by Bob Burnett
Some of the most exciting days of my life occurred in the late 80’s when I was involved in a technology startup, Cisco Systems. 29 years later I’m involved in another exciting startup, Indivisible. There are fascinating similarities between my experience at Cisco and Indivisible.
I moved from IBM to Cisco. I left a secure position where I managed several hundred folks to run a ten-person engineering team. Obviously there were incentives—stock options—but the primary reason I left IBM was my belief that their perspective on technology had become obsolete.
In the eighties, IBM was by far the world’s biggest Information Technology (IT) company. It had 400,000 employees and income of $70 billion. Although it had several product lines, IBM executives held tight to the belief the mainframe computer was the center of the IT universe.
I became a nonbeliever, a heretic in an social system where orthodox belief was valued and rewarded. I was convinced that there had been an irrevocable shift in the IT world and the network was now the center of the universe, the Internet. That shift didn’t mean that mainframe computers would go away but that they would lose status, take a smaller role in information processing, stand along side workstations and personal computers and other intelligent devices. One might characterize the IT shift as moving from an oligarchy to a democracy.
Now, there’s been a comparable shift in the political world. The cognoscenti continue to believe that Washington DC is the center of the US political universe; that everything important happens in DC, whether it’s Trump’s latest Tweet or congressional action on healthcare or the organization of the Democratic Party. But out here in the real world we don’t agree because we think the system is broken. At the moment, that’s the belief that unites Republicans and Democrats and Independents and disgusted non-voters: the system is broken and DC doesn’t get it.
IBM is to DC what Cisco is to Indivisible. Cisco represented a fundamental shift from orthodoxy. Indivisible represents a similar seismic shift.
Individual Indivisible—that’s a mouth full—groups are inherently decentralized. (Fun facts: there 990 Indivisible units in California; at least two in each congressional district; 10 in Berkeley.) In my area there are Indivisible units that are study groups, others that make phone calls, and mine—Indivisible Berkeley—that functions as a clearing house for direct action.
Imagine these Indivisible group as cells in a vast progressive network that includes more than 6000 Indivisible chapters plus MoveOn, OFA, Resistance.Org, 350.org as well as Sierra Club, ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Immigrant rights organizations, AFSC, and on and on.
In the eighties, Cisco never took a position on which network traffic was most important; our routers didn’t prioritize data from mainframes over data from work stations or whatever. We didn’t prioritize data for any reason. Our job was to make sure that messages got delivered by the fastest route possible; and that devices that spoke different (network) languages could communicate across the Internet.
The new progressive network doesn’t prioritize one organization or issue over another. We are united resisting Emperor Trump.
Because we are united by this resistance, plus the values of inclusivity and nonviolence, we exchange information and expertise. We’re democratic with a 21st century flair.
In the eighties, when IBM reigned supreme, the technology press didn’t understand that the IT world was undergoing a radical shift. They continued to glorify the dinosaurs: “They’re so big and powerful! They will rule forever.” Meanwhile, down on the ground, technologically advanced campuses were building local-area networks, plugging work stations into them, and linking campus to campus with the Internet. (When we did the IPO road show for Cisco, we had to explain what the Internet was to the money guys. When we added that Cisco built an essential component, the multi-protocol router, a typical question was, “Is this like the router in my home workshop?”)
Now, the mainstream media doesn’t understand that US politics is undergoing a radical shift. The cable TV shows continue to interview the same tired Washington faces. Meanwhile, out here in the real world we are organizing. We are talking to our members of congress—when they show up—and letting them know how feel about the ACA and the rights of undocumented aliens and so forth. In purple districts, we are registering voters and preparing for the midterm election—605 days away. We are communicating with the other cells on the network and raising money. And, professional politicians aren’t involved.
In retrospect, the IT shift—that happened in the eighties—was for the best. The Internet is more flexible and affordable than the mainframe model ever was. (Even though there are problems such as hacking and pornographic websites.)
I believe the shift in US politics will also be for the best. Most of the country feels that the current system is broken and US democracy is slipping into oligarchy. If Washington DC is part of the problem, then the solution has to be grassroots activism in the form of Indivisible and similar groups.
I’m excited. Democracy is starting up.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley Quaker, activist, and writer. In other life he was a Silicon Valley executive — co-founder of Cisco Systems.