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Clay Johnson on Our Vast Rational Conspiracy: “You are the new scribes”

Last week, Clay Johnson — founder of Blue State Digital and Big Window Labs, former head of Sunlight Labs, and CfA advisor — gave our fellows a powerful and inspirational send-off. Speaking at the close of the CfA Training right before the teams left for their cities, he explained why the fellows are so critical now, and called on them to build a “vast rational conspiracy.” Video (audio + slides) and text are below.

“First off, I have to say — it’s been great being here. It reminds me of the those days I spent on the Dean campaign. You know, even though Dean lost the election, the campaign staffers really won. We ended up in charge of a lot of things — whether it was the Democratic Party, or companies like Blue State Digital. And part of the reason we were able to do it was a conspiracy of belief.

Because we had such common beliefs, we were able to block and tackle for one another — promote one another, and though all of us didn’t get along personally or even like each other very much, we still managed to build success for one another. What I see here, too, is the beginning of a conspiracy. And that’s what I want to talk to you about.

To understand the conspiracy that you are all a part of, I need to give you a bit of scope. So let’s talk history.

In 1790, at the end of the first congress and when the first census was completed, we counted 3,929,214 people in this great country. Our country was founded with the population scope of less than half of the bay area. At the time, the house of representatives had 65 members. Each member got 60,449 people to represent, many of whom could not vote. 100 years later, we had increased in size, up to 92 million people in our country. We had, after the 1910 census, 431 members of Congress: a ratio of 1 member of congress to 213,987 people.

The 1910 Congress passed a law that capped the number of voting representatives to 435. It’s called Public Law 62-5 now. 100 years later, our population is over 300 million and our representatives still sits at 435. Our ratio is 1 to 717,171.

It’s been a remarkable shift in our democracy and, while technology has helped, it’s become apparent that our representatives cannot possibly represent the needs of their districts. They have too many, gerrymandered districts, with too many divergent interests to ever reach consensus.

Our government has a scalability problem.

As such, our representatives started listening to the loudest, most persistent voices. Those voices quickly became established powers that be.

In 1998, Hillary Clinton said there was a vast right wing conspiracy to destroy her husband. She’s right — there is a vast right wing conspiracy. It’s well funded, though it’s primary job is not to destroy her husband. It’s to preserve its own power and existence. Glenn Beck also believes there is a vast left wing conspiracy. He is also correct. I’ve worked with them, they exist. And their job, first and foremost, is to preserve their own power and existence. So the right wing funnels millions of dollars into elections. And the left wing funnels even more. And the real interesting thing about the left wing and right wing conspiracies is that they work together to preserve their own power. They don’t exist as a left wing and right wing conspiracy, but rather a vast establishment conspiracy. The vast establishment conspiracy wants to keep things as they are. They want to keep people pissed off and ill informed. The establishment conspiracy doesn’t want to move us forward or backward — things are just fine for the powerful in Washington.

People ought to be excited about things like Abortion, Healthcare, Earmarks and Taxes because it keeps them from seeing the real problems like procurement or a lack of representation or providing effective services for people. The situation has gotten ludicrous. So ludicrous that the only people speaking the truth are the absurd. The partisan battles are boiling down to entrenched sports fans rather than substantial debates. In the meantime, the powers that be continue to rob us blatantly not just of our tax dollars but of our spirit of American community.

I can’t go further without providing you with some more historical context about why you are, right now, so important.

In order to do that, I need to go back to the first IT boom — the development of speech. Some time, tens of thousands of years ago, we began speaking to one another. Speech was the first information technology, and it allowed those with it to move beyond the continent of Africa. Those that could speak outlived and extinguished those that could not. Next up, just a few thousand years ago — we got writing. A new class of citizen was born — the scribe. Scribes became powerful — and writing was, to an extent, a trade secret. Those that could grasp this new technology became super powerful. They started writing up religions that would control people for thousands of years. Imhotep here, who took text off of stone and put it into a much more scalable papyrus actually became, himself a god. The scribes used writing to change culture.

A few thousand years go by, and we get to this thing — the printing press. It triggers the renaissance, and all of the sudden, publishers begin acquiring power. Some of whom form formidable empires. The telegraph did neat things too — turning information into rudimentary electric signals. One of those early telegraphers (who was also a patent troll) was Thomas Edison, who went on to create this company. Looking at what’s gone on since then, we’ve gotten ourselves computers. And out of those computers, we’ve developed a whole new kind of literacy, and a whole new set of scribes. A set of people between truth and the people.

That’s you. You are the new scribes — the masters of digital literacy. And now, like the Imhotep’s, Guttenberg’s and Tim O’Reilly’s before you, it’s time for you to rewire society in your image. And so I invite you to start, here and now, the great scribe conspiracy. And I have a few suggestions on how to do it.

First and foremost, you need to know your enemy. Your enemy isn’t a politician. Your enemy isn’t Sarah Palin. Barack Obama isn’t your friend either. These people are a part of a system that can be useful or un-useful. But the trap is getting yourself locked in the scope of politics rather than usefulness. The second trap is blaming people. The government bureaucrat isn’t your enemy either. They may be obstacles sometimes, but you have to understand that they’re people that are just trying to do their jobs. If you treat them as an enemy, and engage in direct combat with them, you will almost certainly always lose, and at the very best, you’ll simply waste your time. Think of the difficult ones as an engineering problem rather than an adversary. Your enemy isn’t the person at the desk outside the DMV, it’s the line outside of it. It’s the inefficiency. Your enemy is also inequality — not just in the economic and social justice sense of the word, but also the kind that the technical community brings with it — rewiring societies means building services that benefit whole societies, not just the digitally literate. And this is your enemy: pride. It’s the sin that begets all others. As you become successful with this stuff, it will consistently haunt you.

Know also that a rising tide floats all boats. What’s good for the team is often better for you than you know– usually better than what’s for yourself. When you’re out in February, you’re going need to look out for one another. When one team is floundering, it effects all of you. The success of your teams will be measured not as individuals, but as the whole of Code for America.

Finally, you’re powerful people. You have great skills and super strength and magical powers, but you’re also rewiring society. Try and be selfless. Try and be creative, but try and be just. The most honest thing I’ve ever heard from a politician is what I heard from this guy, Howard Dean: “The great lie spoken by people like me to people like you is: ‘elect me and I will solve all your problems.’” This quote caused me to get up, get into my car, drive to vermont, and dedicate my life to service. The truth is, the power to change America is not in my hands. It’s in yours.”