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Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Congressman Cannon and Multiple Bloggers as Lab Rats, or An Uneasy Hybrid of Political Junkie and Web Geek

. . . But don't get the idea that I didn't enjoy it. It was interesting on several levels.

My half-day junket to the U, as previously noted, was to an event designed as a proof-of-concept of ConventionNEXT, "a forum for bloggers to interact with politicians." I was invited because, said the e-mail, "We saw your blog as a blog that is updated frequently, [and] you've got some insight into what you're writing about."


The company is Politic2.0, and their intent is to use the Internet -- Web 2.0 goodies, mostly -- to make it easy and fruitful for people on the web to participate in interviews and debates with candidates and discussions with each other, just as if they were all in the same room.

The setting was a computer lab at the University of Utah -- a good place for a test, but not so great a place for a political debate. There were about 30 people present, including Congressman Cannon, a couple of his staffers, several people from Politic2.0 (from across the political spectrum, they assured us), a couple of DTM reporters, and a mix of political and not-necessarily-political bloggers. State Representative Craig Frank was there, as was Pete Ashdown, last year's sacrificial, relatively net-savvy Democratic opponent to Senator Orrin Hatch. I don't know how many others were participating online, but there clearly were some, and some of their questions were asked.

The bloggers were invited to appear at early, to get connected to the wireless Internet there and to become familiar with the ConventionNEXT technology. (Some others had wireless troubles, but I was fine. Some had Internet Explorer 7 troubles, not that that's a surprise, but I mostly use Firefox.) Then there was, ahem, a brief technology briefing, and then the question-and-answer session with Congressman Cannon began. After about an hour of that discussion, there was opportunity for us users to provide feedback on the system we were testing.

I haven't quite sorted out all the players or technologies. Emerging technologies from TagJungle and WikiReview are involved somehow. In any case, as I indicated, the purpose was proof-of-concept. The Politic2.0 goal is honorable enough, to facilitate communication between leaders and constituents, in some ways that might contribute to more substantive debate than we usually see now. Phil Burns, one of the players, also said that they want to change the way politics gets blogged. I'm not sure they're there yet, but they've made an interesting and fruitful start.

For the duration of the event, in one little window of my laptop screen, I had the live video stream from the event playing with sound muted. In a larger window, I had my web browser open to this page, where people proposed questions, voted on others' questions, and left their own comments. (I'm told that this is not the real interface for ConventionNEXT, which isn't done yet. But it mostly worked for us.) The page was projected on the screen, too, and the questions with the most votes were put to the Congressman, with some attention also paid to explanations and comments on the questions. And because it was intended that we bloggers be blogging during the event, I had a window open for that, too, and kept switching to that and making notes. Along the way, I read some others' comments on one question, commented on their comments, and proposed a different question myself. I also asked a follow-up question live which never hit the Web interface.


I've staffed and managed political campaigns, and I have planned, moderated, and coached candidates for debates and other events. I have worked in the Web world for some years, too, so I think I see both sides. It's a difficult marriage, politics and the Internet, and I strongly suspect it hasn't yet gone where it finally will go. Politic2.0 and ConventionNEXT may make some serious strides; they seem to appreciative the technical and non-technical issues. Somehow, everyone involved has to feel like he or she is speaking in real time with real people, and yet the discussion has to be coherent and somewhat orderly.

Here are some vignettes to illustrate the difficulties:

  • A staffer introduced Congressman Cannon. When he finished and the Congressman took his seat, there was no applause. (There was some at the end of the hour.) There was only the clacking of 30 keyboards, including mine. That's a little weird, especially for a seasoned politician who likes to work a crowd.
  • Other bloggers and I concurred that it was difficult to focus on the actual questions and answers while also looking at other, pending questions, commenting on them online, blogging, and in some cases looking up facts and other details on the Internet.
  • Congressman Cannon was a very good sport for agreeing to participate, but he commented a couple of times on how odd the speaker/audience interface seemed to be. Maybe that was partly the room, but it was partly the fact that we were watching our screens more than we were watching him. And I'm not sure anyone has yet figured out how to get politicians to visualize people who are not in the room as if they were, while they participate via the Internet. (Politicians don't struggle too much with getting the same sense of television audiences. I suppose they're a lot more familiar as consumers with television than with the Internet, so maybe this will pass in a generation or so.)
  • The ConventionNEXT interface (again, not the real one, just the one they had to use today, because the real one isn't finished) didn't make it easy to see which question was next. While he was figuring it out, Congressman Cannon was starting his answer to another question on the screen. The interface also didn't give the moderator enough information that he could say, "Our next question is from David Rodeback, who is here in the room," or "This question comes from Jane Doe, who is participating online from her home in Santaquin," or "One of our bloggers offers this excellent follow-up question." What I heard about the real interface suggests that it will resolve some of these issues, and a seasoned moderator (experienced in moderating and in using the technology) could help a lot, too.

I'm sufficiently optimistic and intrigued that I will happily participate in future such events. Besides, they did say, "You've got some insight into what you're writing about." Not everyone says that.

Politics and Politicians

I already said and will repeat, I think Representative Cannon was a very good sport for participating in today's event, particularly because it was more or less experimental.

I'm not sold on his merits as a Congressman -- no matter, he's not my Congressman -- but he was the best Republican in the primary and better than his Democrat opponent. And, presumably, he didn't vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. He seems intelligent enough and has a very detailed knowledge of numerous issues, as one expects of a six-term incumbent. But he has trouble speaking in an organized, coherent manner. He goes off on anecdotal and technical tangents before getting to his point. Sometimes that's interesting, and sometimes it's just silly, as when he filibusters on his office's and his campaign's use of the Internet in front of 30 people who know the Internet a lot better than he does.

