Ping (zestyping) wrote,

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Goals and ambitions.

In a recent long conversation with an old friend, i mentioned that i was thinking about directing my thesis work at the political process. My target has always been the general area of using computers to help people understand and debate complicated or controversial issues. A few years ago when i became motivated to do this, i had been thinking of issues in a technical context, like programming language design or computer security (the intricate capability-versus-ACL debate, for instance). More recently, i've been thinking that government really needs a better way to handle complex issues, not just to help politicians understand the issues, but also to make the debate more transparent to the public and open to participation by the citizens.

My friend's reaction surprised me. "I'm really sorry to hear that," he said.

He was unhappy to see me drawn into politics. His argument was that it would be a waste of time because there were already so many people pulling on the levers that it would be impossible for me to move them. He lamented the vast expenditure of effort by so many people with little or no positive effect. I looked back at my experience with the Dean campaign and thought about it. The Dean campaign did have some effect — but was that effect commensurate with the tremendous expense of effort, time, and money that everyone poured into it?

Better to work on something that isn't already saturated with crowds of polarized, well-meaning activists, my friend said. Better to make a difference in something like nanotechnology policy, computer security, or distributed systems, where a focused effort can yield a pervasive effect.

I don't know. I think he has a point, but it's also true that the right Internet tools and processes can have a pervasive effect on the political process. MoveOn is a stellar example. But how many such projects must start and fail for one to succeed? It's hard to estimate the true expected leverage.
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