I agreed today to serve on the dissertation committee of a graduate student
who wants to study the political strategy of the "progressive"
public-interest groups that lobby for changes in federal communications
policy. These groups (the so-called "geektivists")
are concerned about the way the Internet is regulated, legal treatment
of software monopolies, excessive intellectual property rights, and erosion
of privacy. I know them well; I have often been the sole academic at Washington
strategy meetings involving their issues. I encouraged the student’s dissertation,
because I am dissastisfied with the general approach of the progressive
national groupsan approach that derives from Ralph Nader and the
other consumer advocates of the early 1970s. They analyze complex issues
to determine what is in the "public interest"; identify enemies;
"expose" their crimes and misdemeanors; develop a simple, marketable
"message" through public opinion research, and then "mobilize"
popular support by making people angry. I find this approach ethically
dubious, because it isn’t sufficiently democratic (respectful of ordinary
people’s opinions and capacities) or deliberative (willing to recognize
alternative points of view). By making people angry, it often discourages
them or turns them away from politics. Above all, approach tends to fail
when pitted against professional corporate lobbying campaigns. Thus I
think that the proposed dissertation could be useful for activists well
beyond the telecommunications field.