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Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas

Posted: September 23, 2009 12:59 PM

Technology + Transparency = New Politics

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Here's a memory: mid-October last year, weeks before Election Day. Blach Middle School, in leafy Los Altos, just a few miles from the headquarters of Apple, Google and Facebook in Silicon Valley. A new kind of tech-powered politics was cemented in my head.

Nearing the end of covering the historic 2008 presidential campaign for the Washington Post, a friend invited me to come speak to the school's 4th-period journalism class. Some 20 kids showed up. In a roomful of wide-eyed, curious, 7th and 8th graders -- most of whom had been reading about the never-ending campaign online -- young Naib Mian easily stood out. Seated in the back of the school library, the 13-year-old son of Pakistani immigrants raised his left hand and blurted out: "Have you downloaded Obama's new iPhone app?"

I had a BlackBerry.

The app, Naib told me and the whole class, offered up-to-the-minute local information on all the states. It was all Obama, all the time, he excitedly noted: what Obama did, where Obama was, how supporters can get involved. "It's all right here," the 8th grader said, pointing to his phone. He could touch politics because politics was just in his pocket. Not everyone, of course, can afford an iPhone. Not every kid, of course, is as engaged as Naib. But the feeling that politics needs to open itself up, to be more transparent and interactive, is lasting and goes beyond party affiliation, ethnic background or class status.

"I think it has to be a more connected relationship," Naib said almost a year later in a phone interview, speaking about how politics should change. "It's not, like, there's that leader, and, like, there's just as random citizens. There should be more connection, more openness."

Technology + Transparency = New Politics. In other words, technology allows for transparency which leads to a new kind of people-powered politics. Let's over-emphasize the "new." It's so new, in fact, that elected officials, politicians, big-moneyed consultants, the political reporting and punditry class -- everyone who makes politics seem more like a Broadway show, with the actors up on the stage and the citizens just passively watching -- still have to wrap their heads around it. This is a clear case of the people being ahead of its leaders. Because of the one-way nature of television, leaders have been trained to talk down to their constituents. But because of the two-way street that is the Internet, politicians must learn how to listen and engage the very people they're accountable for. Many pols have adapted, at least in the superficial sense. They blog. They create YouTube channels and Facebook fan pages. They drop Twitter in almost every other paragraph to sound and seem like they "get it."

But do they, really? What are the implications of this emerging ethos? Who are its leaders? How is it re-making official Washington and the federal government? What does it mean for the GOP -- who, with a few exceptions, have lagged behind the Democrats in harnessing the reach of the Internet and new technologies? What does it mean for minority groups who, because of the networked web, are growing beyond their grassroots base and building alliances?

Pam Spaulding, of the influential gay political blog Pam's House Blend, writes that understanding how emerging technologies can be used to promote activism has always been important to the LGBT community. "It was a necessity for a slice of the American public faced with few legal rights that faced hostility and violence just for being who they were," she explained.

GOP commentator Matt Lewis, a contributor to the popular Republican site TownHall.com, writes that "in politics, the outsiders -- not the establishment -- own passion." He's right. And with the Republicans out of power in the White House and Capitol Hill, they have more effectively used the Internet, especially Twitter, to get their message out and rally their supporters.

Craig Newmark, the founder of Craiglist, writes that a new generation of web-savvy and tech-oriented workers are in Washington, helping re-make the federal government for the digital generation. Highlighting sites such as Data.gov, Recovery.gov and Apps.gov, noted blogger (and blogging pioneer) Anil Dash declares the federal government "the most interesting start-up of 2009."

And the Sunlight Foundation's Ellen Miller, the leading doyenne of transparency in politics, writes that some members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, are genuinely adapting. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, for example, posts her daily schedule on her web site, which she started doing it while she was in the House.

So does your Congress member -- your House representative and senators -- get it?

Tell us why -- or why not -- at technology@huffingtonpost.com. HuffPostTech will feature your e-mails.