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Jonathan Haber

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Tech Talk

Posted: 11/09/2012 4:49 pm

One of the first jobs I had after college was as a freelance journalist, covering elections in the U.S. and U.K. from the perspective of a brand new technology entering the political race: the "high-speed," digital computer.

In those ancient times (i.e., the mid-1980s) the "rich-got-richer" story was about how Republicans and Tories could afford their own mainframe computers while poorer Democrats and Laborites had to make do with lowly networks of microcomputers (ah, how the world has changed).

But one thing that hasn't changed is that faster, more powerful and cheaper technology has not tended to transform what happens during a political campaign. Rather, it simply makes the ability to perform traditional political activities accessible to more people.

For instance, Republicans with their mainframe primarily used it to manage mailing lists for fundraising purposes back in the day, which was an appropriate use for such "big iron" that could hold megabytes of data (wow!). But as microcomputer networks began to manage as much or more data than historical mainframes, mailing list management and fundraising tasks could be performed by grassroots activists, or by "independent" organizations that wanted to keep their contribution to a candidate's campaign "off the books."

We've seen the same phenomena repeat itself as digital recording and multimedia technology, combined with distribution channels such as YouTube, mean that production of the traditional 30-second TV spot no longer requires expensive studios, talent, and editing gear, but can instead be created by an able teen with some flair and a copy of Adobe's Creative Suite. But, again, rather than transforming the political landscape, technology has simply allowed more people to join in the same old fray.

This election, it was fact checking that went viral with anyone who wanted to join the pool of fact checkers ready to "expose the falsehoods" behind anything coming out of one or both candidate's mouths. Once more, fact checking is nothing new (newspapers have been doing it since forever). But the searchability of Google combined with the non-existent cost of setting up a web site today allows anyone with a browser and an interest (or a grudge) to declare themselves part of the fact-check army. And another technical trend we've discussed (the ability to create custom news feeds that fit pre-existing biases) means there is a market for "fact checkers" of any degrees of partiality and competence.

One of the more interesting technical trends was demonstrated on election night as TV anchors rapidly flew through maps that showed voting patterns on state-by-state, district-by-district, even neighborhood-by-neighborhood level, with the technology behind those presentations utilizing online maps fed by databases of voter information, a technology "mashup" that plays a behind-the-scenes role in other important aspects of the campaign.

Back during those Dark Ages I mentioned earlier (when computers primarily ran on steam power), voter rolls were generally used for direct mail, fundraising and get-out-the-vote campaigns (or, as the British called them back then: "knocking up the constituency"). But as mapping software and the databases behind them became bigger, more powerful and efficient, this once local asset gravitated upwards to become a strategic component of national campaigns.

For it was this technology that gave birth to the modern campaign that focused just on a few swing states (since everyone now knows which districts and states they can take for granted). And while this certainly makes campaigning more efficient (unlike 1960 when Richard Nixon visited all 50 states, just in case), it is also the reason why a national campaign today takes place in just one-fifth of the country.

Polling is yet another instance where technology hasn't provided anything new but simply made previous cumbersome processes so efficient that anyone can participate. And professional polling organizations that might have only been able to run ten polls during an election (due to "bandwidth" considerations, such as the efficiency of the U.S. mail or how fast statisticians could run numbers by hand) can now manage hundreds or thousands of polls, using the Internet to gather data and microprocessors to crunch it.

In theory, the democratization of campaign tools, like the democratization of media, brought about via technology like mobile video cameras and social networks, should be a great enabler of political change. Which should trigger the question of why are we only seeing more people doing the same old things faster, rather than anything genuinely revolutionary?

Perhaps politics is just one of those industries already doing what it wants to do, which means technology is destined to be an efficiency play, vs. an engine of creative transformation. Or perhaps we are still awaiting a "tipping point" where technological capability in more hands translates to changes in political power relationships.

But we should also not make the mistake of equating technological progress with progress. For instance, we've already mentioned how new technical tools allow us to surround ourselves on all sides with material auto-selected to fit with our existing confirmation biases. So while information may be free, we are also free to use that information (and the technical tools that make it available) to create our own comfortable prison cells.

 

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