The Tech Tidal Wave Hits Politics

Sometime today, tonight or tomorrow, a piece of software or a blog or perhaps a high-tech device like a camera phone or a text message that goes viral is going to make a difference in this oh-so-close election, and those of us in the political, technology and journalism worlds are going to rush to make a big deal of it. And rightfully so.

When Andrew Shapiro called Greg Simon, Al Gore's deputy chief of staff, late on the night of Election 2000, and fed him the numbers that he was reading off of the Florida Secretary of State's Web site – which differed dramatically from the networks' premature decision to declare the state for Bush – he stopped the Bush victory train in its tracks. Simon was with Gore as the vice president waited under the stage at the Nashville War Memorial where he was to make his concession speech, but as Shapiro stayed on the line with him and kept hitting the "refresh" button on his browser, it became clear to all that no concession was in order. (Other reports credit field captain Michael Whouley, faced with jammed cell phone lines, with paging Gore chief of staff Michael Feldman in the Gore motorcade, who patched in campaign chairman William Daley, to tell him the race was too tight in Florida.)

As Dan Gillmor writes in his valuable new book, "We the Media," "If someone knows something in one place, everyone who cares about that something will know it soon enough." All the new tools at our disposal, and the loosely joined networks of like-minded people that they have empowered, insure that we will know, faster than ever before, a lot more than we ever knew about the election of 2000.

But before we forget the forest amidst all these interesting new trees, I'd like to make a different claim for the impact of technology on this election. The biggest change is not the speed at which we will know the facts, or the rumors, of what is taking place. Nor is it, as the bloggers tapped by the New York Times to opinionate on the most important event of the election, the unraveling of the Fourth Estate. While I agree heartily with John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson of Powerline, who write "never again will the mainstream news media be able to dictate the flow of information to the American people," the big story isn't just the way bloggers are talking back to the powerful and to each other.

In my humble opinion, the big change is in how technology is energizing participation in electoral politics. As a good friend of mine who is a Kerry supporter said to me last night, "Everybody I know is doing something on Election Day. There's literally no one I know who isn't. My mother is making calls. My father-in-law is driving people to the polls. I'm going to Philadelphia."

This isn't a partisan thing, by the way. The Bush campaign said it would deploying 1.6 million volunteers on November. If true, that's more than one percent of the likely number of people who will vote, a truly impressive accomplishment.

Clearly, all this is happening because it's a very close election and whatever your views, the stakes seem high. A lot of people are feeling motivated to act. That's the essential human ingredient, which some technologists forget in their zeal to create fancy new tools for activists and campaigns.

But here's the key: Web-based tools are making it vastly easier to participate in meaningful political action, and they are also enhancing the meaning of small actions in ways that create a virtuous cycle of greater activity. Most of the time, most of us shy away from politics because in its traditional form it's too top-down, too time-consuming, too-money-drenched, too elitist and too manipulative. The average American has sadly come to relate to politics as a necessary evil, something to be done as little as possible, rather than as a necessary and good way of addressing problems that we face as a society and nation.

But the new civic software, coupled with an intense feeling that this election matters, is changing that view for many, many of us.

The best example I can give is the rise of the distributed or virtual phone bank. For the last weeks of the campaign, anyone who wanted to help Kerry or the Democrats get out the vote today has been able to log onto any of several Web sites like Votercall.org, register, and within seconds get a list of likely Kerry voters, or undecided voters, or newly registered voters in key states, along with their phone numbers and a suggested script for the call. A few days ago, the much more top-down Bush campaign created its own virtual phonebank, with the same approach. (Was that a sign of weakness, or strength? Hopefully we'll be able to get the metrics from both sides after the dust settles.)

Andrew Shapiro was one of the untold number of volunteers in this hidden, but crucial, stage of the election. "I sat here last night at my desk in New York making calls into swing states, using the Kerry volunteer site," he told me. "It was incredibly easy and satisfying, even if four out of the five calls were just messages to answering machines." Shapiro laughed at the intricacy of the operation, "I was a volunteer calling other volunteers to ask them to volunteer."

But what impressed Shapiro, the author of the prescient book "The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know" (Public Affairs, 1999), is how, yet again, people have found a way to use the Internet to amplify a very simple and normal action in powerful ways. "This reminds me of what was smart about Meetup," he says, "in that they just made it easy to find like-minded people in your neighborhood." The virtual phone banks have made it easy for someone sitting at home to reach other would-be voters, or – as some of my more motivated friends and neighbors have done – to turn themselves into a virtual precinct captain and divvy out lists of phone numbers to other, perhaps less tech-savvy but equally motivated acquaintances.

Historians may want to credit the Howard Dean campaign for planting this particular seed. If memory serves, the first emergence of a distributed virtual phone bank occurred this winter, after Dean crashed in Iowa and New Hampshire and his campaign flopped. A devoted group of his supporters organized their own efforts to generate phone calls to undecided voters in Wisconsin, the site of Dean's last stand. Obviously, it was too late – but the idea lived on.

This new kind of citizen engagement is working not only because it's easy, but also because it's about people talking to people (the Meetup model again) and because it solves the dilemma of collective action. By ourselves, making 50 or 100 calls into swing states would seem futile. But if you can see hundreds, or thousands, of others doing the same thing, it's no longer a meaningless drop in the bucket. It's a tidal wave.

We'll soon know how big that wave is, and who it's going to carry to victory.

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