Review of Next Generation Democracy: What the Open-Source Revolution Means for Power, Politics, and Change by

Book cover for Next Generation Democracy: What the Open-Source Revolution Means for Power, Politics, and Change

Full disclosure: I won this book in a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway. Loves me the free books.

I won this book before the 18-day demonstration in Tahrir Square began, but the events in Egypt (and across the Middle East) were foremost in mind as I read this book. In high school, I learned about democracy in an incredibly idealized, abstract way. It is something born one or two centuries ago, something synonymous with freedom, involving voting and citizen participation. School does not always make it clear that democracy itself continues to evolve as our society changes. Hence the need for next generation democracy. Furthermore, the Millennial Generation (also known as Generation Y) is now coming into its own, graduating from university, dominating even more of the 18-30 voting bloc. Hence the need to examine the democracy of the next generation.

Jared Duval could also have titled his book, Not Yer Grandfather's Democracy, which I think sounds catchier, although maybe it doesn't quite have the double entendre of the actual title. Nevertheless, it conveys a similar message: the Millennial Generation and its maturation amid the information and Internet revolutions of the late twentieth, early twenty-first century, is going to do democracy differently. Duval contends that democracy in its current form has alienated representatives from their leaders to some extent; the pressure of lobbyists, the pressure to campaign constantly for the next election, and the unwieldy size and density of bills makes it increasingly difficult for our democracies to function. This is not a doom-saying book, though. Duval thinks new technology, combined with a new will, can not only save democracy but make it better.

Fundamental to this improvement is the idea that new technology (i.e., the Internet) makes it easier to create organizations with distributed, lateral power structures rather than hierarchical, top-down ones. This decentralization and de-concentration of power has two benefits: firstly, it is more efficient, because each group can be left to administer its own projects without having to get approval and supervision from upper management; secondly, it makes the organizations less vulnerable when their visionary leaders step down. These are both very important changes, something Duval highlights by exploring the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the rise of youth activism groups across the United States.

In the former case study, Duval examines how the decentralized, autonomously-functioning Coast Guard units made for the most effective force in the days following the devastation of New Orleans. He then goes on to look at how citizens rallied to create a balanced reconstruction plan that would preserve the neighbourhoods of New Orleans at a time when rebuilding community was essential. In both cases, the traditional top-down authorities (FEMA and the mayor/city council, respectively) failed to produce adequate responses to the disaster and its aftermath. By contrast, these decentralized approaches worked well: for the Coast Guard, it created flexibility; for the citizen planners, it ensured an appropriate diversity of input from different demographics.

In the latter case study, Duval looks at the rising number of youth-led activism groups. Here he recounts from personal experience with the Sierra Student Coalition. In particular, he focuses on the circumstances surrounding the formation of the Energy Action Coalition. The key ingredient that allowed Energy Action to succeed where other umbrella organizations failed, according to Duval, was its innovative approach to fundraising. Instead of "organization-versus-organization," Energy Action required all member groups to raise funds on behalf of the entire coalition, which then apportioned the funds according to a pre-determined budget. This might seem like the antithesis of decentralization, but the point is that it prevented organizations from competing against each other in their fundraising efforts. And that meant they could work more effectively to address their particular focuses, while enjoying the support and exposure provided by membership in the coalition.

Duval is clearly close to and passionate about his subject matter, neither of which is a bad thing. At first I was worried he would not examine some of his case studies with the critical eye they required. Fortunately, I worried for nothing: Duval points out the limitations of the open source approach to democracy and of the way some people have tried implementing it. In particular, he expresses disappointment over the Obama administration's failure to adhere to some of its openness and transparency promises from Obama's campaign. So rest assured that, while extremely optimistic, Next Generation Democracy does not view the world through rose-coloured glasses. If anything, Duval is frank and unapologetic over his analysis of the world's plight, especially when it comes to climate change.

There is one area where I'm dissatisfied with Duval's approach, and that is the characterization of the Millennial Generation. Some of his stories are very heartwarming and inspirational, as I'm sure they are intended to be. Yet I couldn't help but think to myself, "Wow, it's like every member of my generation is an activist!" which reminded me that Duval has selected very specific cases to support his argument. There are a lot of activists in my generation. But I don't necessarily accept that the Millennials are different enough from previous generations in this respect. Perhaps the form of activism has evolved with the decades as well. Yet there are plenty people of my generation who are not overly concerned with advocating for change. Duval spends a lot of time talking about Millennials who are making a difference; he does not spend enough time on ways in which this open source approach can combat apathy. This, more than war, poverty, or climate change, is the challenge of my generation, I think. If the Millennials are to have the impact Duval wants them to have, first they must be made to care. Open source politics has the potential for inspiring action, and to his credit, that potential is implicit in a lot of Duval's case studies, such as his profile of SeeClickFix.

Also, Duval is preaching to the choir here. Sometimes that makes reading a book more difficult for me, because I just can't engage with the subject matter as much as if I was trying to formulate counterarguments. The best way to counteract such difficulties is to include anecdotes and enough new, fresh ideas and information to keep me entertained and educated. To an extent, Duval is successful in this effort (and I can't claim there is a dearth of anecdotes). Nevertheless, I feel a little jaded when it comes to reading about Wikipedia or the birth of Linux. It would be interesting to see the review of someone who started this book vehemently opposed to Duval's position.

Let's do this with two questions. What is Next Generation Democracy? It is a well-constructed argument that the Millennial Generation, combined with technological innovations, is going to change how democracy and politics work. It is an interesting account of some of those changes, supported by anecdotal, statistical, and scholarly evidence. Duval's writing is charismatic even if it is not necessarily persuasive. What isn't Next Generation Democracy? It's not comprehensive. Its scope is very narrow, as attested to by the volume's thin girth. I try not to blame books for not being what they are not, however, so this is not necessarily a negative remark, just an observation. Next Generation Democracy also isn't one-sided when it comes to its analysis, although it isn't quite balanced either.

Do I recommend this book? Conditionally. I can't say it's essential or required reading, but if you are interested in this topic, this would be a good choice. Likewise, if you find the premise I've outlined intriguing, then this is probably worth a try. Finally, though I found its length somewhat limiting, there's something to be said for a book this small examining issues that big. I could see this making a good textbook for a university, or even a high school course, when used in combination with other texts. Next Generation Democracy is not revolutionary like it wants the Millennial Generation to be, but it is different enough that it stands out—in a good way.

(Sidebar: my advanced reading copy lacks an index, which I find noteworthy and slightly annoying. This is quite possibly limited to the ARC, so I'd be interested in knowing if the final version does have an index.)


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