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Short Story: "Unheard Voices" (8th in a series)

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Derek Boa sat nervously in the front row, contemplating the incongruity of it all. The prospect of speaking publicly wasn't the problem, of course. After all, he'd been doing it for as long as he could remember. Nor was sitting beside the vice president of one of the largest employers in this part of Virginia, or in front of the mayor's right hand man. Rather, it was being introduced to this meeting of the chamber of commerce by Melissa Fox, a relative newcomer to Constitutional Evolution, the grass-roots group he had founded. Using her congressman father's clout to arrange a chance to address this crowd struck him as elitist, and that didn't sit well with the egalitarian activist in him.

He rose to obviously polite applause when she finished sucking up to them, and stepped to the podium. "Thank you, Melissa, for warming up the audience. They may need some other form of lubrication by the time I'm done."

An awkward silence cowed him briefly, but he shook it off and launched directly into it. "To say, as Ms. Fox has, that our group seeks to induce changes in the processes of governance would be an understatement. Some have called our work revolutionary. After all, we have started from the presumption that the founders, as insightful as they may have been, could not have foreseen the ways in which the careful balance of power and responsibilities they crafted into a constitution for their fledgling government would one day be undermined. To use a metaphor that I'm not as well versed in as are many of you, we have engaged in debugging that document, and in recommending changes that may fix the flaws which have caused the operating system of our government to crash."

Derek paused to scan the faces looking up at him for interest, engagement or confusion. The power in a metaphor depends heavily on triggering the deep frames that dictate how each person understands the world. "We have explored, for example, the possibility of asking congress to consider the position of the National Governors Conference on any bill which assumes state-level funding. Ideally, this additional check would be added to the constitution, but short of that, the house and senate rules committees could institute an informal practice."

He exchanged glances with Melissa, who had returned to her seat in the back row. "I would now like to ask each of you to step back from your roles in business or government, and to think about something that has been largely ignored, yet is essential to the success of your organization: the commons. I'm not speaking about the many fine parks and other public spaces which are funded by all of our taxes, though they are the physical embodiment of the shared land which medieval Europeans collectively farmed. Today, the commons refers to far more than that. It refers to the airwaves that the FCC once leased to broadcasters in exchange for serving the public interest as well as their own financial ones. It refers to the environment, the careful husbandry of which we ignore at our, and the world's, peril. But far more importantly, it refers to the joint self-interest which brings people together to help each other in time of need, and to collectively create things which benefit everyone. Creations such as the many open-source software programs and the living storehouse of knowledge called Wikipedia."

A squeaking of seats prodded Derek to get right to the point. "At present, when Congressman Fox is asked to consider a piece of legislation, or when he is questioning business people or scientists at a hearing, he is at a disadvantage, for the witness knows more than he does about the issues being explored. He may have his staff collect information for him, but a good deal of what they can offer comes from organizations with a stake in the outcome. The views of the citizenry is typically not heard in these forums. When it is, their voices are overwhelmed by those with more resources, voices of businesses such as yours, some of which may have contributed to his election fund."

Several throats suddenly needed clearing, and a handful of eyes looked away. "It sounds like I may have touched a nerve. Would anyone like to comment before I go on?"

The VP beside the front-row seat he had vacated raised a finger. "Manny Rosen. Chesapeake TechSource. Are you suggesting that we expect special treatment as a result of such donations?"

Derek looked over at Melissa, and thought for a moment. "I wouldn't presume to know your expectations, Mr. Rosen. However, it is human nature to feel obligated to those whose help we accept, and businesses make larger donations than individuals. I would find it hard to believe, under those circumstances, that a public official would not voluntarily consider the needs of those supporters over those whose support is not so obvious."

The man shook his head. "That's an evasion."

"Perhaps. But I don't have the resources to defend myself from any actionable statements I might make. Self-censorship is a powerful force for avoiding conflict, but it can also be used against us. Which brings me back to the point I was working towards. There is already interest in requiring the text of all bills to be made available to the public via the Internet for 72 hours prior to a vote. This is a good start, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. We believe that the bill should be posted to what it essentially a legislative wiki. During the three days that follow, interested citizens would develop an information resource which encapsulates not only the positions of the corporate interests, but those of the citizens as well."

"And here," he continued, "is where your willingness to support the commons comes in. Imagine, for the moment, that a bill has been submitted, and you, as a vibrant part of this democracy, choose to participate in the creation of that information resource for our esteemed Congressman Fox."

"Lets say I do this. Am I being paid?" It was a woman near the side door.

"No. And that brings up another problem, because you also have a job to consider. Say you're on an IT contract through Mr. Rosen's company. You want to do your civic duty, but you can't wait until it's convenient for the company you're contracted to, because that three-day clock is ticking. You have a deadline to consider. Puts you in kind of a bind, doesn't it?"

Rosen didn't look happy. "Since you've cast me as the heavy, here, I'll play along. As a profit-making corporation, we're obligated to make that our highest priority. And as far as I can tell, your hypothetical employee is working on a high-priority project that can't afford to miss its own deadline. So, I'm sorry, but he doesn't get any time off for this."

Melissa rose to her feet. "May I speak for the employee, Mr. Rosen?"

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Ever since I learned to speak binary on a DIGIAC 3080 training computer, I've been involved with tech in one way or another, but there was always another part of me off exploring ideas and writing about them. Halfway to a BS in Space Technology at (more...)

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