Following is the essay you can designate as Volume 10, Number 25 of
This Week’s Clue, based on the e-mail newsletter I have produced since
March, 1997. It would be the issue of June 18.
Its protagonist is Ender Wiggin, trained without his knowledge to helm a life-and-death struggle between humanity and another race, far away. But its biggest innovations were Locke and Demosthenes, actually Ender’s own siblings, whose online writings manipulate the world’s leaders through the war and beyond it.
You might say he invented the blogosphere.
Or you might not. Because Locke and Demosthenes are just devices,
meant to enclose the book’s action inside the dynamic of a single
family, which made it simpler to write. Card’s point is that
everything important happens inside a family, that a single family’s
tensions and dynamics can change the world.
Fast forward 20 years, and I’m racing up a New England highway to
witness history first-hand. At the end of the highway, in a nondescript
office building by the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain, the Howard Dean
campaign is re-inventing politics.
What I find, behind a false wall, is a bullpen where young aides are
turning Movable Type into an online diary of life inside the campaign. They
describe the fundraising, their office work, the events their candidate
attends, and all the rest of it. Each entry has a comment thread, and
the innovation is that they read the comments, interact with the
posters, even take some of their advice.
It’s an intimate experience, on both sides, but what I find at the office in South Burlington is a
false front. On the other side of the wall are offices and carpeted
hallways, where senior aides in suits and ties campaign as they have
for nearly a century, dialing for dollars, strategizing only among
themselves, living inside the bubble, ignoring the outside world across
The campaign will fail because of that wall. The old men on the far
side, including campaign manager Joe Trippi, will refuse to scale the
intimacy of those early months. They won’t invest in a Community
Network Service that would grow with the campaign, and what they would
take to Iowa that winter would be an orange-hatted mob, rather than a
vast collection of individuals.
Rejecting the future may be the greatest gift Howard Dean gave
America. Outside the campaign, on blogs of their own, hundreds, then
thousands, then tens of thousands of men and women were at that very moment busy advocating,
organizing, and building their own little dreams into what we now call
the Netroots. Unlike the New Right, the 1960s movement which it most
closely approximates, the Netroots has no central direction. No one is
in charge. Each individual takes on a role they themselves define.
An entrepreneur builds the community Dean rejected. Another collects video clips. Another group concentrates on strategy, while yet another re-invents live journalism, and a journalist invites his audience to participate in the process of finding facts from reams of data. Then there are individual voices, such as the virtual ringmaster, the comic, the marketer, the polemicist.
These are not TV people. They are not trained for what they are
doing. No one knows that the anchorman is actually an overweight black man in the South Bronx,
with health issues which will take him away too soon. They all demand
to be judged by their content, and reject our expectations of who they
should be or what they should look like, which are the be-all and
end-all for the media they are fighting.
Some, in fact, are pseudonymous, and want to stay that way. Just like Locke and Demosthenes. The best of these is named Digby.
Digby is a writer on fire, unafraid to speak truth to power, totally at
home in the world of rhetoric, eloquent beyond belief. Digby often shocks the ringmaster, who will simply write Digby Speak, you listen.
So finally, with another election coming up, and with this
movement’s goals now the majority opinion of the country, an umbrella
group meant to institutionalize these goals wants to give the Netroots
an award. They want to bring a group of them together, behind a podium,
and thank them for turning the world upside down.
The group decides that only one person can truly speak for them. Digby.
So who is Digby? We imagine a cross between Sean Connery’s James
Bond and Harrison Ford in a smoking jacket, a suave intellectual of the
Rex Harrison type, a raconteur, bon vivant, a lady’s man. Is it Steve
Martin, or James Wolcott? Is it one of Bill Clinton’s old
speechwriters, maybe the Big Dog himself?
If you click play, be ready for a shock. Because Digby, it turns
out, is a nice middle-aged lady from Santa Monica. Looks a bit like my
wife, actually. She got tired of being talked down to by politicians
and big media. She started talking back. That is, assuming this really
is Digby, and she doesn’t have some 12 year old kid in Santa
Monica writing all this for her, pushing her before the microphones to
protect their own anonymity.
Because that would be silly. More to the point, that would be fiction.
It’s a prosaic ending, but there’s an important point to be made.
The reality of the Netroots turns out to be much grander than anything
Orson Scott Card imagined. It’s much bigger than anything the Dean
campaign, or the Democratic Party itself, could have ever directed.
When you allow something to grow organically, when you enable rather
than dictate, the results are always bigger, wider and deeper than any
one person can imagine. This is what Adam Smith talked about in The
Wealth of Nations. It was what Thomas Jefferson was describing. It is
what open source is all about.
Central direction doesn’t work. Central casting doesn’t work.
Top-down politics, monopolistic business practices, no single vision
can dominate reality, nor should it.
The Internet and open source values of our time aren’t communist,
fascist, religious or dictatorial in any way. They are a throwback to
the founding values of our republic, our economy, and the better angels
of our nature.
Although, come to think of it, Digby does look a bit like John Adams. Don’t you think?