Can government be like a smartphone? An open platform, waiting for citizens to plug in their "apps" to its operating system? The rise of the millennial generation, along with the spread of the open source software movement, has opened up a whole new toolkit for engagement in the democratic process. Jared Duval, a precocious millennial himself, directed the Sierra Student Coalition before sitting down to write Next Generation Democracy: What the Open Source Revolution Means for Power, Politics, and Change. Duval explains why activists of the new generation are different from their parents, what activists can learn from Web 2.0, and why WikiLeaks is so sticky.
Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: Give us the thesis of Next Generation Democracy in a nutshell. What's the key trend you are trying to drive home?
Jared Duval: There are two interrelated trends. One is the rise of the open-source movement which folks became aware of with the rise of the Linux operating system and projects like Wikipedia, projects where everyone can access the information behind it, contribute to it, and improve it in a very transparent, participatory, collaborative manner.
The second is the rise of the millennial generation, the folks who are right now in their teens, twenties, and early thirties who came of age as digital natives using web 2.0 programs influenced by open source. Millennials carry the expectation that those principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration will be there for the things that they use online.
So the book is all about how that ethic translates offline to how we go about social change organizing and how we want to engage in our democracy.
TH: How do you define millennials?
Duval: A millennial is anyone born between 1979 to 1997.
TH: So what do you see as the main distinguishing traits of millennials? Why are we different from previous generations?
Duval: I think the main thing is that we have an expectation that our government should play a more active role in solving society's problems. Pew Research has done a series of surveys trying to figure out the key things that make millennials different from other generations. And they found that the largest gap in their polling between young folks and older folks was on the question of, "Do you think our government should play a more active role in solving society's problems?" 69 percent of millennials say yes. No other age group breaks 50 percent agreement with that statement.
The other thing that's interesting, though, is that it's not just about wanting a bigger government. I think older generations are still stuck on this question of big versus small, and I think that's kind of a dead-end, misleading framing. It's more about how effective government is. Is the process open and transparent? Is it able to include and act on new information in ways that engage citizens meaningfully?
A third of millennials, far higher than any other generation, say that they're interested in internet-based collaboration with government. Half of millennials express an interest in working for the local, state, or federal government.
I think because so many of the challenges that we've come of age with--learning about global warming as a scientific reality since we were in elementary school--we realize that individual organizations or institutions or the private sector alone can't solve them. It requires us coming together and using our public problem-solving mechanisms, our democracy. And so I think we have a different view of what government should do and how it should do it.
TH: Give us some examples of how this movement is showing itself in the climate fight.
Duval: When I was directing the Sierra Student Coalition from 2005 through 2007 I visited over 30 states and was organizing and speaking on campuses all over the country. And it was a fascinating experience where I was able to get a sense for the pulse of what was happening on campuses. And certainly during that time there was a huge amount of enthusiasm for the Campus Climate Challenge campaign. Over 660 colleges passed a commitment to move towards climate neutrality with short-term steps in terms of clean energy purchasing and energy efficiency improvements.
But at the same time, I was also seeing the students working on ending the genocide in Darfur and working on global poverty efforts. And whether it was climate, genocide, or poverty, one of the things that was true of young organizers across the board was that they didn't want to organize around those issues while stuck in issue boxes.
So when you were seeing climate campaigns, it wasn't just the environmentalists. It was folks putting together coalitions with groups that had human rights concerns, or faith groups who were concerned about creation care. And it was the same for those other issues as well: it was about building coalitions and having a larger conversation rather than sectioning activist groups off by identity.
TH: Is there a specific set of tools that you see cropping up in movements like this, either online or methods of rallying and organizing that reflect a collaborative, open approach?
Duval: Yeah, I think one of the things is how campaign plans were developed by the Energy Action Coalition. When we were designing the Campus Climate Challenge campaign, we would basically open up a Google Doc and put in it all the information about which group was doing what, and what questions we needed to have answered. Our Google Doc was just like a wiki, and folks were contributing to it in real time and using that as a common resource to stay up-to-date between our conference calls (which wouldn't happen very often).
Whatever the specific tool, there's a preference for platforms that enable people to customize their organizing efforts. I think the best example of that out there right now is 350.org. They call their organizing model "open source organizing," and describe it as being akin to hosting a potluck.
They set the date and do some basic organizing, but most of those events that happen are thanks to the creativity of folks locally coming up with ideas and doing the outreach, neighbor by neighbor, to add up to something that ended up being the largest political action in the world. The Global Work Party on 10/10/10 was reported as being that large.