Friday, June 15, 2007

The Flattening of Politics Through Technology

I’ve long believed that the incessant focus on “getting people to vote” is a bit short-sighted and ignores the fact that, today, there are little real incentives for people to vote, let along participate in other political processes that are equally important to our democracy. As Bob Herbert wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, the system’s broken...

Today, there is little substance in campaigns, with spin passing for political discourse, much of which is driven by poll-obsessed consultants who balk at the hint of candidates having an original thought and expressing it. Even when there are political “debates,” the questions lobbed at candidates are usually those that have been vetted by party leaders and then posed by celebrity journalists, rather than by citizens. Campaigns are also dominated by big money and there’s a real dearth of interesting and inspiring candidates, due to ballot access requirements that keep third-party and independent candidates—those are, arguably, more interesting—off the ballots. The United States, in fact, has some of the most stringent ballot access requirements of any democracy in the world. Add to that antiquated redistricting rules and a Byzantine maze of electoral rules and regulations across every state, and you’ve created a real disincentive for people to “get involved” in politics.

But the answer isn’t to walk away. It’s to change it.

Auspiciously, that’s what some are trying to do, and they’re using technology to do it, which may be leading to the flattening of politics. Take the Vote Different video—the “most famous video of the election cycle thus far,” according to the Globalist. Although Hillary was bashed (literally) in the spot, which was produced by a self-proclaimed Obama fan, the overarching message was powerful: It’s time for real people to take back campaigns from the media pundits, pollsters, consultants, party fundraisers who’ve bollixed up the process. And it’s helped spread the word about a relatively new concept—citizen-generated content—to nearly 3 million people who’ve viewed the spot on YouTube.

So is this the wave of the future or just a fluke? The 600-plus participants who converged on New York City to attend the Personal Democracy Forum’s recent conference argue that technology is changing politics, like it or not, so we all better get used to it and see it as an opportunity to transform our democracy in ways that encourage, rather than limit, participation. This was PDF’s fourth conference, which brought together the country’s leading technologists, campaign organizers, politicos, bloggers, activists and journalists high-level conversations about the new tools, sites and practices that are transforming elections and government. In an array of tight and compelling presentations, speakers warned that politicians and others who aren’t getting it about technology will soon find themselves left in the dust—maybe not during this election cycle but certainly, the next one.

They also underscored how technology is pushing out the traditional media as the arbiters of what gets discussed regarding political campaigns through social networks and user-created media through which information flows from the bottom-up, rather than top-down. This is particularly true among young people, said danah boyd. In one of the most interesting presentations, boyd called on politicians to start understanding that, to young people, digital spaces are just as important as physical spaces and is where they tend to live their lives. To that end, she said, politicians need to start “giving digital handshakes on virtual receiving lines” by logging on once in awhile and participating interactively with young people, rather than just putting up a website and pushing out “messages” to them.

Politicians, boyd noted, aren’t doing this yet. Yes, they’re rushing to Facebook to put up a profile, but they’re still using these sites as platforms and “broadcast media like TV,” rather than interactive, civic spaces whose hallmark is interactivity and reciprocity. “Simply having a profile on MySpace,” she warns, “does not convince the under-30s to vote for you.” What will is making time to “shake hands” with young people digitally the same way politicians make time to shake hands with voters in public forums.

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