Technology as Political Catalyst
It's become almost a cliché to observe that the Internet is changing the face of electoral politics at the national scale. The use of the web for fundraising (and to observe fundraising) is an obvious example, but for me a more interesting phenomenon is the way in which an existing Internet technology (one that had previously not been considered inherently political) can suddenly emerge as a major force in making and breaking a candidate. There's no reason to expect that to change -- and that adds a wildcard to the 2008 political races in the US.
In 2004, the big story was the use of MeetUp to make Howard Dean a frontrunner (and eventually the leader of the Democratic Party); social networking apps had been around for awhile, but suddenly people realized that they had power. In 2006, the big story was the use of YouTube to post damning video of George "Macaca" Allen; again, YouTube wasn't a new site, but suddenly it was able to bring down a leading candidate. For 2008, candidates across the political spectrum already have their social networking and web video strategies in order, and neither technology will have the same kind of "out of nowhere" transformative impact again.
For the 2008 campaign, we've yet to see which Internet technology will shake up the political world. What kinds of characteristics would such a technology possess? Let's see...
- It's likely to be already commonplace, but without a real political footprint. One or two candidates trying to figure out how to make it work for them is fine, but there shouldn't be any coherent strategy for its use -- yet. (So MySpace and Facebook are out.)
- It's likely to be something that obeys Metcalfe's Law, drawing power not from the number of users, but the connections between the users. (So Google Docs are out -- not that I really expected Google Docs to be a king-making app.)
- It doesn't necessarily have to have an immediate impact, but it should be something that can be easily explained and understood. (So wikis are probably out, sad to say.)
What we're looking for is a technology that has the potential to make a dark horse candidate an unexpected contender, or make a leading candidate stumble and possibly fall.
Here are the technologies that I think might fit this role -- and, as always, I'm more than happy to entertain counter-arguments, alternative suggestions, and private insults.
- Microblogging apps, like Twitter and Pownce. A couple of the candidates have presences in the microblogs, but nobody has quite figured out how to use the technology really well. Could Twitter (etc.) become engines for political flash mobs, or ways to spread information/disinformation more effectively?
- Geolocative technologies, like Google Maps and cheap GPS. This is likely to manifest as a map mashup, connecting candidate/campaign-relevant information to location. I could see something like this used for pinpoint targeting of donors and visits by campaigners (e.g., "Mr. Smith donated to my opponent last time around by this time, but hasn't done so yet this campaign -- he may be a possible conversion."), or to create "open source intelligence" about the appearances of a candidate and his/her team.
- Photo-sharing sites, like Flickr and Zoomr. Using these sites for open source intel or counter-campaigning seems the most likely possibility, but there may be some kind of application that really charges up a campaign.
- Participatory Panopticon/Sousveillance. Okay, not technically an Internet technology per se, but clearly dependent upon Internet tools. As I think about it, this may end up being less its own candidate, and more a variant for each of the previous three suggestions. In either case, the value comes in large part from the swarm possibilities: not just a cameraphone video recording of a macaca-style gaffe, but a mass of recordings, from different positions, capturing a scene in greater detail than any single regular camera could.
(An early signal of the last becoming a real possibility would be a steadily-increasing use of cameraphones to record speeches at rallies and campaign stops.)
Given my work with the Metaverse Roadmap, some readers might be curious as to why I didn't include virtual worlds on my list. They certainly fit the listed criteria (the third a bit shakily, but close enough), and we're already seeing some initial efforts at campaigning in Second Life. My sense is that the technology isn't quite mature enough to make the big political splash this time around -- but virtual worlds have the potential to be catalytic in 2010 or 2012.
Of course, the 2008 campaigns may be run largely on TV, with the Internet used for fundraising and for organizing supporters, without any disruption from unexpectedly useful technologies... but I doubt it. A more real possibility is that the leading campaigns will have become sufficiently Internet-savvy that emerging technologies with disruptive potential get identified and co-opted before they have a chance to change the game. I hope that's not the case; political innovation in the use of social technologies remains one of the few democratizing elements in an electoral system that seems less and less responsive to the will of the people.
(Photo adapted from Creative Commons-licensed image by Unsure Shot on Flickr.)