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Jonathan Askin

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Occupy Wall Street as a Pivoting Startup: "Generation Why Not" in a "Yeah But" World

Posted: 11/01/11 02:55 PM ET

Pundits broadly criticize the Occupy Wall Street movement for its lack of coherent messaging. These observers do not understand digital startups, which are designed to reinvent themselves or "pivot" quickly in order to meet the needs of their users. Pivot or die is the mantra of the startup venture. The startup is always in perpetual "beta" -- a work in progress with a readily mutable business plan.

In order to build a modern, sustainable social movement, the Occupy Wall Street movement must function like an innovative startup venture and learn to pivot, to distribute control and to evolve substantively, while sustaining its core theme. And, contrary to its framing by the mainstream media, there is an underlying theme at the heart of this multi-issued Venn diagram of the Occupy Wall Street Movement -- government must answer to its citizens not its corporations.

The substantive issues of concern to the Occupy Wall Street subgroups -- from the environment to health care to race relations to economic justice -- are, at best, secondary and should evolve according to the consensus of the people. Like an online platform built for public discourse, the content of the forum is not as important as building the functional platform. Occupy Wall Street is providing a platform -- a user-friendly forum -- in which we may engage in civic discourse, and develop the processes and policies that might govern a modern democracy. The content and substantive issues are transitory, but the platform and process reform issues are sustainable.

As far as I can see, Occupy Wall Street is creating a functional, distributed platform upon which we all might answer the most daunting, intractable questions of our times, and I've participated in virtually every American-born political or social movement since I was born -- first as a "red diaper baby" on my parents' backs during the civil rights protests of the '60s, as a young environmentalist and peace activist in grade school, as an anti-apartheid, South Africa divesture activist in college, as a Lawyers' Guild mass defender during the Presidential Convention protests of the 90s and '00s, as a member of the Obama tech policy committee in 2008 (during which time we pioneered the use of social media to build a national, user-generated, grassroots campaign), and now as a tech law professor amidst the first digitally-powered, grassroots civic movement.

We are witnessing the birth of a new, sustainable, non-hierarchical, pivotable movement, run by a new generation, with digital tools, capabilities, processes and flexibilities that the analog world -- and its old, corporate and political, guard -- cannot yet process. The digital generation, coming of age with the PC and the Internet, understands how to harness digital technology, the Internet, and information flow to make government answerable to the people. They have already harnessed these tools to transform every other industry, service, system and community ... except civics. They, however, have seen their contemporary counterparts in the Middle East harness these tools for even more dramatic civic transformation.

We've seen the Internet and digital natives flatten hierarchies, empower participants, disintermediate existing industry structures and processes. All they've had to do is pose the question "What if" to any industry, service or issue before them. The old guard's response has been "Yeah, but ...." The digital generation's response is always "Why not?" These digital natives have already transformed media, television, film, music, and telephony. Civics will not be exempt.

We, however, have seen the degeneration of noble causes co-opted and compromised by egos and entrenched interests reframing the message to wage tangential battles at the expense of the root mission. We saw it most recently with the Tea Party movement, which arguably started as an assault on what members of the Tea Party viewed as government's warped economic priorities and now has been largely co-opted by "coherent" special interests like the Christian Right.

Substantive issues aside, there is much that would unite the root mission of the Tea Party with that of Occupy Wall Street and their overlapping goal -- to create a modern, functional democracy, answerable to the citizens. If we allow the digital natives to build the platform for civic engagement, then we, the people from across the political spectrum, may populate that platform with our ideas and let the power of the online collaborative marketplace digest, synthesize, evaluate and prioritize the merits of our individual and collective ideas.

I stand in awe of what the digital startups have done to every industry. I stand in awe as these digital pioneers turn their attention and powers to politics and civic engagement. With that "What if" and "Why not" attitude, they then disrupt and transform and, ultimately, make whatever they touch more functional and responsive to users. The "What If" Generation (or the "Why Not Generation" if you prefer) has the tools and the vision to reimagine our democracy, and to give us the platform to make government more responsive to its people.

 

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