The Emergence of Remote Activism – Show notes from Futurized podcast #4 with Laurent Liscia, CEO and founder of Blunami

In The Emergence of Remote Activism, futurist Trond Arne Undheim interviews Laurent Liscia, entrepreneur, author, ex-diplomat and standards activist, who talks about how remote activism helped by technology can re-ignite politics. The takeaway is that remote activism will be a huge force in society and will enable people to take part in important debates and support political candidates in swing states and places where it really matters.

 

BACKGROUND (00:01:00)

In terms of your background, Laurent Liscia has a Ph.D., former Executive Director at OASIS, provides leadership, operational oversight, and strategic vision for the consortium. Advocate for open standards in matters of policy and adoption. Prior to joining OASIS, he co-founded several Web-related companies, including Traackr and Webmotion. Laurent served as a Media Attaché for French Foreign Affairs and has worked in France, Canada, Italy, Ecuador, Morocco and the United States. You hold a doctorate from the Sorbonne University and speak English, French, Italian, and Spanish. You are based in San Francisco.

You are an author of the Three Houses sci-fi trilogy. Intriguing. On your website, you write: “I choose to write about wonder; stillness and the senses”. Tell me more. (also, I love the origin story you tell about yourself on your website, “born under the Tunisian sun”). (00:06:12)

That’s how I’ve been coping with this lockdown. I’ve been practicing Buddhist meditation. This has brought me a lot of joy and peace. I do it every day. I am better able to write now about the experience of stillness, our inner life, because of this spiritual practice.

What’s a unique thing few people know about you? Where did you grow up? Your journey?  What educational or professional experience did you learn the most from?

POLITICAL ACTIVISM (00:05:00)

– Let’s jump right into the topic of political activism. What do you understand by that term? Is it rare or prevalent? How is it changing?

Is it a rare thing or a prevalent thing to be politically active? (00:14:35)

Rates of participation…half the eligible voting population doesn’t vote. It’s hard to understand why. A lot of the discourse is that these people are disenfranchised because the education system is not working, because they feel disenfranchises, because they cannot afford to go voting. But only 40% showed up in the French municipals. What’s going on?

Party engagement is very different from participation in social movements or even in political consumption. It’s an individualized reaction, without being tied into a social movement or structure. You have to adhere to a bunch of things, deadlines, register, show up at a given moment…but activism is about so much more.

You are the CEO & co-founder of Blunami, a social activism dashboard still in stealth mode. You have no small aim, but to transform American and perhaps world politics. Please explain? 

Blunami.org is not theoretical. It’s about why aren’t people more engaged. Why don’t they take action? Why don’t they become activists, ie. Take action on a regular basis. Make a difference. Maybe I feel that I don’t make a difference. If I vote in California in the Presidential election, my impact is nil because of the way the electoral college works. You know California will be democratic. It will be so much better if I could vote in a red state. That starts making a difference. People were shocked when they saw in the previous election that Hillary Clinton had some three million more votes than Trump got, but still lost.

How does a dashboard or the political activist who wants to engage … how do you engage, does it happen, and to what extent can and are digital tools enable this engagement?

The US is a bipartisan system. We have republicans and democrats. Republicans have color red and democrats blue. Red state, blue state. Here’s how I got involved. My friend and former co-worker reached out and said I want to show you something. He had devised a prototype for an app with a map. Zoom in and you were seeing all the elections around the US. This time around there will be senatorial and presidential elections. All around there was a shopping cart, and I could put it in for any and all candidates I cared about across the nation. I could learn about what they stood for. And I said, why did I not think of this? I thought of myself as politically savvy. But it never occurred to me that I could make a difference outside my own state. This could even work locally. Ease of use. The idea that I can make a difference, possibly anywhere on the planet, is so powerful.

Political action committees is another feature of the US system. That used to be the excuse that people have for saying, there is big money in politics. The fact that if you have some amount of money you can support these organizations that present their messages typically in the form of activism. So, that is remote activism for the elite. What you are describing is the corollary for the everyday person.

Certain forms, certain corporate forms are connected to politics. The moment money goes from a person to a politician through an agency of some kind, that agency has to be a political action committee (PAC). The left regularly get more funding than the right. There is new breed of elites that are liberals. Benioff, Zuckerberg, Bezos. You could reasonably argue that politics is just as dirty on the left side as the right side. The fact that money goes through a PAC would not be such a problem, it’s transparent, but what became less transparent is that, recently, the Supreme Court made a decision called Citizens United that described PACs as entities that had a right to donate without much disclosure. It continues the narrative of politicians being under control and in collusion with big donors.

