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:
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:
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:
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,
. . . I responded:
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:
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.
Copyright 2007 by David Rodeback.