Picture a hotel conference room filled with a couple of hundred people, most of them men, most of them white and nearly all of them either in their 20s or boomers in their middle-age years, attending the Digital Democracy Teach-In in San Diego, hosted by Tim O’Reilly, a publisher and industry futurist, as part of his annual Emerging Technology conference…. Wait a second! You’re reading this on the web. If you want to see what it looked like, click here or here (that’s me in the second photo standing behind Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, though you can’t really see me).

While the speaker talks, at least half the people in the room are tapping away on laptop computers. At least a quarter are noting down the speaker’s remarks in real time and posting them, with their own pungent observations, on their weblogs (or blogs, i.e., continuously updated web pages that are part stream-of-consciousness diaries and part forums for news commentary and analysis) Go here for a taste of that.

Simultaneously, many of them are engaging in a back-channel conversation on an Internet relay chat that allows hundreds of people–both those in the room and others watching the event on a live webcast–to share wisecracks, ponder dinner options and zap the speaker for everything from his clothing to his conceptualizing. (The most popular one at this conference, set up by a polymath named Joi Ito, is here.)

Some of the more intrepid are also jointly taking notes on a document that exists only in cyberspace but appears on their computers and shows each other their comments, in real time (can’t show you that–I use a Windows-based system and this only works for Macintosh users). A handful are snapping photos with digital cameras and cell-phone cameras and posting them to the web. Go here for Ito’s gallery of attendees, if you like. All of them are also busy checking their e-mail, reading their friends’ blogs and surfing news sites–while still managing to listen to the speaker up front.

For those of you who have just spent a half-hour or so dipping into all the links I gave above, and followed some of their links, I’m done. By now, you’ve probably formed your own impressions of the participatory nature and dazzling potential of “digital democracy” (go here http://www.u-blog.net/loic/note/57224#repondre to blow your mind as to one vision of where this can go), and the beauty of the thing is that your ideas are bound to be as valid as mine. But since the editors of The Nation did send me out here, and I am planning to write a long piece for the print magazine about how “social software” is changing and enhancing the participation of ordinary people in politics, herewith a quick report.

The teach-in was highlighted by keynotes from Joe Trippi, until recently Howard Dean’s campaign manager; Scott Heiferman, the CEO of Meetup.com; Wes Boyd, one of the founders of MoveOn.org, and featured an array of well-known bloggers (people like Doc Searls, David Weinberger, Cameron Barrett, Halley Suitt, Mitch Ratcliffe, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, Dan Gillmor, Cory Doctorow, Ed Cone and danah boyd some of whom have thousands of daily readers). If all or most of those names mean nothing to you, dear reader, it’s time to get clued in to the new voices out there. The only way for me to do them justice is to tell you to follow the links attached to each of their names, read their blogs and then browse the blogs that they link to.

There was optimism in the air about the potential of the Internet to change the balance of power in America that was pleasantly contagious. Nowhere was that optimism thicker than during Joe Trippi’s morning speech, which was a frontal attack on what he called “broadcast politics” as well as a spirited defense of the Dean campaign and his role in it. For Trippi, broadcast politics began to take hold in 1960, with the Nixon-Kennedy debate and the realization that TV tipped the election. “What no one could’ve predicted,” Trippi said, “was that it would have become a race for money, a race to buy a one-way communications tool that would take the American people essentially out of the process. It was no longer about average Americans, it was about, ‘How do I find a rich guy to write me a $2,000 check and then how do I take that money and buy television with it?’ ”

But in Trippi’s view, that system is now vulnerable to challenge. First, the Internet and the social software being invented to help people come together in collective action is changing the role of money in politics. Trippi is fervently critical of how the Democrats came to be the party most dependent on large donors, calling it “a betrayal of our birthright.” The Dean campaign, with its success at raising small dollar contributions, is “returning the party in this country to where it belongs–in the hands of the grassroots and everyday Americans.”

The second change is what is happening offline, in what the digerati refer to as the “analog world” or “meatspace.” Here Trippi talked about the now-familiar tale of Meetup.com, and how the campaign started with literally “one person in Seattle…trying to meet up, one person in LA, one person in San Francisco, one person in New York.” Despite these modest beginnings, the campaign embraced Meetup and promoted its use, and now “nearly 200,000 people are registered at Meetup.com for Howard Dean. They meet the first Wednesday of every month in their city and towns, and I think it’s now over a thousand cities and towns in the country.”

Trippi’s speech earned him a standing ovation from the crowd, which was full of Dean fans as well as a larger circle committed to opening up the political process to greater citizen participation. But is their optimism justified? As I wrote on my own weblog last week, “People here talk like all that’s needed is better tools, and then people will pick them up and take back their country from the powers-that-be. There’s almost no sense of how hard organizing actually is, or why.”

On reflection, perhaps that comment was a bit too black and white. The beauty of blogging is that I’ve already heard back from knowledgeable participants who are indeed struggling to integrate this technology into local political struggles and to address issues of poverty and power that make Internet activism still largely the province of white, well-educated, well-off types (and their college-age kids). Perhaps folks who are used to working in an industry where revolutions happen every eighteen months and computing platforms get discarded every few years have reason to be optimistic about how easily change can happen. But even if they’re too optimistic, their hopeful vision is of mighty value.

The question on everyone’s mind is, what’s next? At a granular level, the movement-in-formation is moving in different directions. Trippi has started a blog called “ ChangeforAmerica” (a deliberate variation on the “DeanforAmerica” website) and is talking about keeping “the fight” going through that vehicle. A core group of 500 or so “Dean Leaders”–local activists who self-organized after getting too many run-arounds from Dean HQ, is reportedly ready to declare independence from the Dean campaign and just do its own thing. Other activists are trying to sort out whether they go with John Kerry or hold out for John Edwards.

But from a distance, the answer is easy. “The cat is out of the bag,” said Scott Heiferman, the founder of Meetup.com. “The people have it in their brains that they can organize themselves.” Hold on, the ride can only get more interesting.