Technologies for collaborative democracy

Mira Dontcheva   Beth Noveck , Microsoft Research

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University April 4, 2008

Almost contemporaneously to the beginnings of the World Wide Web, pundits heralded a new Periclean Golden Age of e-democracy.  They wrote about and designed software for online deliberation and the public exchange of reason that would transform our political culture.

Software might make it possible to "do deliberation" and overcome the problems complained of by 1950s sociologists, such as “groupthink” where like-minded people fail to consider alternatives or debate proposals sufficiently or "cascading" where members of the community acquiesce in the opinions propounded by the loudest speakers.  But, with software, we could control who speaks when and induce everyone to participate, rather than only those who are willing to speak up face-to-face. Designed right, new technology could inculcate such ideals as open discourse, equal participation, reasoned discussion and diverse viewpoints into the practices of on-line deliberation.  This would make it possible not only to talk but also to truly deliberate at a distance. The new era of cyber-democracy was just around the corner, right?

It didn’t happen.

We will discuss why, despite the deliberative potential of new technologies, current political institutions have changed little in response to Web 2.0.  We will explore the role of visual and social interfaces in producing better democracy and talk about the progress of the Peer-to-Patent project, the first example of opening up federal government decision-making to a self-selected network of scientific experts. This talk will focus on how both law and technology might be better deployed together to bring about not only deliberation but collective action and a new kind of collaborative democracy that connects institutions to networks.

Beth Simone Noveck is professor of law and director of the Institute for Information Law & Policy at New York Law School and the McClatchy Visiting Associate Professor at Stanford University, Department of Communication. She teaches in the areas of intellectual property, e-government/e-democracy, and First Amendment.  Her work lies at the intersection of technology and civil liberties and focuses on how institutions democratize in response to networks.  Professor Noveck is the founder of the Democracy Design Workshop, an interdisciplinary "Do Tank" ( dedicated to deepening democratic practice through the application of both legal code and software code.  She is the designer of numerous civic software projects.  With the support of the MacArthur Foundation, Omidyar Network, IBM, Microsoft, HP, GE, Intellectual Ventures and Red Hat, she created "Peer to Patent" ( a cooperation with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to open the patent examination process to online public participation for the first time.  Noveck is founder of the annual State of Play conference on virtual worlds ( and editor of the NYU Press Ex Machina book series on law, technology and society. She (and her students) blog at  Her book, Wiki Government: How Technology Can Make Government Better, Democracy Stronger, and Citizens More Powerful will appear with Brookings Press in 2009.

View this talk on line at CS547 on Stanford OnLine or using this video link.

Titles and abstracts for previous years are available by year and by speaker.