The Bernie Sanders campaign revolutionized politics in the US. People were making microdonations from all walks of life. As a consequence, he almost won. He came close, twice. And, where America goes, the world goes, and that is the Blunami project.

– What can you tell me about enabling activism leveraging micro-donations and volunteering more generally? How do you do that? Why is it important? Who else is doing this well? How do we engage?

Download the app. Now, you have access to info, with a map of the US telling you where all the races are. Better yet, it tells you where you can get more bang for your buck. Let’s say there is a democratic candidate running against a very strong republican contender and the chances of winning are close to zero—don’t spend your money there. The app will tell you that. Let’s look at a very narrow race, Stacey Abrams against the incumbent. All she needs is another, say 50,000 and her numbers might go up. You are going to make that difference by giving he $5, because there is going to be a thousands people like you.

The complicated implications of this, the democratizability of this or whatever you want to call it, will it reshape our political voice. It brings to the individual the tools to become a more efficient political voice. But this kind of tool is available to people with a lot of money as well. So, how do you, with the intention you had to make people more engaged, the expectation cannot be that you will sanitize or make politics clean again. The more people who engage, the races become more heated up, but does something fundamentally change because people are more actively engaged?

I think that’s at the heart of the discussion. The discussion now is no longer about digital transformation. It is about whether it shall alter democracy or should it just reinforce it and finally fulfil its promise. We are trying to go for the second piece. Google were supposed to be the “not evil” company. They have become a very corporate business and have very troubling views and actions on privacy.

What is the difference between an individual and a corporate voice? When do you draw the line so it becomes illegitimate?

I don’t have a problem with corporations per se. Businesses are a good thing. We need to have jobs. The problem is when businesses dictate a political agenda. Corporations are not people, despite the Citizens United decision. They are collections of people with a business agenda.

Let’s go back to privacy for a second. How should these people dictate the privacy agenda? The companies should be on the receiving end. Why are these guys part of the debate on this? Privacy is their business. It’s a human right. How should these guys tell us how it is to be handled.

In our pre-podcast conversation you said something important: “disruption is not some chaotic force that we have to brace for, or one that needs to be harnessed for success, it’s a direct and natural result of the acceleration of history”. What do you mean by that?

I mean exactly that. When everybody uses Google, there are going to be consequences, as when everybody uses Facebook, incredibly disruptive consequences. You will be uncomfortable. They will get super personal. These companies are going to endanger privacy. There will be disruptive challenges for democracy. What’s happening really saddens me. The citizenry has given up. It’s taking the disruption lying down. We are a bit more disempowered every day. This is how history works. It accelerates. End of story. That is a very bad response to the acceleration of history.

I know you care about some highly specific “side effects” of that acceleration, namely climate change, pandemics, unsustainable plastic production and mass extinction. Why these? There are so many challenges to apply remote activism to. How to engage? If you want to give advice to an individual that’s sitting in some stat, red or blue, and want to exert their voice in a technologically enhanced, remote way?

Let’s lump all topics together as sustainability and the environment. That’s one of the consequences of disruption, particularly of demographics. There’s too many people. We need to have a debate about our numbers. There needs to be fewer humans.

Taking change lying down. I really believe that people have given up. Half have given up, more in Europe. They feel individually they cannot make change. But that’s not true. They can pick candidates that don’t even have support. If there is enough of you, then you have a Bernie Sanders. There are many of these people around the world. In the face of this massive disruption where we feel that the entire biosphere is a runaway system and that the political sphere is a runaway system, where we have no say, well, actually, we do. Further to that, our app wants to go beyond candidates, we want to support causes.

That’s what you describe in your book, your beautiful book, that’s the fragmentation of action. Maybe that’s actually a good thing? I don’t know how I feel about it. I think that people who specialize, perhaps that’s a good thing. Especially in a digital context where you can send $500 to Greenpeace, and another $100 to the Sierra Club, and then there might be a group in Brazil that hates Bolsanaro for destroying the rainforest there. Give them another $50. I think that’s also the future. I’d like to act in Brazil and keep Bolsanaro from destroying the Amazon.

The emergence of remote activism is little talked about but will be impacting this election here in the US and much beyond elections. Thanks for teaching us how to use technologies in new ways.