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Do 'Big Data' Elections Make Us Govern Small?

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Technology has opened the door to a shift in campaign strategy: Now, you can win small. The problem is, you have to govern big.

As Alastair Croll said in the O'Reilly Radar in February: "After JFK, you couldn't win an election without television. After Obama, you couldn't win an election without social networking. I predict that in 2012, you won't be able to win an election without big data."

If Mr. Croll was right, then the irony -- and in fact the real worry -- is that big data has made our politics small. Here's how.

A campaign today, like any sophisticated marketer or advertiser, has unprecedented ability to collect every last piece of information about each of us, including our name, age, gender; what we 'like', what we buy, who our friends are; our home address, our email address, our IP address -- hundreds of data points on each of over 150 million registered voters, gleaned from both publicly available and purchased sources such as social graphs, census data, tax records, and commercial data.

The power in this expanse of data is its ability to make person-level predictions about likely voting behavior, which in turn allows campaigns to market a unique political product to each individual, with the right message through the right medium at the right time. The power of big data is its ability to make the world small.

This power, in itself, is neither novel nor particularly concerning. We interact in small, individualized ways all the time thanks to big data. If we stream a film on Netflix or buy a book on Amazon, those companies are leveraging huge product-attribute datasets and the ratings of millions of users to help us make just the right purchase. If we search a term on Google or check our Facebook newsfeed, those companies are similarly personalizing the millions of possible results to give us the most satisfying and engaging, experience. The world, through our own eyes, can look like a pretty great place.

And so it is with politics. A campaign volunteer today can knock on my door knowing that I am a small business owner with a college degree and speak earnestly to me about how national healthcare policy affects employers, and that same volunteer can then walk next door and explain to the real estate broker who lives there a plan to reset tax policy and recover the anemic housing sector. These pitches are focused, efficient, likely to be well-received, and overall seem like a pretty good thing.

The problem with this approach that is in the act of electing a candidate we don't just 'purchase' her, like we would a DVD from Netflix or a novel from Amazon. Electing a candidate turns her into something else; specifically, into an official. An official who must now govern.

If you believe the purpose of government is in large part the provision and management of public goods -- in other words, if you believe its function should reside in a place above any one individual or even a small coalition of individuals -- then you immediately see the disconnect. An administration who must repay its (not 'the,' but 'its') electorate by keeping the specific promises it made to specific groups will have a very difficult time pushing forward big ideas or sweeping reforms or comprehensive agendas. And thus the fundamental role of government, in the modern transaction, is lost.

We can see some of the ramifications already, in unprecedented polarization and rock-bottom levels of confidence in Congress's ability to find any common ground on which to solve any of the very large problems we currently face in this country. But if the quickest route to public office is via a sophisticated micro-targeting operation, why would you marshall support for initiatives that speak to us as a people and rise to the challenges that we experience as a nation?

So, on this Election Day, if victory indeed turns on our newest technology, we should brace for a new political reality. Because an administration that wins with big data may well be doomed to governing small.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Muse.