha geeks, network thinking and foreign policy

In the past few weeks the Liberal Party of Canada (LPC) and the Canadian International Council (CIC) both launched new visions for Canada’s foreign policy. Reading each, I’m struck by how much overlap both documents have with Middle to Model Power, the Canada25 report written 5 years ago by over 500 young Canadians from across the country and around the world.

With Middle to Model Power, a group of young people largely self-organized to lay out a vision and selection of ideas around how Canada could rethink its foreign policy. Take a look at this selection from its executive summary, including an overview and the first recommendation:

We submit that Canada should cease assessing its influence on the basis of its size or position within an obsolete global hierarchy. Instead, Canada25 calls on Canadians to look at the world as a network, where influence is based on the capacity of an individual, company, non-governmental organization (NGO) or country to innovate and collaborate. Building on this perspective, we propose that Canada become a Model Power—a country whose influence is linked to its ability to innovate, experiment, and partner; a country that, by presenting itself as a model, invites the world to assess, challenge, borrow from, and contribute to, its efforts.
In pursuit of our vision of Canada as a Model Power, we outline three priorities for action. These, accompanied by some of our recommendations, include:

MAKE CANADA A NETWORK NODE. Enhance the ability of Canadians to create, nurture, and tap into international networks:
• Issue five-year work visas to foreign graduates of Canadian universities • Reach out to Canada’s expatriate community by creating an international network of
Canadian leaders…

You can download the full report here, but you get the idea. Remember this is a group of 23-35 year-olds writing in 2005.

Now, quickly compare this to the summary’s of both the LPC and CIC’s new reports.

The LPC report, called a Global Networks Strategy opens by stating:

Networks define how the world works today, as hierarchies did in the past. Influence is gained through connectedness, and by being at the centre of networks. That is good news for Canada, because we have a reputation for being able to work with others, we have shaped many multilateral organizations, and our population today reflects the diversity of the world. The Global Networks Strategy is designed to leverage these assets. It sets priority areas in which the federal government must collaborate with the full range of players who contribute vigorously – and most often in networks – to Canada’s presence in the world: other governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector, young Canadians, academia, faith- based groups, artists and others.

And in the CIC report, titled Open Canada: A Global Positioning Strategy for a Networked World, has as one of its opening paragraphs:

Canada will never be the most powerful nation on Earth. But we live in a digital age, where might is measured in knowledge rather than muscularity. If we keep building on our openness—attracting the best and the brightest citizens, generating and exchanging new ideas and new ways of doing things and welcoming investment in our economy—Canada can position itself at the centre of the networked world that is emerging in the 21st century.

And, unsurprisingly, the deeper details of the reports offer many similar prescriptions.

So how, on a shoestring budget, can a group of young Canadians many of whom were not foreign policy experts, write a report that identifies an organizing principle that 5 years both a major political party and one of the country’s newest and best funded think tanks would put at the hearts of their own reports?

A few ideas come to mind:

1) The Medium is the Message: Middle to Model Power was not written on a wiki (in 2005 none of us knew what a wiki was!) but it was written over email. The authors were scattered across the country and the process of organizing local events was relatively decentralized. People raised whatever topics that mattered to them, and during the drafting phase they simple sent me their ideas and we batted them around. There was structure, but were were a pretty flat organization and… we were very connected. For Canada25 a network wasn’t just an idea that emerged out of the process, it was the process. It should hardly be surprising that the way we saw the world reflected how we organized ourselves. (When I say that Canada’s digital economy strategy will fail unless written on GCPEDIA this is part of what I’m hinting at). The medium is the message. It’s hard (but not impossible) to write about networks deep in hierarchy.

2) Look for Policy Alpha Geeks in resource poor environments: So why did Canada25 think in terms of networks? How was it that before Wikinomics or GPS or pretty much most other things I’ve seen, did Canada25 organize itself this way?  Well, it wasn’t because we were strategic or young. It was because we had very little money. We couldn’t afford to organize any other way. To get 500 Canadians around the world to think about foreign policy we had to let them self-organize – we didn’t have an org structure or facilitators to do it for them. We had to take the cheapest tools (email) and over use them. Don’t get me wrong, Canada25 was not poor. Our members were generally very well educated, we had access to computers and the internet and access to interesting people to interview and draw ideas from. But the raw infrastructure we had at our disposal was not significant and it forced us to adopt what I now see were disruptive technologies and processes. We became Policy Alpha Geeks because we had to innovate not to be relevant, but to ensure the project survived.

