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The Internet is transforming social life and the political landscape. The growing pallet of digital media content-production technologies and social networking distribution sites, like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, is redefining the meaning of “democracy” and an individual’s ability to participate in the political process.

The annual Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) is a geek and political-wonk fest, a 21st century Woodstock – without the drugs, rain and rock ‘n’ roll – and this year’s gathering was no exception. This is a momentous election year, with a day of reckoning coming in November. The nation is living through what Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman calls the “second Depression.” The 2012 PDF was shadowed by the political decisions to be made this fall.

The conference’s principal takeaway was simple: The new, new media of broadband Internet, whether accessed over a wireline or throughout a wireless network, will play a very important role in the upcoming presidential horserace as well as in state and local elections throughout the country.

The event was held at Gotham’s NYU and has a decidedly “progressive” caste; the organizers go out of their way to feature “establishment” speakers, including reps from the Romney campaign, the RIAA and National Review.

It featured a sequence of well-crafted 15-minute presentations that, cumulatively, suggested the wide range of projects individuals and groups are engaged in the U.S. and throughout the world that harness the power of the Internet and the digital media to effect change. Some of these presentations were real eye-openers; check out An Xiao Mina’s reflection on subversive street art in repressive China. These presentations were accompanied by a series of breakout sessions that were well-intentioned if uneven in focus.

Nevertheless, the touchstone event that underscored the conference’s raison d’état was the recent defeat of the MPAA-backed effort to push two “anti-piracy” bills, SOPA and PIPA, through Congress. Like the role it played in the Arab Spring, the Internet helped facilitate the campaign by media activists, some high-tech sites like Wikipedia and ordinary citizens to kill the bills.  Many speakers noted that this campaign shook up those inside the Washington beltway.

PDF is touchy-feely in sentiment, going out of its way to adhere to an unstated standard of liberal “civility.” Yet the 21st century has moved beyond Woodstock and Altamont; politics has replaced rock as the sound of a nation undergoing economic and social restructuring.

PDF would benefit from a kind of 21st century jousting between Lincoln and Douglas. American intellectual and political life really needs some sustained intellectual debate; in the age of reality TV, it might become the next sporting contest.  For PDF, the debate should be a real sparring match between the best thinkers over such critical issues as, for example, the meaning of “national security” or the limits of “data harvesting.”

Equally important, the event embraces a naïve assumption that all “media” is media. PDF operates from a journalistic perspective, somehow assuming that all media, especially that which touches the lives of ordinary people, is news. The conference would be improved by bringing into the conversation indie TV, film and games makers, including reps from indie media networks like Democracy Now! and Link TV. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for PDF 2013.

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David Rosen is a writer and business-development consultant. He is author of the indie classic Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films (Grove), originally commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project. He can be reached at drosennyc@verizon.net. For more information, check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com and www.DavidRosenConsultants.com.

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