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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Authenticity vs. Anonymity: Would We Exist if the Constitutional Convention Met Publicly?

In a recent conversation surrounding my involvement with Utah's FOIA equivalent legislation (called GRAMA) I brought up the point that this nation was built upon people willing to stand up for who they were and risk, quite literally, their lives for that decision. The point was brought up however, that the very premise of what founded the United States constitution was done so in a secret meeting, the Constitutional Convention. At the same time, secret societies such as the Boston Tea Party and other secret gatherings also led to the very public battle which led to this nation's freedom from Tyranny at the time. So it got me really thinking - are there times when meeting in secret and more anonymous environments really can help and really do benefit society? I found myself rephrasing the question however, instead wondering, "Would we exist if the Constitutional Convention that lead to this great nation's Constitution being framed did not meet in secret, but rather met in public, for all to participate and vote?"

I'm brought back to the discussion awhile back where the anonymous site 4Chan's founder, Chris Poole suggested that "anonymity is authenticity, it allows you to share in an unvarnished, unfiltered, raw and real way. We believe in content over creator." In a sense, that's what the Constitution's creators were doing. They were allowing themselves to participate in an anonymous ("Committee of the Whole" - taken from the Articles of Confederation which allowed groups to meet together in private if they participated as a committee) environment, free from scrutiny or criticism of those in their supporting states that were against forming new laws for the new nation. As a result, they, supposedly, were able to be more creative.

I'd like to paint that in a different light though. What would have happened if the Constitutional Convention instead met in public, allowing the public instead to have full participation in the activities? Would we have come up with the same document? That's hard to tell.

Instead, in a meeting where the intended outcome was to just ratify what was in the then current Articles of Confederation, they instead ended up creating an entirely new document. In fact, when they finished there was quite awhile where several participating States were not in agreement with what happened and were angry such a major decision happened in private. In the end though, even those States agreed and we have what is now our Constitution, fully supported by every State in the Union. In the end everyone did end up agreeing. Even after grievances were aired, people still ended up at the same conclusion.

So I wonder - would there have been as many grievances after the fact if the Constitution weren't written in secret? Would we have written a document that everyone could agree on faster, and have more people on board from the start if it was done in a public environment? Or would it have taken even longer and had much more argument from the public as a result of it being written in a public setting?

Now take that further. Let's put this idea in a modern, 21st century environment. What would have happened if the Constitution were written, in Public, using tools that we have available today? What if everyone could collaborate and participate using their own name on social networks such as Facebook to communicate opinions and ideas en masse to their Legislators? What if we had collaboration tools for writing documents like Google Docs and Microsoft Word's new collaboration features? Could we write such a document in public? Could the public come up with such a lasting document as what the original Founding Fathers of the United States came up with?

The truth is I don't know the answer, but the Social Technologist in me wants to think that this is more possible than ever before today.

I'm a huge fan of authenticity. I hate anonymity. I don't like things happening in secret. Chris Poole said, "To fail in an environment where you're contributing with your real name is costly." I think to fail in an environment where you're contributing with your real name is brave, and where heroes are born. To me, those that do things in secret are cowards, and nations aren't built on cowards. Our legislature, as well as the constituents that communicate with that legislature, should be doing their dealings in public in as many ways as possible, under their real names in an authentic manner. However, I'm still torn on whether there still might be times we need at least a little anonymity.

These are the things I'm dealing with right now as we contemplate the future of Open Records in the Utah Legislature. I'd like to make this a model for all to follow. How would you approach the issue?

Image courtesy http://www.showmepolicypulse.org/news/2009/03/advocates-push-for-changes-to-missouri-open-records-law/

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