In 1996, the internet was brand new and a friend of my aunt hired me to fly across the country after graduation and work for a cutting edge company that would revolutionize democracy by digitizing engagement. It turns out the man was ahead of his time and the experience went a bit sour, but I learned a lot and it changed the way I saw the interface between technology and engagement and democracy.
In a lot of ways, we have come far over the last 25 years—everyone has email. There are faster ways to communicate. We have social media, video transmissions, and much more. But, while we can watch local government from our homes, our offices, even our phones in ways that we could not have imagined in 1996, in a lot of ways we are locked in the same thinking we had in 1968.
We have basically built the entire governance system as though we have simply shrunk and mobilized our TV sets. Sure, you can email the city council—but you cannot engage with them other than by coming down to city hall, utilizing your two or three minutes to say your piece and sit down.
Local government is a passive experience. We have video, we have text messages, we have instant messaging and much much more, and yet our experience with a very few exceptions is not much different from the days when I was a college student and I sat in a school board meeting waiting for my three minutes to engage.
In a lot of ways, the local government experience mirrors the rest of society, whether it be school, companies or the like. Yes, we have new technology. Yes, we have used that new technology. But with few exceptions we have really not revolutionized the use of that new technology.
Ironically, as we are forced to distance ourselves, we may finally be forced—unwilling as we are—to tear down the confines that bind us to past practices.
There I was last night, in a Zoom meeting with a group of interns I may never meet in person, communicating across the state about our next wave of coverage on the courts. Here we have people participating from Orange County, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and I realized how limiting our concepts of location are to what we could do.
The city is no different. Two weeks ago, I listened as public commenters came up during the public comment period and told the council what they couldn’t do. We are preoccupied. People are worried about their future. The council should only take the time to do what is absolutely necessarily.
Then the meeting got Zoom bombed by people likely not part of our community, who probably don’t even know where or what Davis is, and their mission was to disrupt.
The response was shock, horror, and people throwing up their hands—see, we can’t do this. Just take up emergency tasks and wait until the crisis clears to conduct the everyday business of the city.
All across the country, media woke up to the reality of Zoom bombing. The New York Times was a precursor to this, but, since then, every major publication has had a similar story—including a number of remedies for the problem.
That’s right—the problem that we experienced is not because our council was foolish or that the city was irresponsible, it is the downside to trying new technologies under difficult circumstances.
But guess what—there really was no damage done other than to our sensibilities and perhaps our egos.
We get a second take. Heck we get a third and fourth take if we want them as well. We can keep going until we can get this right.
What I realized watching this meeting was not the disruption or the vulgarity, but the potential.
The lesson of optimism I learned as a youth was not looking at a glass partially filled and saying that glass was half-full and many decry it as half-empty. But rather looking at the glass that is filled only a small amount and seeing it for the potential to fill it the rest of the way.
Or to put it into political terms, the great quote from Robert F. Kennedy, that “every major publication has had a similar story – including a number of remedies for the problem.”
We therefore have this chance to take a system of government that is good, but stuck in its ways, and make it better.
We are always talking about the need to get more people engaged in local government. We always bemoan the fact that most people are busy in their daily lives and have little time to pay attention to things that will impact those lives until it is too late.
We now have an opportunity to change that. We have the technology and, for the first time, many people have the time.
We have real challenges in our community and our world, but we have a real opportunity to change the way we do things for the better.
Should our council meetings be a passive experience where we sit, we watch, and we get up and we use our two to three minutes to say our piece and sit down? Or can it be more?
The first step is allowing people from the comfort of their homes to participate. The council has attempted to solve the Zoom-bombing problem by locking down Zoom. But there are so many other ways to protect us from mischief while still democratizing the participation experience.
We have issues that this community still needs to address and we have a public that has the time to really engage in those issues. Maybe over the next few months we can have our council, along with city staff, find innovative ways to create new opportunities for participation—right from our homes.
This is a tragic time—many of us will lose our friends, our family, and our loved ones. But it is also a time when circumstances force us to find new and better ways to do things, and we can meet these new challenges and open up new opportunities.
—David M. Greenwald reporting