3) It’s not about the youth: People presume that our thinking emerged because we were young. This is not entirely correct. Again, I submit that we got to thinking about networks because we were operating in a resource weak environment and had exposure to new tools (email) and a risk tolerance to try using them in an ambitious way. This isn’t about age, it just happens that generally it is young people who don’t have lots of resources and are willing to experiment with new tools. Older people, who frequently have more senior titles, generally have access to more resources and so can rely on more established, but more resource intensive tools and processes. But again, this is about mindset, not about age. Indeed, it is really about the innovators’ dilemma in policy making. Don’t believe me? Well, as lead author of Middle to Model Power I can tell you that the most influential book on my thinking was Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock which I read in the month preceding the drafting of the report. It was written in 1970 by an author who was, at the time, 42. In sum, young people can be a good guide, but it is environmental factors that you can replicate, not intrinsic qualities of being young, that allow you to innovate.

Both the LPC and the CIC’s documents are good and indeed, more up to date than Middle to Model Power. But in terms of core organizing principles the three documents are similar. So if you are genuinely interested in this take a look at all three documents. I do think they put forward what could become an emerging centrist consensus regarding organizing principles for Canadian foreign policy. Certainly that was the ambition back in 2005.

Digital Economy Strategy: Why we risk asking the wrong question

Far better an approximate answer to the right question, than the exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise….

John Tukey

I’ve always admired Paul Erdos, the wandering mathematician who I first learned about by reading his obituary in the Economist back in 1996 (and later learned was a friend and frequent house guest of my grandfather’s). What I remember best about that economist obituary was how one of his students talking about his genius not lying in his capacity to produce mathematical proofs, but in his ability to ask the right question, which set events in motion so that the proof could be found at all.

It is with that idea in mind that I turn to the Canada 3.0 conference here in Stratford Ontario where I’ve been invited to take part in a meeting with industry types and policy leaders to talk about what Canada must do to become a leading digital nation by 2017. The intent is to build on last year’s Stratford Declaration and develop an action plan.

So what do I think we need to do? First, I think we need to ask the right question.

I think we need to stop talking about a digital as the future.

This whole conversation isn’t about being a digital country. It isn’t about a future where everything is going to be digitized. That isn’t the challenge. It is already happening. It’s done. It’s over. Canada is already well on its way to becoming digital. Anyone who uses MS Word to write a document is digital. I’ve been submitting papers using a word processor since high school (this comes from a place of privilege, something I’ll loop back to). Worse, talking about digital means talking about technology like servers or standards or business models like Bell, or Google or Music Producers and all the other things that don’t matter.

The dirty truth is that Canada’s digital future isn’t about digital. What is special isn’t that everything is being digitized. It’s that everything is being connected. The web isn’t interesting because you can read it on a computer screen. It is special because of hyperlinks – that information is connected to other information (again, something the newspaper have yet to figure out). So this is a conversation about connectivity. It is about the policy and legal structure needed when me, you, information, and places, when everything, everywhere is connected to everything else, everywhere persistently. That’s the big change.

So if a digital economy strategy is really about a networked economy strategy, and what makes a networked economy work better is stronger and more effective connectivity, then the challenge isn’t about what happens when something shifts from physical to digital. It is about how we promote the connectivity of everything to everything in a fair manner. How do we make ourselves the most networked country, in the physical, legally and policy terms. This is the challenge.

Viewed in this frame. We do indeed have some serious challenges and are already far behind many others when it comes to connectivity if we want to be a global leader by 2017. So what are the key issues limiting or preventing connectivity and what are the consequences of a networked economy we need to be worried about? How about:

  • Expensive and poor broadband and mobile access in (in both remote and urban communities)
  • Throttling and threats to Net Neutrality
  • Using copyright as a vehicle to limit the connectivity of information (ACTA) or threaten peoples right to connect
  • Using copyright as a vehicle to protect business models built on limiting peoples capacity to connect to innovations and ideas
  • Government’s that don’t connect their employees to one another and the public
  • It’s also about connective rights. Individual rights to limit connectivity to privacy, and right to freely associate and disassociate

So what are the three things we need to start thinking about immediately?

If connectivity is the source of innovation, wealth and prosperity then how do we ensure that Canadians are the most connected citizens in the world?

1)    a net neutral broadband and mobile market place where the costs of access are the lowest in the world.

That is would be a source of enormous competitive advantage and a critical stepping stone to ensuring access to education and an innovation fueled economy. Sadly, we have work to do. Take for example, the fact that we have the worst cell phone penetration rates in the developed world. This at a time when cellphone internet access is overtaking desktop internet access.

But more importantly, I was lucky to be able to use a word processor 20 years ago. Today, not having access to the internet is tantamount to preventing a child from being able to go to the library, or worse, preventing them from learning to read. Affordable access is not a rural or urban issue. It’s a rights and basic education issue.

