Geeks bearing gifts: in praise of PDF Europe

I just got back from presenting my book on Wikicracy at PDF Europe. PDF Europe is the spinoff of Personal Democracy Forum, a conference on how the Internet and communication technology in general can improve democracy (politics) and government (policy). The original PDF takes place in New York City and it started in
2004; its European spinoff is in Barcelona and started in 2009. I had the honor to be enlisted as a speaker in both PDF Europe editions; I think I can claim to know it well.

PDF Europe is a veritable child of the Internet culture of sharing knowledge and creating community. Like its parent conference, it was created by American entrepreneur Andrew Rasiej, an early adopter of the Internet who has enough traction to get on board the most innovative and influential thinkers around: Clay Shirky, danah boyd, Howard Rheingold, among others — for free. As soon as the New York conference was starting to get established, Andrew and his partner Micah Sifry created an European spinoff, and started all over again.

Internet tech conferences are legion on this side of the Atlantic, but PDF Europe is a pretty unique place. Firstly, it is not dominated by business: tech corporations are there (Google is an important sponsor), but they take care not to upstage the activists and public servants that constitute the backbone of the PDF community. You don’t hear much about branding or marketing: this year’s hit was the story of how Croatian blogger Marko Rakar exposed electoral fraud in his country with a dataset on a couple of CDs, a hard look at raw data and his blog (he even got arrested for it). Last year, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange told us how he does not feel he his in physical danger in Europe – in Africa, it’s another story. With all due respect, I am interested in these uses of the internet a lot more than in branding and marketing.

Secondly, PDF Europe embodies what I love best in American culture. The American presence is much stronger than in most European Internet-tech events. It is pretty amazing, when you think of it: here’s a bunch of Americans that are working very hard for free or for cheap (I’ll bet you that Andrew actually loses money so far) to give us Europeans a common platform to talk about e-democracy and e-government. They are like, come on, guys! You can and should create a continent wide movement for better democracy and better government. Here, we can help you, lets figure it out. It feels as American as apple pie: idealism, plus can-do attitude, plus a real sense of kinship with the Old Continent. It feels like the stories of long lost “uncles from America”, who suddenly show up – bearing gifts. And it makes me feel ashamed of how embedded in our petty differences Europeans sometimes can be.

So, whether you are an activist or a public servant, if you are trying to improve your democracy with the Internet I really recommend you head for the next PDF and check these guys out. They really believe in us. The least we could do is to believe in ourselves a little, too.

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