Joe Tibbetts is a contributor and occasional editor for both I-D Information Daily and Public Service Digital. He lives in Kent, is editing a book of his travel writing and planning a trip to the dentist.

The soul of the new democracy

The Johnny Cash Project is an online global collective art project. It works wonderfully as a creative game. It also offers a paradigm for how the new democracy will work and a model for how the new big society might be. A place where everyone votes and every vote counts. A society where every individual is engaged and willing to make a small contribution to a much bigger picture.

The Project site invites you to watch a video of Ain’t No Grave, the Man in Black’s final studio recording. The viewer can then select a single frame from the more than 1300 single frames that make up the film and alter the image on that frame using a custom built drawing tool (no special skill needed) that comes supplied as part of the site. All this is free of charge.

Once you upload the single frame that you have customised the magic begins. For, every time the video is watched, the viewer sees a different version. Think of the video as made up of 1300 slots on a time line. The programme always plays the video in the original sequence starting with slot #1 and ending with slot #1300. Each slot in the sequence, however, is filled with a frame randomly selected from all the different, customised, frames available for that slot. So the film changes each time it is played and you, me, Ed North from Memphis, Opal Li from Hong Kong, Jess Muller from Rio, Kurt Hompoth from Ontario and more than a quarter of a million people from 170 countries have all made our own tiny contribution to it.

The Johnny Cash Project is a charming, engrossing and ultimately rather moving, creative game. This, you might be forgiven for thinking, is a fine example of how the new connectedness can help the time-rich to waste a few hours in creative play. But it is much, much, more than that. The Johnny Cash Project offers us a paradigm for how the new democracy will work. A democracy driven by a connected electorate where everyone not only can vote, but does vote and where every vote counts. The Project also offers a model for how the new big society might be. A society where every individual is not only involved but also keen to take up the chance to join a group and make a small contribution to a much bigger picture. And there’s more.

Surprisingly perhaps The Johnny Cash Project shows up “social media” for what it is –self-obsessed, antisocial media – and allows us to see what a new social network – FacelessBook- might look like. A truly ‘social’ media, where the contribution not the contributor is the thing and which answers the call “ask not what the network can do for you but what you can do for the network”. And the project gives a timely lesson in the new realpolitik where global co-operation happens between thousands or millions of citizens rather than a handful of apparatchiks.

“Crowd-sourcing”, a process whereby large groups of people jointly contribute to a common pool, is often talked about as though it was a new phenomenon. It isn’t. Crowd-sourcing is as old as taxation and democracy. Taxation crowd-sources money to apply to (what those in charge insist is) the common good and democracy crowd-sources opinion from time to time in an attempt to deliver an administration in line with the desires of the majority. In the UK both rely upon clunky old technology and both suffer because of it. The new crowd-sourcing uses the latest technology and produces impressive results.

An article in The Economist*, a newspaper, identifies online research platforms like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Google Scholar as the leading- edge of crowd-sourcing research data and predicts that “The ability to run (psychology) experiments quickly, cheaply and globally promises to transform psychologists’ understanding of human behaviour.” But the result of crowd-sourcing creativity and wisdom can and will do more than simply improve ‘understanding’.

In the creative new world order “simple, clever” ideas like The Johnny Cash Project will be used not just to understand human behaviour but to manage and to change it, building real collaborative alliances and solving real-world problems like hunger, oppression, poverty and prejudice. The Johnny Cash Project, gives us a heads-up on the shape of things to come and - with no apologies to Tracy Kidder for thieving his title - provides us with a window into “the soul of the new machine”. It is also a whole lot of fun.

*Experimental psychology. The roar of the crowd. Science and Technology. The Economist May26th-June 1st 2012

This article was first published Monday, May 28, 2012.

Watch a short, inspirational, video about the Johnny Cash Project here


Go to the Johnny Cash Project here

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