“The self-sovereign unum”

The truly radical move in the Bay Area would be a return to the messy business of public debate.

This would be tricky, because public process is antithetical to tech culture. It is not fast. It is unruly and can be dispiriting. There are many people involved, with disparate ideas, and most big decisions are put to public vote—which means more people and ideas. This is the hell of regulatory blockades and referenda and open meetings to which crazy people come to read bizarre complaints off rumpled notebook paper. It is why those hoping for big, swift change, such as Michael Yarne, leave government, and why people who worry about weak responses, such as Erin McElroy, stand before buses. Getting anything done through public process requires convincing many, many individuals of the rightness of your dream. And it demands that you do that over and over, against a tide of disagreement, settling for half measures rather than no measures. The terms of public process are not personal or romantic but objective; it is language that could have been drawn up, literally, by committee.

And yet, because of that, it is a language shared. “Democracy” and “freedom” aren’t synonyms. Getting from the self-improving pluribus to the self-sovereign unum is an awkward project, and its only hope is a close mooring of language to process. Are we still on the same page? Do you follow? we ask at every turn, always aware that the answer could be no.

This is a political culture that devotees of direct action—whether protesters or app-makers—cannot permanently supplant.

—Nathan Heller, “California Screaming,” The New Yorker, 7 July 2014

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