"Time is an illusion," said one of Douglas Adams' quirky characters in his Sci Fi novel the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. He then added: "Lunchtime doubly so." To paraphrase Adams, I'd say of our accelerated culture, "Time is an illusion, political time doubly so."
Our changing view of time effects almost every part of our culture, no part has been so accelerated as what folks call "political cycles." We've created a new "time zone" of sorts running on it's own ever accelerating rate, what I'd call "Political Standard Time."
Our understanding of time has always been deeply connected to our technologies: from our first sundials, to church bells ringing in times of regular prayer, to train conductors using a new absolute "standard time" to keep transcontinental trains from crashing into each other, to our atomic clocks keeping our GPS systems working. And now to "internet time" which is the engine driving Political Standard Time.
About 6 years ago (in calendar years not Internet-years) when I working for Sony I was evaluating a new hosting environment for most of the US Sony Pictures Internet efforts. I was comparing different companies global network performance, specifically looking at lowest latency, best performing networks for delivering Sony's media-rich bits. At one company I was checking out the "ping times" -- or how quickly data would travel their global network. They were impressive, but I'd been looking at many impressive companies and I wondered out loud, "could this networks show greater efficiency?" The engineer I was with answered with only a bit of snark, "Well, technically you are starting to bump up against the speed of electrons -- the speed of light. We're good, but we can't do too much about that barrier."
It was both the first time I really understood viscerally what the velocity of light actually was -- really - and It was also the first time I recognized that light speed was frankly, a bit too slow for our needs.
This engine of "internet time" empowered a bizarre faster-than-light true 24 hour cycle of news media, with web sites, mobile news feeds, and breaking news "tweets" in a constant day and night hum.
And its not simply "the media" that is speeding up, I'm convinced that our brains themselves are being conditioned to absorb more faster, too. I'm sure our minds are not "keeping up" and the rate of new information coming in and we'll always feel like we are on the wrong side of information overload. However, if time travelers from say back in the 1900's appeared today, they would be astonished at the amount of data we relatively comfortably do manage on a daily basis. One researcher calculated that the average American takes in about 34 gigabytes worth of new data daily. And as this trend has effected our individual minds, it can't but help effect our culture and our political culture. Author Mickey Kaus described this trend in the 2000 election, saying that "politics is able to move much faster, too, as our democracy learns to process more information in a shorter period and to process it comfortably at this faster pace." In 2006, Senator Allen's "Macaca moment" took about a weekend to be universally seen online and then break through to traditional media. Last year Palin's "Death Panels" comment on Health Care reform written on her Facebook page took less than a day.
There are two lessons today and tomorrow's politicos should learn from this new Political Standard Time zone:
Firstly: You have to watch the online conversation in real-time -- as fast as it's occurring. And you have to watch it for as long as the conversation is going on, which means, "all the time." Like a fast moving forest fire, you have a much better chance of steering the conversation if you catch it early, but that "early window" has shrunk from days to hours. Fortunately the same technologies that enable the constant stream of conversations itself can also help you keep watch. Use them.
Secondly: it means that even though political fortunes can turn sour faster than ever before, just as quickly they can turn positive, or at least into a new direction. And then again.
Look at our current political space: Republicans now are excited at the hope of finally being able to win again, after losing the White House and virtually every competitive seat in Congress in 2006 and 2008. Democrats are reeling from this reversal of fortune. How can such a turn around occur so quickly? Both groups would be wise to consider the new rules of Political Standard Time.
This means that eight months between now and the midterms is both a lot longer than eight months used to be, but it also means that every second of those eight months counts.
Republicans would be wise not to place all their bets on one immovable strategy now. You can already see signs of them smartly hedging their bets as signs of an improving economy are harder to miss. And on the other hand, if Democrats do finally pass Health Care reform, if the economy continues to grow, and if Democrats listen to wiser voices and make a strong narrative for their case, then the political environment may look a good deal less apocalyptic then than it does today.
Democrats may or may not do these things. But in this new Political Standard Time Zone we all live in now, they have plenty of time to should they start now.
"Should they start now" being the key phrase there. If "speed kills" was true in the world of 1992 politics, it's even more so now.