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Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Clay Shirky: How the Internet will (one day) transform government


This presentation was one of the best I have seen in years. We often hear time after time about how we live in a democracy. There is much conversation in the media about how we can really improve our democracy and give people more of the power. This man, however, actually has a plan. He knows the plan will work because it has already been tried and effective in the world of open-source programming.

Mr. Shirky starts by talking about how every time there is an invention of communication like the printing press or the telegraph that there are predictions of the impact that invention will have on people. There is always the prediction of world peace because it is believed the invention will bring people together. However, what happens is that it increases the arguing among people. Furthermore, he shares a story about a girl who wrote a blog about the school lunches her school served and a had a huge following. The school made her stop and there was a huge outcry of injustice. These talking points bridge the idea of what a new form of communication does and how it can be used to connect people's voices.

Mr. Shirky then goes on to describe the evolution of open source programming and how it is a model for how a true democratic government could operate. Like the government, open-source software had to deal with the problem of too many ideas causing chaos and loss of control. 

Until open source software, only a version control system was used and it was a way to control this problem with software. This system only allows a programmer to make changes to the code if they have permission. Also, they are usually only allowed to have access to and alter a subsection of the entire code. Mr. Shirky compares this type of software to a Feudalistic style of government.

Then Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, stayed true to the idea of open source software where anyone had access to the software and could make changes without permission.  After 15 years of people mailing changes of software code to him and  Mr. Torvalds putting it together by hand, he came up with a model that software could manage all the people and changes to the code but still be true to the open source method. It was called GitHub and allowed everyone to have access to all of the code all of the time. The management of the software is that there is a unique identifier that is assigned to every change that is made and a connection is made to all the other code in the program. Then if you look at the code, you can see what was deleted, added, changed, and who did it.

Mr. Shirky makes the point that citizens could have this level of participation in the government by using the GitHub model. He points out the obvious roadblocks that exist in that those with power currently would not want to give up their power and that this level of democracy has never been tried before. He makes a powerful argument however that this model provides a new style of arguing that is large, distributive, and low cost.