Clay Johnson – speaker interview

In the first of our interviews with Webstock ’13 speakers, we talked with Clay Johnson. Clay has an impressive CV that touches on many aspects of 21st century life — our relationship to technology, our consumption of information and the way these relate to power and politics. He’s also giving what promises to be a unique and, yes, important workshop: How To Take Over Your Town.

Webstock: I want to focus on the workshop you’re giving at Webstock – ‘How to take over your town’. It’s an intriguing title!

So, firstly, what’s been your journey to get here. You’ve been involved in politics with the Howard Dean presidential campaign and with Blue State Digital. You’ve worked with the Sunlight Foundation on making government more transparent. And you’ve written a book, ‘The Information Diet’ about the (pretty poor) information we consume and how to improve that. How has all that lead to you wanting to take over the town?

Clay: I don’t want to take over the town. I want us to take over our towns. Or rather to take our towns from charged up political climates into friendly, innovative communities. All politics is famously local. Power, too, is local.

Our media environment, though, makes us pay attention to large, sexy, national or global issues — issues that we largely can’t do anything about. Here — I’ll ask you three questions. No Googling allowed:

1. Who is the president of the United States of America?
2. How has the child poverty rate in your city/town/community changed in the last year?
3. Which one of the outcomes of the above two questions are you most likely to have an impact on?

Now some may say “That’s not fair! It’s very important to know who the president is!” and they’re right. These aren’t mutually exclusive. But what if I replaced the first question with “Name a Kardashian?”

We — the technology community — have to start paying attention to our communities. Two billion dollars just got spent in the United States presidential election, largely raised from concerned americans who wanted to participate in the election in some way. Thousands of people knocked on doors, made phone calls, and asked for votes. Can you imagine what would happen if that effort and participation went into improving public schools, or heck, street sweeping?

Webstock: The workshop description includes the following line, “The future of government isn’t in the code of law, it’s in the code of software.” What do you mean by that?

Clay: Right now the establishment profession of power is the lawyer. They write the laws, make the rules, determine who follows the rules and how best they get followed. But as technology is famously eating the world, isn’t the developer on the rise? After all, the software developers at Facebook are, through software, creating governing law on our interactions — they’re creating rules in the system about how we can communicate.

I think it’s time to start thinking about this critically. And I think it’s time for developers to start thinking “Perhaps I can make a big difference by making some changes in the way my community works!”

Developers have a skill like no other profession: they can rewire society without having to wait on government to change.

Webstock: Who should attend this workshop and what will they learn?

Clay: The developer who wants to learn how to organize people. Above all else, what I’m going to teach you isn’t a political skill, it’s a critical skill about how to move people. Hopefully, you’ll take this skill — combine it with what you already know how to do, and make amazing things happen for your community. But heck, if you just want to use the skills I teach you to learn how to leverage the ideas from US Political Campaigns in your business — that’s fine too.

That’s going to be the first half of my workshop. The second half of my workshop is going to be about having a healthy information diet so that you can stay focused on making great things happen for you. By the end of my workshop, you’re going to have a system for dealing with incoming crap, and you’re going to leave Webstock with more time. Anybody who wants more time on their hands should come to my workshop.

Also, Nat Torkington. And the lesson that he will learn is that he should have given my book a five star rating on goodreads. He will learn that lesson “the hard way.”

Webstock: Changing tack a little, one of your blog posts that I loved was ‘How to focus’ And I even went so far as to try the Pomodoro Technique mentioned there. How has the “focusing” gone for you? We all know it’s one thing to write or think about focusing better, it’s another to actually put things into practice over a sustained period of time.

Clay: I must confess. Focusing has gotten a lot harder for me since my wife and I brought our son Felix into the world in July. I still need to child-proof my How to Focus technique.

But honestly, I still use that technique a lot. It’s intended to be sort of a recovery program: when you find yourself lost in a rut of things that are asking for your attention, having the focus technique available is the thing that gets you out of that rut and back on track. It works every time.

Webstock: What the one single thing you’d recommend to someone wanting to improve their information diet?

Clay: Write 500 Words, every day, before 8AM. Make it the first thing you do every morning. That way, you’re starting your day as a producer, rather than a consumer. And your whole day will revolve around you making things rather than reacting to things.

Webstock: And finally, what are you most looking forward to at Webstock?

Clay: I’ve heard so much about Webstock that I can’t even begin to anticipate what I’m looking forward to the most.

Webstock: Thanks so much so Clay! We’re looking forward to having you here in February.

See more about Clay’s workshop, How To Take Over Your Town. And then go register for it!