Here is a scattering of interesting points he made:

  • The problem at Walter Reed Army Medical Center about which the media is so abuzz is not so much a problem with care at the hospital itself as it is a problem with long-term care of vets. (I'll have to check into this. Meanwhile, either way, doesn't it suggest the folly of government-run health care?)
  • The recent congressional junkets to Syria are necessary and a normal part of Congressional business. (A well-rehearsed response, I'm sure.)
  • It's important to leave Iraq as a functioning country, not a base for radical Islam. "Much of the discussion today is disgustingly partisan." (Not a news flash, but true. I, at least, am disgusted.)
  • Why should employers bear the burden of enforcing legal immigration? He had an anecdote about the feds being powerless to fix a system that doesn't work -- and being resigned to that condition. Or so I gathered in between taking notes and looking at others' questions.
  • Rather than giving illegal immigrants a short-cut to Social Security benefits which legal citizens do not enjoy, or putting them in the system at all, why not have non-citizen workers make mandatory equivalent contributions to a personal savings account, which they can take with them when they go home? (Very interesting. How 'bout the same deal for me?)
  • The health-care industy is evolving rapidly; it would be unwise to plant its feet in concrete by having government take over even more of it. Moreover, there is a real potential for health care research to evolve in coming years from the double-blind study method to a personalized, Bayesian model. (Also very interesting, and rather geek -- but an explanation is well beyond my scope here today. I'm familiar with the use of Bayesian logic in some computer applications. Must consider . . .)
  • There was a small group of people there who seemed to want to provoke the Congressman into making some fundamental conservative statements about the immorality of homosexual behavior and of gay marriage. He complied. Along the way, he said we're not going to get a pro-family amendment to the US Constitution, even though he did vote for one last term, so now the thing to do is preach morality in a more religious, not political, context, and back government out of the picture somewhat on this issue. (He says government got involved in marriage only because it wanted to intrude with licenses, which usually means it wanted revenue -- but I'll have to wonder about that one a little.) All in all, he was a lot murkier on this subject than my summary is, and there was a lot of backing and filling, venturing boldly forward, then retreating to explain what he really meant. That's not great speech-making, but it does remind one that he was getting into the unscripted, conversational spirit of the event. Like I said, a good sport.
  • He vexed me on global warming, which he doubts is sufficiently human-caused to be human-solvable. I doubt it, too. But he then ventured into a tangent about ways to use more carbon dioxide in industry -- even in carbonated beverages -- as a way of finding a home for more of it other than in the atmosphere. That strikes me as trying to empty an ocean with a teaspoon: a very big waste of time and any other resources committed to it. Besides, trees breathe the stuff, y'know?

My Miminal Participation

Before the event, I went online and proposed this question: "How likely is it that the minority can accomplish anything substantive in Congress?" Or, in its longer form, "How likely is it that a substantive bill on a major issue will, if sponsored by a Republican, even get a committee hearing, let alone be reported to the floor for debate and vote? What other methods are there behind the scenes for a member of the minority to influence Democrat-sponsored legislation? How effective are these methods, in the current climate, under the new leadership?"

Some folks voted for my question, but not enough to get it asked.

During the event, I got caught up in some online discussion of global warming. When someone referred to the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, I protested:

There is NOT a consensus, just a lot of people insisting there's a consensus, trying to shut down debate. Global warming now? Maybe. Two decades ago, global cooling. I'll grant that that it's happening. But there's a lot of scientific evidence suggesting human causes are minimal -- at least enough to suggest caution in trashing our economy, when its effect may be minimal.

That's not as refined and clear an expression as I prefer, which is one reason why I don't get much into real-time, stream-of-consciousness blogging, but so be it.

When former senatorial candidate Pete Ashdown commented,

Who cares if it is man-made or not? What are the drawbacks behind curbing emissions? Fish and foul that is safe to eat? Children who don't have asthma attacks? No more "unsafe air" days?

. . . I responded:

If it is not principally human-caused, then it's very doubtful that even extreme human efforts to alter it will be very effective -- in other words, not worth the price, for example, of the Kyoto economic suicide pact.

It is a typical liberal fallacy to insist that supposed benefits outweigh any possible costs, even extreme costs.

It is also typical to suggest that you care more than I do about the present and future welfare of my children, which I guarantee is not true. That is not at all what your being liberal and my being conservative means.

When Congressman Cannon noted in his discussion of immigration reform that he opposes a national ID card because of privacy issues, because he doesn't want government mucking around in that much data about everyone, I asked approximately this as a follow-up question:

In order to get a job, I already have to have a Social Security card, provided by the federal government. In order to function as an adult in society at all, I have to have a driver license, supplied by my state government. [I might have added that the IRS and numerous other agencies already collect massive amounts of data about you and me.] How does it intrude on my privacy further to have a national ID card?

The Congressman assured me that it does, suggesting that the amount of data about each person that would be necessary to support such an effort would be large (which I doubt), and that he doesn't want it to be that easy for government to access that much data in a single place. I am not satisfied with the answer, but that's okay. It was more or less a rhetorical question, anyway.

(Note that agencies have a terrible time sharing data with each other, even if they want to, which they rarely do. For that matter, in my experience, most agencies don't know how to get to and use most of the data they have. I think the threat to my privacy is miniscule here.)


But enough, and then some. Now I have to go look up Twitter, which apparently has something to do with cell phones, and which half the geeks in the room, not including me, seemed to know all about.

[Three minutes pass, maybe four.]

. . . Okay, I'll give you a link. Here: Twitter. One more way to waste time with a cell phone. Not my cup of (herbal) tea.

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