Everyone involved in this afternoon Freedom to Connect panel moderated by Jerry Michalski is extremely bright and experienced, but the discussion didn’t explore beyond what they’ve already addressed in their work — much less previous conference appearances. That said, the combination of perspectives — the religious, the journalistic, and the social — was somewhat useful. Participants included Rev. AKM Adam, a professor at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Dan Gillmor, a former San Jose Mercury News reporter, and Scott Heiferman, cofounder of Meetup. What follows is a partial transcript of their discussion:
Jerry Michalski: Can anyone tell me what amendments address the right of free speech, religion, and freedom to assembly? It’s a trick question. They’re all covered by the First Amendment. And what we want to do today is explore a little about what these freedoms mean.
Rev. AKM Adam: I’m going to stick to a theological take on this as much as possible. The heart of the argument I want to make about the freedom to connect involves theological warrants. The freedom to connect engages three main points relative to the freedom of religion. One is the disintermediation of government. Two is the non-coercive practice of religion. Third is the prospect of human flourishing for which many of us construe religion as a necessary precondition.
One of the proximate causes for the whole American experiment is the restlessness of citizens of the British Isles for the right to exercise their own religion. The Pilgrims were motivated to great extent by wanting to escape mediation. The discourse of religion online thrives under non-coercive conditions. For religion to come truly to expression, the circumstances must be fully non-coercive. We could not flourish spiritually if a monitor dictated under what terms we must participate.
Dan Gillmor: The Gutenberg press in antiquity basically freed the word of God from the hands of a very limited priesthood. The Internet is freeing the press from another more modern priesthood. I find that to be a valuable thing, not a dangerous thing.
In a world where anyone can be a journalist, not anyone will be, but anyone can be at various points in our lives. That changes the game in terms of what we think of as news. When Tim Berners-Lee came up with the Web, he intended it to be a read and write medium. For many years, it was read only. Blogging changed that from read only to read write in a way that was particularly powerful.
We have increasingly inexpensive and powerful tools to create our own media of various kinds and become our own publishers with our own press. There are some threats that a decade ago many of us would have said wouldn’t be a big deal. The Brand X case and other cases point toward consolidation where companies say, “Not only do we provide the pipes, we control what goes into the pipes.” We should be fighting that.
The other case yesterday, of course, was Grokster. If you do a really great video as an amateur and post it on the Web and lots of people discover it, you’re going to get a whopping big bill at the end of the month. That’s an awful economic model for distribution. The only feasible way to do that as an amateur is peer to peer. As a journalist on the Web, I don’t want to have to get permission to do journalism. I fear that that is where we’re going.
Scott Heiferman: I never even gave any thought to the freedom of assembly when I was working on Meetup. It was more about how Lord of the Rings geeks needed a tool to set up their little meetings. But I’ve come to believe that one of the least talked about but most impactful things is going to be the group power that emerges from the network.
We can all sort of say what power the Internet gives people. We can know anything. We can buy and sell anything. We can publish. We can find the others. There’s another bullet point there, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of it. That is group power, collective action writ small and writ large.
What we’re going to see is the emergence of grassroots energy. There are 800 stay-at-home moms that have Meetups around the country every month. They’re emerging as a national organization of moms with dots all over the map. And they’re not centrally organized. There are going to be new forms of national organizations.