Sunday, November 23, 2008

Book Review: Rebooting America

Rebooting America is a collection of essays by various prominent and other personalities in politics, activism, nonprofit organizations, and new media. The essayists grapple with answering the question of how to reinvigorate and redefine American democracy for the Internet Age.

More than just a collection of screeds on how government processes, bureaucracies, and practices can be improved for the benefit of citizens, the book deals with a mind-bogglingly broad range of topics which included some essays as above but also what does it mean to have an educated, engaged citizenry in the Internet Age, privacy, voting methods, grassroots organizing and political campaigns, open source technology and their applications, civic engagement, media and communications, and experimental efforts currently underway to connect democratic practices to Internet technology.

The essayists are a diverse who’s who of politics, new media, and activism from a broad range of perspectives. They include Democratic Party activists Zack Exley and Joe Trippi; conservative politican Newt Gingrich; futurists Howard Rheingold and Douglas Rushkoff; Personal Democracy Forum editors Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej; Open Left blogger Matt Stoller; and activist Alison Fine among others.

The ideas presented in the book were also wide-ranging -- from high level concepts and theory to nitty-gritty, nuts and bolts experiments that are being implemented now. The essayists had many interesting ideas on how to harness technology to create a more transparent and democratic government and political process as well as intriguing ideas on citizen engagement.

As a citizen, reading the book was a good mental exercise for imagining what democracy might look like in the near future. I felt intrigued by many of the ideas presented but found it hard to read the book as a whole with a critical eye. With each essay averaging between 3-4 pages long, the presentation was too brief for each idea and innovation and it was not possible go into more depth and elaborate on implications of each idea. The experience of reading the book, for me, was akin to seeing a quick succession of excellent conference presentations.

The book definitely piqued my curiosity but provided little in terms of actionable items I can do right now to contribute to making democracy work better for the 21st century. Or where I can go if I am interested in delving further on the subject matter of each chapter. Which may not be entirely bad -- the editors seemed to have published a book designed for higher-level thinking across a broad range of ideas rather than a nuts and bolts instruction book.

All in all, I give the book three out of five stars. Its main strengths were its timeliness, subject matter, and diversity of ideas and perspectives represented. Its biggest weakness was the brevity of each essay so that each idea was not explored with great depth. I also would have loved to have read about efforts or real-life experiments that employed Internet technology for democracy in countries other than in North America (A couple of essays touched upon international efforts which only served to make me more curious). Rebooting America is worth a look. If technology, democracy and politics are your thing, you will find a lot to interest you and think about in this book.

Cross-posted in An Ordinary Person.


Christopher Chambers said...

We are becoming a disconnected society as we've become connected with the Net and technology. I was on a panel today where people spent more time Twittering than listening or engaging the real flesh and blood human inches from them. Malcolm Gladwell's latest book "Outliers" has this subtext of showing connections and advantages shaping us way outside our own little worlds. The Net is just another personal bubble sometimes, with this myth of interconnecting, interpersonal, community building...

redante said...

Hello Chris

Thanks for your comment. Strangely enough what you just said was in the back of my mind as I was writing my review of the book but couldn't quite articulate. The overall tone of the book towards Internet and democracy was overwhelmingly positive. I would have loved to have read more dissenting and contrarian perspectives to round it up.