Smoke Signals, Blogs, and the Future of Politics

Smoke Signals, Blogs, and the Future of PoliticsThis I first posted on June 24, 2004 on, then republished on August 23, 2004 on Science And Politics. I love re-posting this one every now and then, just to check how much the world has changed. What do you think? Was I too rosy-eyed? Prophetic?

In the beginning there were grunts, tom-tom drums, smoke signals, and the guy on the horse riding from village to village reading the latest King’s Edict. That is Phase I in the evolution of media.
Phase II was ushered in by Gutenberg. Remember the beginning of Protestantism? Luther nailing copies of his pamhlet on the doors? That was also the beginning of the first great Universities, such as those in Genoa, Padua and Firenza. That was the first time in history when literacy started spreading from clergy to all the others: professional classes, ruling classes, and beyond.
It took a couple of more centuries, and the Industrial Revolution, before the Phase III kicked in – the invention of the daily newspaper! Another century passed before radio was invented, followed by television another half-century later. This Phase is the time of the real “media”. What are the crucial aspects of the media?
First, it is expensive to produce for a mass market. Beyond entertaining a couple of dozen closest friends, neighbors and relatives, one needs a lot of money to finance a widely-read newspaper or a popular radio show or TV show. Thus, media business is inherently un-democratic. Only people with substantial amounts of money can afford to run a media outlet. Throughout history, including today, people with money can and do buy political influence. Thus, the media is the voice of the ruling class.
Second, media is one-way communication. The owner of the media makes news, while the silent masses are recievers. Sure, you can try to write a letter to the editor, but remember it has to be short, you cannot complain it is further cut and edited, and forget seeing it in print if you write something that the owner does not like to be widely known. You can try calling a radio call-in show, but you will be screened. If you manage to get on, you can have a couple of sentences, then you will be ridiculed by the host. You can sign up to be on “Jenny Jones” show if that’s your liking. Or you can send a letter to the producer of the TV show, a letter which, even if it is read, will have absolutely zero influence on the future installments of the same show. Give up, the media is one-way, and all pretense to the contrary is just that – a pretense.
Phase IV begins with the invention of the Internet. Major media outlets start making online editions. In some very rare cases, there may be a way to post a comment on some hard-to-find link to the forum that nobody reads. It is still one-way top-down media, technology notwithstanding.
Enter the blog. There seem to be millions of blogs out there. Have you tried to sample them? Most of them are written by illiterate teenagers about their angst, boring people post what they had for breakfast, lost souls with deep existential problems and low self-esteem write New Agey mystical nonsense. And of course, there are superstars: the political commentators, the likes of Drudge, Instapundit, Daniel Drezner, Mickey Kaus, or Wonkette. Mini-celebrities!
How do their blogs look like? Well, they are the owners. Many do not allow comments. The others may have a small link to “comments”. If you click on that you’ll recoil in horror at the level of discourse there. If you try to post something intelligent, you’ll realize that your post is limited to 100-200 words. After a couple of days, when you check back in, you realize that your effort was for nothing – nobody read your comment except some weirdo who used profanity as the sole commentary on your work. Thus, these blogs are just like the main media – one-way, top-down communication.
Sure, some of the blog owners are smart, educated and informed, and they all are good writers. They like to think about themselves as revolutionaries against the mainstream media, but they ARE the mainstream media. The only difference between Paul Krugman and Atrios is that the former has an office at the New York Times, a salary and a health-care plan, while the other has to keep his day job. The former has deadlines, the latter does not, the former has an editor, the latter does not, the former sees his name printed on paper as well as online, the latter is just online. Otherwise, both can be trusted to provide information and interesting commentary, but you read both with a healthy dose of scepticism, too. Recently, some of them realized they can make money, either by selling their souls to the mainstream media, or by buying blogads. My friend Henry Copeland, the main provider of blogads, is getting rich fast. He used to be my neighbor – he has moved now to a much bigger house.
Phase V begins in summer 2003. Professional demonstrators, anti-war and anti-globalization crowd already well versed in online organizing, are looking for a Democratic candidate to beat Bush. They look for one who has a blog. They find the only one is Howard Dean. They all flock there and start posting THEIR, quite extreme leftist views there. Dean, much more centrist than that, gets intrigued and starts reading the blog. Being an Internet novice (as well as a relative political novice) he allowed the bloggers to shape his agenda.
Campaign managers, just like all the candidates, are all political dinosaurs, born and raised in the previous political era. They barely know how to plug in a computer. Yet, they see how much money Dean is raking in online, and they decide to start blogs, too. That is the beginning of a new era in politics. Thousands, perhaps millions of Americans, for the first time in their lives, start using the Internet for more than just reading the weather report. Dean blog is soon matched in size and activity by Kerry blog, Edwards blog, Clark blog, even Gephard had a few people blogging on his website.
Most of the people logging in daily for their dose of blogging are comparative political novices. Many, to this day, do not know if Slate or The New Republic do or do not have print editions on newsstands. The same poster may provide a link to a NYT article and an Oliver Willis article. The difference between mainstream media and online media (the first generation old-style bloggers) is gone. The professional bloggers now ARE mainstream media.
The new bloggers, the Democratic primaries activists, have redefined blogging, as well as redefined the very definitions of the words “blog”, “blogger” and “blogging”. Blogging does not mean owning an online diary any more. Blogging means meeting the like-minded people online, exchanging information, and co-ordinating political action to be executed in the real world, offline.
