A newspaper columnist has called for the old-fashioned, “left wing” Democratic Party to be replaced by a new, emergent party of computer nerds.
Dan Gillmor of Silicon Valley’s San Jose Mercury urges the Democrats to abandon “old, discredited politics”, while an “increasingly radical middle” needs a new party with some “creative thinking”. From where will this come? In a column published the same day, he tells us.
Writing before the outcome was known, Gillmor enthuses about “the most exciting development … the new world of cyber-politics,” where the “expanded horizons” on offer should cancel out the groupthink, which he briefly acknowledges, and lead to greater accountability and participation.
Such settler rhetoric – “new world”, “horizons” – is familiar stuff from techno utopians. So too is the hope, amongst many intelligent, impatient people with a reluctance to develop their social skills, that we must be able to do better. (Bill Gates doesn’t have the patience or inclination to watch TV, and many internet activists don’t have the patience or inclination to persuade a stranger, which is a lot more difficult and unrewarding.)
We briefly heard about “Emergent Democracy” last Spring, although it disappeared in about the time it takes you to say “Second Superpower”. But we’re sure to hear more about this itchy, push-button, “interactive” version of democracy, a kind of thumbs down at the Roman Coliseum, in the future. Maybe Dan will become its Arthur Schlesinger.
But for now, how can a computer-savvy nerd party help? We don’t see Eliot Spitzer, the New York attorney general, having trouble being re-elected, and the man’s been described as a “one-man socialist Torquemada.” Because politics is n-dimensional, based on values and not some right-left scale, his “old fashioned” efforts to remind corporations of their social responsibilities may well be very popular if put to the public. So it isn’t clear that the Democrats must abandon the idea that we’re happier when the corporations are left to manage themselves. Nor is it clear that the internet is a net civic good, yet, or that it increased voter turnout more than other factors did in the 2004 election. So the conclusion that we’re then invited to draw – that the Democrats are doomed because they’re lagging in some kind of technological arms race – doesn’t necessarily follow. But let’s take each one of these ideas in turn.
Such settler rhetoric flourishes where a sensible grasp of what humans can do, and what the machines can do, is out of kilter. Wild and improbable visions often follow.
When something good happens, people are quick to praise the machines. “If people are more moved than ever to participate, I’m betting that the Net played a big role,” writes Dan. But if something bad happens, we blame stupid humans for not “getting it”. Voters in Texas using machines from Hart InterCivic, discovered that their votes were nullified when they browsed the ballot by turning a wheel. “It’s not a machine issue,” Shafer said. “It’s voters not properly following the instructions.” And you might ask, who’s fault is it that the Jim Crow boxes were so badly designed?
(Dan, to his great credit, urged Californian voters to demand an auditable paper ballot this week, and castigated election officials for not making voters aware that they had the option.)
But the echo chamber effect won’t go away, because it’s a defining characteristic of computer-mediated communications everywhere, and not just in this deeply polarized country. My colleague Thomas Greene puts it most succinctly. “You can say something someone disagrees with at a party, and they’ll talk to you. Try doing this online.” Where the barriers to participation are low, the barriers to making a hurried exit are equally low. There are no social obligations to sticking around, unlike in the real world.
(There are subtle factors within the overall trend. Today’s thin-skinned ego-driven weblogger may simply have been yesterday’s Usenet faint heart, for example. And well-designed software can encourage better online participation: the DailyKos abandoned weblog software for the much more community-orientated Scoop system, and became the Slashdot of politics – only one where people say interesting things politely.)
The settler iconography is no accident: the idea that everything “old fashioned” must be discarded, and everything is new again.
“Like the American settlers, internet dwellers create a myth that there was no politics before they arrived,” Will Davies pointed out, in a brilliant talk at NotCon this year. They needed to do this to ignore the fact that the land was already occupied. “To the same end, internet settlers choose to ignore the historical and sociological facts of how the internet is run, and who can’t get on to it and why, and the mechanisms used online to divide people.” Gated communities substitute group for social, and “cease to question the macro institutions and systems around them.” The gated communities have already gone up, on the internet. One of its founding engineers, Karl Auerbach told your reporter earlier this year that physically, as well as sociologically, “The internet is balkanizing. Communities of trust are forming in which traffic is accepted only from known friends.” Remind you of anything?
What this leads to is a false sense of reality. Howard Dean supporters had a tremendous disappointment when man and message failed to resonate in Meatspace. The noise of online participation isn’t a very reliable indicator of what people are really thinking or doing. “Everyone I know voted Democrat,” people asked yesterday “How could this happen?”
In fact, voter turnout rose little in prosperous areas with high broadband penetration, but dramatically in areas where broadband penetration was lowest: up over ten per cent in Mississippi, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico. Meanwhile, the cornerstones of civic life – community and church groups – were far more effective in getting out the vote. These delivered a Republican victory.
So for Doctor Gillmor to prescribe the ailing patient ‘more internet’ is a strange choice. For him to advocate abandoning the US left’s organizational vehicle (with one current useless owner, but a proven track record of some moderate success, if you look at the log book) makes senses only if, like Dan, you don’t think think the left should have an effective vehicle at all. (He wants a “radical center”, remember . On being asked to abandon the project, progressives might be tempted to echo Gandhi, who when asked what he thought of western civilization, replied “I think it would be a good idea!” Giving up barely after we’ve started, on a center ground defined by others, or by nothing but technology, isn’t an adequate replacement.
For some people, technology is the answer, no matter what the question may be. But Gillmor’s reasons for wanting a new net party are rather like, to paraphrase Kennedy, asking not “what can the machines do for me?” but asking “what can I do for the machines?”