03 September 2008

The Networked NGO

Here's an interview with Cory Doctorow, who explains with frightening lucidity just how he and his chums broke the WTO system. Key bit:

One of the truly subversive and amazing things the NGOs did is that we set up open WiFi networks that weren't connected to the Internet -- because there was no Internet access at the meetings when we started -- and then we would take exhaustive collaborative notes on what was said. It's very hard to take notes at these events. Diplomatic speech is very stylized, so you'll have a typical intervention which begins something like, "Mr. Chairman, allow me to congratulate you as I take the floor for the first time, on your reappointment to the chairmanship. I have every confidence that with your steady hand at the tiller, you'll guide us to a swift and full consensus on the issues at hand. The delegation from Lower Whatistan is pleased to take the floor." Und zo weiter. Eventually you get to the point, and after 20 minutes it boils down to, "No." Taking notes on that kind of speech is really grueling, because it's very hard to stay attentive and catch the one little phrase that has meaning.

So we'd have teams of three or four people using collaborative note-taking software, and one would be taking notes, one would be adding commentary and another would be following behind and correcting typos and formatting and the like. Meanwhile, we're all of us checking each other as we go -- filling in the blanks, noting discrepancies and so on -- and then publishing it twice a day at lunch and dinner.

Now, the delegations there were accustomed to the old WIPO regime, where the notes would be taken by the secretariat, sent out for approval by the delegates, sanitized -- all the bodies would be buried -- and then published six months later. And what happened once we started working together like this is that delegates would get calls on their lunch break about things they'd said that morning. Suddenly, they're immediately accountable for their words, which completely changed the character of the negotiations.

The usual: light-footed, distributed, collaborative openness beats leaden, monolithic and closed anyday.

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