Equally important is that the network remain a neutral platform upon which anyone can innovate. The country that allows its networks to grant (or sell) certain companies or individuals special privileges is one that one that will quickly fall behind the innovation curve. New companies and business models inevitable displace established players. If those established players are allowed to snuff out new ideas before they mature, then there will be no new players. No innovation. No new jobs. No competitive advantage.

2)    A copyright regime that enables the distribution of ideas and the creation of new culture.

Here I am in Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the biggest open source festivals in the country. Every year the city celebrates plays that, because they are in the public domain, can be remixed, re-interpreted, and used without anyone’s permission to create new derivative cultural works (as well as bring joy and economic prosperity to untold people). A copyright regime that overly impedes the connectivity of works to one another (no fair use!) or the connectivity of people to ideas is one that will limit innovation in Canada.

A networked economy is not just one that connects people to a network. That is a broadcast economy. A networked economy is one that allows people to connect works together to create new works. Copyright should protect creators of content, but it should do so to benefit the creators, not support vast industries that market, sell, and repackage these works long after the original creator is dead. As Lawrence Lessig so eloquently put it:

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.

A networked economy limits the past to enable the future.

3)    A government that uses a networked approach to creating a strategy for a connected economy.

An agrarian economy was managed using papyrus, an industrial economy was managed via printing press, typewriters and carbon copy paper. A digital economy strategy and managing policies were created on Microsoft Word and with email. A Network Economy can and only will be successfully managed and regulated when those trying to regulate it stop using siloed, industrial modes of production, and instead start thinking and organizing like a network. Not to ring an old bell, but today, that means drafting the policy, from beginning to end, on GCPEDIA, the only platform where federal public servants can actually organize in a network.

Managing an industrial economy would have been impossible using hand written papyrus, not just because the tools could not have handled the volume and complexity of the work but because the underlying forms of thinking and organizing that are shaped by that tool are so different from how an industrial economy works.

I’m going to predict it right now. Until a digital economy strategy is drafted using online but internally-connected tools like wikis, it will fail. I say this not because the people working on it will not be intelligent, but because they won’t be thinking in a connected way. It will be like horse and buggy users trying to devise what a policy framework for cars should look like. It will suck and terrible, terrible decisions will be made.

In summary, these are the three things I think the federal government needs to be focused on if we are going to create a digital economy strategy that positions us to be leaders by 2017. This is the infrastructure that needs to be in place to ensure that we maximize our capacity to connect each other and our work and reap the benefits of that network.

Connectedness, Volleyball and Online Communities

I’m currently knee deep into Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Christakis & Fowler and am thoroughly enjoying it.

One fascinating phenomenon the book explores is how emotions can spread from person to person. In other words, when you are happy you increase the odds your friends will be happy and, interestingly, that your friends’ friends will be happy. Indeed Christakis & Fowler’s research suggests that emotional states are, to a limited degree, contagious.

All this reminded me of playing competitive volleyball. I’ve always felt volleyball is one of the most psychologically difficult games to play. I’ve regularly seen fantastic teams collapse in front of vastly inferior opponents. I used to believe that the unique structure of volleyball accounted for this. The challenge is that the game pauses at the end of every point, allowing players to reflect on what happened and, more importantly, assign blame (which can often be allocated to a single individual on the team). This makes it easy for teams to start blaming a player, over-think a point, or get frustrated with one another.

As a result, even prior to reading Connected, I knew team cohesion was essential in volleyball (and, admittedly, any sport) . This is often why, between points, you’ll see volleyball teams come together and high-five or shake hands even if they lost the point. If emotions and confidence are contagious, I can now see why it is a team starts to lose a little confidence and consequently then plays a little worse causing them to lose still more confidence and then, suddenly they are in a negative rut and can’t escape.(Indeed, this peer reviewed paper showed that tactile touch among NBA players was a predictor of individual and team success)

Of course, I’ve also long believed the same is true of online (and, in particular, open source) communities. That poisonous and difficult people don’t just negatively impact the people they are in direct contact with, but also a broader group of people in the community. Moreover, because communication often takes place in comment threads the negative impact of poisonous people could potentially linger, dragging down the attitude and confidence of everyone else in the community. I’ve often thought that the consequence of negative behaviours in the online communities has been underestimated – Christakis and Fowler’s research suggests there are some more concrete ways to measure this negative impact, and to track it. Negative behaviour fosters (and possibly even attracts) still more negative behaviour, creating a downward loop and likely causing positive or constructive people to opt out, or even never join the community in the first place.

In the end, finding ways to identify, track and mitigating negative behaviour early on – before it becomes contagious – is probably highly important. This is just an issue of having people be positive, it is about creating a productive and effective space, be it in pursuit of an open source software product, or a vibrant and interesting discussion at the end of an online newspaper article.

