Opting for freedom of online expression
TECHSPLOITATION Last week's mayoral election in my hometown of San Francisco was one of those weird moments that make you think you're living in a Philip K. Dick novel, looking at hundreds of alternate futures peeling away from the present like little slivers of psychosis. It was a dismal election, in which the incumbent, conservativeforSan Francisco Gavin Newsom, was the only candidate who had any hope of winning. He was practically unopposed, but there was, technically, a cornucopia of candidates, spanning the gamut from qualified but unpopular to completely unqualified and silly, who were on the ballot running against him.
Things being what they are, the silly candidates got the most attention (albeit not most of the votes). Some guy named Chicken, known mostly for his participation in the art festival Burning Man, ran on a campaign pushing people to vote for him as their second choice, since San Francisco has ranked-choice voting. He definitely had great posters, given his connection to the arts community, but not much of a platform. Then there was the sex club owner Michael Powers, who ran on a platform I never quite understood. Powers does have one of the nicest sex clubs I've ever seen, called (appropriately enough) the Power Exchange, and I wondered briefly if that might qualify him to run the city. But in the end, he got the fewest votes. And Chicken did not come in anywhere near second.
As I said, there were a few candidates, like Quintin Mecke, with relevant experience, but none had big enough constituencies to pull off a win. So when it came time to fill in my ballot, I voted for a guy who isn't a joke and has the kinds of political experience that might get him elected in 2035: Josh Wolf.
Media geeks may remember Wolf as the blogger who was sent to prison for refusing to identify for the police some protesters in video he posted of a political demonstration that turned violent. After he got out of prison he went on the Colbert Report, where he came across as well intentioned and with a burning passion for free speech. In the mayoral race, he ran on a platform that emphasized open democratic processes and a good wi-fi plan for the city. Nobody in his campaign thought he would win, and indeed he only garnered about 1,500 votes. But that's saying something in an election with only 17 percent turnout.
So why didn't I vote for somebody like Mecke, who had a good position on dealing with homelessness and had already done some work in city politics? Because, as I said, I felt like I was in this Dick novel looking into a zillion possible futures right there in the polling place. There were the sure-to-fail futures represented by good candidates with no hope of winning, and then there was the dark future of creepy joke candidates like Chicken, whose mockery of the voting process was probably part of why so few people turned out for the election. Why vote when running for mayor had been turned into a joke?
So I voted for the best possible future I could find, the future in which, eventually, smart young people who care about freedom of expression online become mature politicians who understand new technologies and the socioeconomic conditions associated with them. Maybe Wolf won't grow into that politician, but somebody like him will. And that person will probably understand things like how to organize Internet access for low-income city residents and why entertainment companies shouldn't be allowed to sue people for hundreds of thousands of dollars because they've been file-sharing. That person will also understand how easy it is to violate people's privacy online and will push for regulations that prevent companies and governments from dipping into private digital data supplies.
Of course, the future in which we have politicians like Wolf may never happen. We can't predict what will become of him, and we can't know if digital natives will mature into progressives who care about access and privacy reforms. There's always room for wired neocons and digital Puritans, whose intimate history with the Internet will make them particularly good at legisutf8g censorship purges and invasive data mining. That's not the future I voted for, but I am always having to remind myself that's the future I may get. *
Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who is living in an alternate future right now.