This is a very good summary of Hayek's 'spontaneous order' idea — that individuals acting independently can achieve more precisely because they are working parallel on their own goals. Dan's 'people versus government' subtext here is an interesting aspect of this, reminding me of Jane Jacobs' 'Two moralities' too.
In a posting yesterday about how bloggers helped keep the pressure on U.S. House Republicans to reconsider an ethical issue, I mentioned the way two bloggers convinced average citizens to call their members of Congress and ask how they'd voted on the issue (it was a secret ballot). The inquiring citizens then let one of the bloggers know, and he posted the running results of the tally.
I said this was an example of something I'm calling "distributed journalism." Chris Nolan called today to ask what I meant by this, and here's some of what I told her. (Here's her eWeek story on the subject.)
I think of distributed journalism as somewhat analogous to any project or problem that can be broken up into little pieces, where lots of people can work in parallel on small parts of the bigger question and collectively — and relatively quickly — bring to bear lots of individual knowledge and/or energy to the matter. Some open-source software projects work this way. The important thing is the parallel activity by large numbers of people, in service of something that would be difficult if not impossible for any one or small group of them to do alone, at least in a timely way.
This is promising, but it is still a bit too top-down and hierarchical — someone in the middle is parcelling out the bills to lawyers to analyse, and somehow has to match each lawyers expertise with a legislative area. There is a better way, and Joshua Tauberer has already built it.
Suppose, for example, that we assemble a nationwide group of volunteers — lawyers who are familiar with statutes — and ask each of them to take a small section of one of those immense congressional bills that the members of Congress don't even read themselves. Suppose, further, that we could get this analysis posted before the House and Senate did their final votes. We might catch a lot of sleazy stuff before it became law. Today we're lucky if we know about any of it before it actually passes.
govtrack.us collates all US Government bills into a more readable form than the official sites, and it also collates and adds weblog comments on each bill (see the sidebar on this copyright bill). This way we don't need a central co-ordinator, we just need to encourage lawyers, or indeed other citizens, to review bills that they have expertise or interest in, and blog the results with a link.