Blogging inspired people to go canvassing in Iowa and New Hampshire. This is the way to exhange information about online polls, to energize each other to write thousands of e-mails to media outlets and elected politicians. Every time Adam Nagourney writes one of his un-professional slander-pieces in the NYT, his editors receive not dozens, but thousands of protest letters. Does that make them think? I bet the busiest server this year is the one that holds the e-mail inbox of Terry McAuliffe. I bet he has received at least tens of thousands of angry e-mails from Americans protesting the primary calendar which disenfrenchised more than half of the nation’s primary voters and resulted in less-than optimal nominee.
What’s next? It’s already happenning., supporting Fahrenheit 911, thousands of letters to elected officials protesting touch-screen technology, almost instantenious spread of information across the country about new petitions, online polls, important news and editorials, letter-writing efforts. The political landscape is quickly changing as people are taking the action in their own hands. I bet there will be millions of people coming out of their homes on election night after the winner is announced, either to cheer for Kerry victory, or to protest the repeat of election theft by Bush. If Bush gets elected, the power of the Internet will really come to the fore. Demonstrators, letter writers, and petition signers, counted in millions, will give the Congressmen courage and power to start the impeachment proceedings against the whole Bush mafia. A few months later, with the Bushies in jail (Abu Ghraib sounds like an appropriate place), how do you think that will affect the blogosphere? Only then will the people of America really realize the huge potential they have to shape the American politics with enormous consequences. Ane the elected officals will learn that, too.
What will that mean in the future? Elected officials will, on one hand, have lobbyists and other big donors pumping money for their re-election campaigns and TV ads. On the other hand, the people elect them, and now their constituents have the power to tell them, in no uncertain terms in thousands of daily e-mails, what they think. The politicians will soon realize that their constituencies are watching their every move, speech and vote, voicing their opinions, and organizing swiftly to mete out the consequences. Who is the politician going to listen to: the rich donors, or the people who elect them? No brainer. This is the beginning of people’s democracy in America.
Fast-forward another 10 years or so. Instead of 50%, the full 100% of Americans have online access. Several years of experience in deciding elections, as well as specific political issues, will energize the population. Instead of apathy due to dis-illusionment with the process, there will be millions of people aware that they CAN make a difference. Millions of people will log in every day and voice their opinions about a piece of legislation and woe to the Congressman who votes against the will of his constituents. So, what are the politicans for, if they are forced to listen to their constituents all the time. They will become more and more dispensible, as the system shifts from representative towards direct democracy. This is the first time in history when the technology allows teh entire population to participate in every decision, at every level of government.
So, one day in the future, Congress will be disbanded. Legislative business will happen online. Anybody can write and propose a piece of legislation by posting it online. Over a number of days, as lawyers change the wording to be more precise, various experts write their predictions about consequences, intended and unintended, of the law, millions of people chiming in with their opinions, the legislation will assume its final form and will be open for voting. After a few hours or day, when the online voting is closed, it either becomes the law or it does not. If there is such a thing as a President any more, that person’s job is quite ceremonial – to sign on the laws crafted, discussed and voted for by the people of America.
Do you think the USA will ever wage a war again? I bet not. Do you think that the rich guys will get all the neat tax-cuts and loopholes? I don’t think so. Do you think the Pentagon will keep getting all that money? Oh, no – that kind of money can be used much better for education, eradication of poverty, universal health care, environmental protection, building of infrastructure, creating jobs, aiding poor countries, investing in medical research, etc. The American people will pick and choose their own Supreme Court judges, as well as Ambassadors to foreigh countries – if you are ineterested in the position, just post your Resume online.
What will happen to political parties? GOP will die first. It is too dependent on top-down party discipline and manufacture of lies and Orwellian language by think-tanks. A party that depends on lies for its survival cannot survive open discourse. The Democratic party will, at first, be able to reform itself to accommodate the early changes in the political landscape. The party apparatchicks and career politicians will be pushed aside and replaced by grassroots leaders. Yet, in the end, with direct democratic involvement of the whole population, there will be no need for political parties and they will all dissolve. Online communities will form around a particular issue (often local) and dissolve once the issue is resolved. Organizing will be much more fluid and temporary.
Is this going to be good or bad? Right now, the liberals have an upper hand online. But it is to be expected that extremist zealots of all stripes and colors will be the most active participants in the daily politicking of the nation. The leftists and the rightists will, to some extent, neutralize each other. Still, most of Americans are rational intelligent people, and will quickly log on whenever their friends warn them that something fanatical is being proposed and the sheer numbers of regular sane folks will always be able to over-rule the minority extremists. Right now, extremists are most likely to expend vast amounts of energy in political activism, but in the future, it will take only a couple of minutes and a couple of clicks of the mouse for the regular folks to respond with rhyme and reason – it will not take too much time or energy away from peoples’ jobs, families or leisure.
What a future!

