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Howard Dean's Net architect blasts ‘emergent’ punditocracy

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Campaign 2004 One of the two founding architects of Howard Dean's Internet campaign has hit back at the traveling circus of "emergent" pundits, authors and opportunists that attached itself to the grassroots campaign.

Thanks but no thanks, says Jerome Armstrong, who was blogging for Dean in 2001 and who with Mathew Gross convinced Dean's campaign manager Joe Trippi to use campaign blogs and meet-up software. You can see why. The pundits' mantras about decentralization, "returning power to the edges of the network" and intangible references to junk science didn't originate with the Dean team, and weren't solicited, either. But now they're being used as ammunition back against the Dean campaign. And the only people who've profited are the opportunist pundit army.

"The thing is," says Armstrong, "it's a complete myth that things spontaneously 'emerge'. Meetups didn't just happen."

"Campaigns have always been decentralized and disorganized. There's always authorization and endorsement behind the scenes. In 2000, McCain's campaign was totally disorganized outside the main little bubble that they had. We were simply able to have more disorganized people!"

How Armstrong and Gross established the organization is now the stuff of legend. Armstrong and Gross were advocating Dean's candidacy before it was announced, in 2001. Then in 2002, they established MyDD.com, and it led to the now storied meeting where Trippi blessed their initiative.

"A number of things coalesced. Dean was a candidate who had a lot of strong characteristics. He wasn't a liberal you can put in a box," says Armstrong. "He was the only politician outside DC who could feel the anger growing. Dean sensed the message and Trippi saw the potential there. Trippi was a master at strategy and none of the other campaign managers were able to understand what that meant in terms of providing organizing for the campaign."

But Armstrong is no techno-utopian.

"Technology doesn't interest me ," he says. "It's the words. Republicans have spent thirty years refining that message. Technology is just a means for getting there."

Armstrong recognized that the Internet, while useful, wasn’t the mass media play that TV became.

"We're not really at the point of saturation that TV had in 1960," he says. The televised Presidential debates of 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon have entered folklore as the turning point in the campaign. Although morning-after reaction judged it a close call, post-facto Nixon's TV image - his five o'clock shadow and sweaty jowels -were cited as reasons for turning voters off.

(In fact, not only has Internet usage yet to reach TV saturation, its perceived value has stalled. As we noted last spring, half the US population doesn't want to use the Internet and doesn't care less about what it might be missing, according to a Pew survey. "Internet penetration rates have hovered between 57 per cent and 61 per cent since October 2001, rather than pursuing the steady climb that they had showed in prior years," the researchers discovered.)

A-List

Blog vendors committed the familiar, egocentric error of assuming that this phenomena was down to their software, rather than the enthusiasm of the supporters, and this was reflected in mainstream media coverage. Dean's success "must be down to the blogs".

But as the blog-hype escalated, says Armstrong, the Dean campaign found itself at a disadvantage using blogs instead of more venerable, community-orientated software such as Slash and Scoop. (Both power hundreds of communities: Slash was written for Slashdot, then released as open source, while Scoop powers Kuro5hin.org and DailyKos amongst others). And as the momentum grew, the Dean campaign found itself aligned with plenty of self-interested pundits eager to take the credit: a mixture of A-List bloggers and authors.

What, we wondered did Armstrong make of the "recommended reading" list cited by Wired? "How a bunch of books about social networking rebooted the Democratic system," according to the magazine.

Armstrong sounds like a man more bemused than rankled.

"Loose Ends?"

Armstrong is referring to David Weinberger's Small Pieces Loosely Joined, a well-intentioned book that straddles pop sociology and self-help. It professes to disavow the dafter rhetoric of techno-utopianism - "The Web is not the messiah dressed in cables and bits"; and "to say that the web is self-organizing is to under-appreciate organisms" are sanity checks that wouldn't look out of place at, well, The Register. However the book repeatedly claims that the World Wide Web is the truest social representation we have. Which is a risky path to pursue, because it lays a trap that unfortunately, the author then walks into: using computer metaphors to describe society.

Another problem is expounded here, and this is what rankles Dean's campaign activists the most. "The common wisdom -- that the Internet is just one more tool in the campaign box -- is wrong…" writes Weinburger. "Are the most important effects of the Internet the ones we expect or are they emergent? Are any of emergent effects apparent yet?"

You get the picture.

But Weinberger's claim to be a Senior Internet Consultant surprised Armstrong this week.

"I've never heard of him," says Armstrong. "After the Wired article I went to Barnes and Noble to have a look at these books. After twenty minutes I eventually found them. They did look quite interesting but no, we hadn't read them."

Teach-In

Weinberger still cites his credentials as a "Senior Internet Advisor" at an "O'Reilly Digital Democracy Teach-In" - for which the price of admission is a mere $100 "(no discounts available)".

"What sort of people go to these?" he asks, rhetorically. The panel on Political Blogging doesn't even include a Political Blogger. We can help answer that one: and sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. (Taken at the $500 a head BloggerCon conference).

"These things aren't being done because anyone saw it in a book - the books are written because the authors saw things being done," says a source close to the campaign, speaking on condition of anonymity. "They're about as influential as 'Macbeth' was on Scottish royal succession."

"They get a lot of credit for describing stuff that other people are doing. There's this queer mode of writing they all use to describe existing things in the future tense - "KEY POINT: The most powerful information systems of the future will be grown, not made" . Ah, the old Marxist trick: get out of the way before History Will Bury You.

Armstrong has enough faith in the campaign's achievement to think that the Internet will provide a medium for even more effective tools in the future. Rather than referring to the emergent pundits, he draws more inspiration from Deleuze and in particular, George Lakoff's Moral Politics. Lakoff's emphasis on language has valuable lessons that progressives should heed, he says.

Given how peripheral, to put it charitably, these pundits have been to the Dean phenomenon, then perhaps all the talk of returning "power to the edges of the network" - a vague phrase no one has yet been able to explain - simply means returning power to the self-appointed pundits? At $100 per head per conference, that's a nice little earner.

But let's leave it to our old friend James F Moore, of Googlewashing notoriety to have the last word, as it illustrates a more deeper, more problematic issue with the pundits than their mere self-promotion.

"If you blog it and you know it clap your hands!" writes Jim.

"As bloggers, we're perfectly equipped to address politics as a web app design challenge."

No Jim, society isn't a software program. ®

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