The Real-time Politician – It's about filters (and being unfiltered)

The other day Mathew Ingram, in response to articles about the president’s one year anniversary asked What Are the Implications of a Real-Time, Connected President? More specifically:

Is a real-time connected president more likely to think for himself and look outside the usual Washington circles for ideas or input, or is being connected just a giant distraction for someone who is supposed to be leading the nation?

The policy implications of a real-time, connected president could be interestingly different around say, copyright law, net-neutrality and a myrad of other modern issues a pre-internet president might not get.

But in response to Mathew’s specific question I think the connected president (or politician) has more ways to fail, but if they manage their filters correctly, could also be much, much smarter.

Let me explain why.

The entire infrastructure around a politician is about filtering. As odd as it may be for some readers to hear, politicians do almost nothing but work with information. Indeed, they are overwhelmed with the stuff. Theirs is among the first jobs to deal with the noise to signal problem. (How do you distinguish important information – signal – from unimportant information – noise). Ever notice when you talk to many politicians (particularly ones you don’t know), they listen but aren’t really absorbing what you say – it is because they have people telling them “what matters” about 9-14 hours out of every day. And each issue they get approached about is “the most important.”

Moreover, most politicians have marginal influence at best (even the president can only change so much, particularly without Congress’s help). So that glazed look… it’s not that they don’t care, they are just overwhelmed and don’t know how to prioritize you.

To deal with all this information (not to mention, for politicians like the President, all the decisions), politicians have evolved filters. These filters are staffers. This is why, in many instances, advisers are so deeply powerful – the elected officials they serve are often completely dependent on them to filter out all the noise (irrelevant information) and feed them the factual and political information they need to know (the relevant information) and not much else (like, say, context). A good constituency office staffer knows who in the riding absolutely needs to be called versus who is the time-suck that would never vote for you anyway.  A good policy adviser can provide a briefing note that filters out the misinformation and presents the core message or choice the politician must communicate or make.

Previous new communication technology either didn’t disrupt this filter mechanism because they were purely broadcast (think radio or television), or had limited effect because they only widened circle of people the politician could consult in a narrow fashion (telephone or telegraph). The internet however does two things. One, it allows you to communicate, in an unfiltered manner, with millions of people, who can in turn communicate back to you. Second, it allows one to access a vast swath of information – much of which is itself already filtered.

The implication of the first shift has been widely talked about. I think politicians are still grappling with this opportunity, but Facebook, Twitter, even email all allow politicians to access their supporters and constituents in interesting ways. They also allow constituents to easily self-organize to give you feedback, be it positive or, (as Obama experienced when his own supporters organized on my.barackobama.com in protest to his vote in favour of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) “corrective.” In this regard, politicians are going to need a whole new set of filters – ones that are able to identify which 2,000 person facebook group might swell into a 220,000 person group in 3 weeks.

But the really interesting shift is in the relationship between politicians and their advisers. And here we’ve already seen that shift.

The fact is that most technologies have allowed politicians – particularly those with executive authority – to further centralize that authority. The telegraph, and then telephone allowed politicians to have more direct contact with more people. This gave them the opportunity to micromanage their affairs rather than delegate to officials (think Nixon with the telephone and the details he would get into or the ever centralizing authority of the Canadian Prime Minister’s Office since Trudeau).

For the networked politicians the temptation to reach out and micromanage a greater array of staffers – or even to be consulted directly on a greater number of smaller decisions – is enormous. At some point, in a networked world the flow of information, the quantity of decisions, and the number of relationships will simply become overwhelming.This is how these technologies can cause filter breakdown and ultimately paralyze the decision making process (a problem Canada’s present Prime Minister has wrestled with).

And this is why the situation will be so interesting. A networked world increases the power of both the politician and their advisers. As connected politicians have to deal with so much more information the need for filters, and thus the role of advisers, actually becomes more important. At the same time however, the President’s capacity to go around their filters – to access the opinions of outsiders, particularly those who have been filtered by the masses as being credible – also increases. So, in some ways politicians are more autonomous: less dependent on, or more able to challenge, their advisers. (This is somewhat the picture being painted in the Washington Post article about Obama.)

My sense is that the networked politician has a difficult time in front of them. Finding the right balance between trusting one’s advisers, managing decisions at the appropriate level and knowing when to listen to outsiders will require more discipline than ever before. Networks and modern communication technology make the ability (and temptation) to do too much of any of these much, much easier.

On the flip side however, if a politician can stay disciplined, they may be able to demand better work from their advisers and engage in a greater swath of issues effectively.