The New Yeoman Farmer
Ben Berkowitz wants to create a little disruption to keep government honest.
Along with three co-creators, he has developed a new mobile phone and web app, SeeClickFix, that enables citizens to instantly report local community problems to government officials and the media. Built on open source software and Google Maps, it provides a paperless, transparent hub of information about civic problems begging for resolution.
Specific locations are identified. Issues are discussed. Community and government reactions are reported and watched by users.
Needless to say, SeeClickFix has already ruffled more than few town hall feathers. But more importantly, Berkowitz says, the technology calls on citizens to own the problems in their local communities. It presents an existential question to all of us: You have at your fingertips the power to set in motion a chain of events that may solve the problem before you—will you do it? Or will you wait for some detached, faceless group of government officials to get around to fixing the problem—eventually?
"We as a population have become severely apathetic to the point where being a citizen means going to the voting booth," Berkowitz says. "But there’s a greater responsibility as a citizen to participate. It’s more about making decisions about the things that impact your everyday life."
With SeeClickFix, the people identify important issues. The people propose and bring about solutions.
The people govern themselves.
All of this takes place in real time and on a potentially huge scale, due to the limitless expanse of the Internet, according to Berkowitz.
"Instead of the distribution and control of information by an elite few," he says, "the Internet allows for a many-to-many paradigm shift. It is not the responsibility of a centralized, institutionalized media to distribute information."
Social media like Twitter and Facebook can open up critical discussions in the civic sphere. This type of networking has been called the "virtual town hall," but Berkowitz prefers to think of it in even more democratic terms:
"The civic Internet looks more like what city planners had in mind when they planned the town green—everyone meeting outside the town hall, outside the bureaucracy. The concept of these large, open spaces is more representative of designs for Gov 2.0. Let the people use the spaces for what they want."
SeeClickFix is actually the technological manifestation of Berkowitz’s evolution as a community activist in his home town of New Haven, Connecticut. He first became involved with civic issues in New Haven after he purchased a condominium and was concerned about the lack of proper lighting on his street. Since then, he has spearheaded several community-oriented projects that had fallen through the cracks of the city bureaucracy. His actions spurred a community revival of sorts.
Getting the discussion going was half the battle in New Haven, according to Berkowitz. He met with strong opposition when attempting to revive a defunct civic association. "Everyone told me that it wouldn’t be possible," he says. "But then all of a sudden everyone was just talking to each other as opposed to talking to government."
Like many innovators on the Internet, Berkowitz speaks of the "promise of the commons," envisioning government as a platform where citizens are not just voters but enlightened civic actors. And despite the impressive new technologies that make SeeClickFix possible, the spirit behind the project is actually centuries-old and classically American.
When Berkowitz advocates a government run by the many, rather than the few, he speaks to the original debate over what American democracy would look like. The Federalists of the early American Republic argued on one side for government run by an elite group of educated leaders. On the other side, the Jeffersonian Republicans saw the purest expression of democratic freedom in a government run by the many—specifically, the yeoman farmers who were building the nation out of the land.
Berkowitz says he has been contemplating the Jeffersonian philosophy for some time now, and searching for places where 21st-century technology might overlap with the ideal of the yeoman farmer–the independent, self-sustaining citizen who, by tending his own small portion of land, protects the greater good of the nation.
"With many of the things we want government to help us with, it really makes sense to try to do it on our own," he says.
To this end, SeeClickFix promises to build a self-sustaining community that ultimately serves the greater good—a community that perhaps even Jefferson himself could not have imagined.