In his new book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet), Personal Democracy Forum founder Micah Sifry asks a very good question: what ever happened to the prediction that a radically cheapened cost of connection would displace traditional political gatekeepers, not only radically opening up politics, but also producing a real shift in the balance of power?
Sifry, an insider, offers an honest assessment of the effects of the new technology on politics, calling out his colleagues courageously in ways that can be useful to outsiders as well. Defining his terms at the outset, he provides us with a helpful roadmap: the “Internet” is “the set of protocols and practices that allow computing and communications devices to connect to each other and share information and the set of cultural behaviors and expectations that this underlying foundation makes possible.” Politics is “everything we can and must do together;” democracy is “a system in which all people participate fully and equally in decisions that affect their lives.”
Sifry focuses on the years 2003 to 2012: from the Dean for President campaign’s innovative use of the Internet to scale small donor fundraising, through the period during which online advocacy projects proliferated, and concluding with the 2012 Obama presidential campaign’s enormous investment in precision-targeted voter “activation.”
He explains why the Internet has failed to transform politics in two key chapters: “Big Data and the Politics of Computational Management,” focusing on the increasing cost of campaigning, and “Big Email and the Politics of Passive Democratic Engagement,” focusing on the hollowing out of political capacity.
In “Big Data,” Sifry argues that, paradoxically, the low cost of collecting data enabled its acquisition on such a massive scale that the cost of using it grew exponentially. This created profitable business opportunities for those with the expertise to use the data, and raised, rather than lowered, the cost of campaigning. Of the twenty-five most visited websites, Sifry points out, only one, Wikipedia, is a nonprofit. The rest are hardly hubs for political action; he tellingly describes them as “online malls” in which we are invited to “hang out.” (And the largest such data gatherer of all, the NSA, threatens citizen efficacy perhaps most of all.)
The trouble with “Big Email,” the kind of online advocacy Move.On pioneered, is that even as the Internet makes it easier for us to “find each other,” it makes it harder for us to “bind with each other,” writes Sifry, in “common focus.” Big email mobilizers may aggregate millions of individual voices, but fail to connect owners of these voices to each other to create any new collective political capacity. As a result, Sifly wisely observes, it is easier to generate what he calls “stop energy”—that is, the reaction of individuals to crises—than the “go energy” created by people working together to solve common problems. Big Email franchisers of “distributed campaigns” like Change.org simply increase the number of individuals mobilizing mini-campaigns to support customized causes. The result is a cacophony that is much more “noise than signal,” says Sifry. Even more significant, at most online advocacy organizations, the people being mobilized aren’t the ones making decisions as to when, on whose behalf, or for what purpose to mobilize. Instead, the individuals who “own” the lists make these calls, relying on polling to “sample” their “base” for “input.”