The Myth of Everybody

at Medium: “What is the difference between “with” and “for”? “With” implies togetherness, a network: a larger group, possibly, a messier group, but a group (meaning 2 people+) nonetheless. Acting “with” others implies certain degrees of collaboration, collective action, coordination, and even unity. You run a three-legged race with your partner (or you’re going to fall). When you use the word “with” it means that, however many people are involved, whatever their individual roles, they’re acting as one — or at least, towards a shared goal.

By contrast, when we use the word “for” we center on the experience of individuals in a relationship, with one unit acting on behalf of or doing something to another. (“For another.”) In the “for” universe, there’s usually a receiver and a giver. There can be many people involved or few, but there are almost always actors and those acted upon. In a democracy like ours, where we have government of, by, and for the people, we understand that when we vote for an elected representative, they are then empowered to speak and act for us. To govern for us….but with our consent.

Representative democracy in action.

At least, that’s the way it’s described in textbooks. In reality, however, governance is awash with intermediaries: companies, contractors, public/private partnerships, lobbyists, NGOs, think tanks — organizations of people, formal and informal, that support, distribute, and sometimes do the work of our government for our government and for us. This (very simplified overview of our) system of proxies isn’t necessarily good or bad; it’s just the way we’ve structured things to work in the US.

Why? Well, because we govern in a “for” system. Because there are so many of us and our lives are interconnected. Because we balance majority rule with minority rights. Because of all the reasons you learned in social studies class (if you went to a US public high school) and because this is the way most of us believes society has to work.

But there are other ways.

— Take your hand off the “COMMUNIST” alarm. I’m talking about the “civic” revolution.

In the last 6 or so years, as the buzz around “Gov2.0” waned, obsession with “civic”-ness waxed. What “civic” means exactly, well, we’re all still figuring that out. Sure, there are official definitions that relate “civic” to all things local…and overlapping understandings of “civics” that lend the air of government involvement…but with increasing interest from folks in the tech and innovation sectors (and funders), the word has taken on new shape. Today, “civic” is the center of a Venn Diagram encircling notions commonly associated with “society,” “community,” “governance,” and public commons (or goods). The sheen of social impact, social responsibility, and “community-ness” — that’s what terms of art like “civic innovation,” “civic engagement,” “civic decisions,” “civic participation”, and “civic tech” are all trying to describe.

To be clear, it’s not that this intersection of societal something hasn’t been outlined before: language like “social” (see “social innovation”) and civil (see “civil society”) has been used to describe similar concepts for decades. “Civic” is just the newest coat of paint, its popularity driven in part by interest from NGOs, start-ups, digital strategists, and governing bodies attempting to bring new flavor and energy to long-standing questions, like

How can we make democracy work? What can we do to make the systems in place work better? And what do we need to change to make systems work better for everybody?…”