2 responses to “Smoke Signals, Blogs, and the Future of Politics

  1. I was with you all the way to “direct democracy”. I hope you are wrong about that, because it’s a nightmare waiting to happen. For instance — would you like to live in a US where the Official Religion is decided by popular vote? Even if absolutely everyone votes (completely level playing field, everyone has access) we atheists would still end up being frog-marched into church on Sundays. To achieve freedom of religion, non-Christians would have to rely on States’ Rights, and move out of majority Christian states.
    What I hope will happen instead is that, as net access nears 100% and more and more people are comfortable online, the population will become better informed and much more used to critical thinking. Then we have a chance that representative democracy will begin to function as it should, as we really do elect our best and brightest (instead of our wealthiest, sneakiest, etc).

  2. I suspect much of what you predict has or will come to pass. But I think you underestimate the willingness of people to be told what to think, what not to think, where to get their information and the potential attractiveness of manufactured information and outrage and the lack of time and energy so many Americans have to sort all this out.
    Many Americans work eight to ten hours a day at mind numbing, degrading and soul destroying jobs. It takes them an hour to fight their way to work and another hour of torture and terror to get home. Some much longer on both counts.
    They come home to a spouse who has his/her own struggle to kids that are media consumed and alienated. Then it is fix dinner, clean up, do laundry and it all comes to a grinding and exhausted halt with just an hour or so to spare before they can start it all over again.
    In that hour your not going to find people very receptive to deeply incisive and engaging investigations of what is going on or any great interest in grooming legislation. This is why Johnny Carson lasted so long. Why prime time TV is a endless string of pleasant but empty programming. People are to mentally and physically drained to engage. They want pleasant and comforting and reassuring. This is why reruns of Andy Griffith still work after all these years. Everyone knows the stories and plots. They are an old friend.
    When and if this majority does get some time and energy to dig a little they find vast flows of manufactured ‘grass roots’ outrage and opinion. It is pretty cheap to hire people to produce blogs and opinion pieces favorable to one side of an issue. It has long been popular for preachers and politicians to have followers flood editorial pages with submissions. Even better when the same power elite owns the newspaper. A small surge of a few letters can be represented as ‘the will of the people’.
    So what makes you thing the internet is any different. Many laid off factory workers would love a job manufacturing blogs friendly to their employer. Or posting supportive or angry comments to neutral or opposition blogs as the case may be. Already outlets like Worldnetdaily and Littlegreenfootballs are sounding boards for the right and they encourage their readers to go forth and spread their misinformation. Often it is only minutes after a hit piece is posted that it is being cut and pasted into a thousand forums. Where, in a parallel to the ‘evidence’ supporting going into Iraq, it becomes supporting evidence to itself, a touchstone of their argument and a factoid that will never die. These pieces come on the scene with fanfare, a parade and a brass band. The rebuttal, if there is one, is muttered under the breath in a crowded bar.
    As a well documented example look around the web at the numbers of diehards who still think Iraqi WMDs were in Iraq but were smuggled across the border into Syria at the last second.
    The amount of evidence that this is so; zero, nada , zilch. The evidence against it; pretty much the whole of objective reality. An open and shut case.
    But better than five years later, after being shot, stabbed and burnt to ashes, this indefatigable zombie horse still rises up and gallops across the dark corners of the internet. No doubt in my mind that centuries from now a revisionist historian will summon up this zombie again to support the notion that the GOP, neocons, and W in particular, weren’t the dupes they are so widely made out to be. And because it will be, by that time, seen as a new idea and ‘out of the box’ thinking it will sell. This horse will never die. And a certain number of tired people who are trying to fit a little intellectual stimulation into their harried lives will latch onto this and keep it alive because they lack the energy to dig deeper or see through the claims.
    In this way information channels, even one so wide as the internet can be sown with misinformation and doubt so that the average American can’t tell who to trust. This has been the way business has clouded the evidence for global warming, the harm done by cigarettes and all the other evidence they might find inconvenient if the simple raw truth was understood by the vast majority of the electorate.
    I like your vision of an educated and engaged citizenry hashing out the best evidence and proposing laws on their own independent of narrow interests and well heeled elite. It is a vision to work toward. but I’m old enough and experienced enough to know that no media is self-cleaning. The internet lacks a way of expunging false information. Every lie, self-serving slur and purposeful misapprehension of reality will live on forever on the net.
    People still cite ‘the Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ as if it was a genuine article even though it was long ago shown to be a forgery produced to serve a narrow political purpose. Some people still think that the Iraqi WMDs went to Syria. Or that global warming is a NWO, or more laughably a ZOG, plot to cripple the US economy. Or that Obama is a ‘stealth Muslim’.
    One of the first acronyms I learned dealing with computers is GIGO, Garbage In Garbage Out. It is pretty hard to create or maintain a well educated and well informed citizenry when the media well springs they drink from and use to orient themselves to reality are 80% crap. The internet is a toilet bowl lacking a flush mechanism. It started as a communication system between laboratories with learned and reality based people exchanging information. For better or worse it has been all downhill from there.