The last few weeks since the US election have seen an explosion in articles and blog posts about how Obama’s tech team pulled out the stops in their race against the Republicans. It’s been an exciting time to learn about the new techniques dreamed up, and the old ones put to the test.
For those of us who develop non-partisan services to help people report broken street lights or make Freedom of Information Requests, such stories certainly seem unimaginably glamorous: I don’t think any of my colleagues will ever get hugged by Barack Obama!
But it has also been an interesting time to reflect on the difference between choosing to use tech skills to win a particular fight, versus trying to improve the workings of the democratic system, or helping people to self-organise and take some control of their own lives.
At one level there’s no competition at all: the partisan tech community is big and economically healthy. It raises vast amounts of cold hard cash through credit card payments (taking a cut to pay its own bills) and produces squillons of donors, signers, visitors, tweeters, video watchers and so on. The non-partisan tech community is much smaller – has fewer sustainable organisations, and with the exception of some big online petitions, doesn’t get the same sort of traffic spikes. By these metrics there’s absolutely no doubt which use of tech is the most important: the partisan kind where technology is used to beat your opponent, whether they are a political candidate, a policy, company, or an idea.
But I am still filled with an excitement about the prospects for non-partisan technologies that I can’t muster for even the coolest uses of randomized control trial-driven political messaging. The reason why all comes down to the fact that major partisan digital campaigns change the world, but they don’t do it in the way that services like eBay, TripAdvisor and Match.com do.
What all these sites have in common – helping people sell stuff they own, find a hotel, or a life partner – is that they represent a positive change in the lives of millions of people that is not directly opposed by a counter-shift. These sites have improved the experience of selling stuff, finding hotels and finding life partners in ways that don’t attract equal and opposite forces, driven by similar technologies.
This is different from the case of campaigning tech: here a huge mailing list is pitted against another even huger mailing list. Epic fund-raising tools are pitched against even more epic fund-raising tools. Orca vs Narwhal. Right now, in US politics, the Democrats have a clear edge over the technology lined up against them, and I totally understand why that must feel amazing to be part of. But everything you build in this field always attracts people trying to undo your work by directly opposing it. There is something inate to the nature of partisanship which means that one camp using a technology will ultimately attract counter-usage by an opposing camp.
This automatic-counterweighting doesn’t happen with services that shift whole sectors – like TripAdvisor did. In the hotel-finding world, the customer has been made stronger, the hotel sector weaker, and the net simply doesn’t provide tools to the hotel industry to counter what TripAdvisor does.
It is this model – the model of scaleable, popular technology platforms that help people to live their lives better – that I aspire to bring to the civic, democratic and community spheres in my work. Neither I nor mySociety has yet come up with anything even remotely on the scale of a TripAdvisor, but there remains the tantalising possibility that someone might manage it – a huge, scaleable app of meaningful positive impact on democratic, civic or governance systems*. Our sites are probably about as big as it gets so far, and that’s not big enough by far.
If someone does manage to find and deliver the dream – some sort of hugely scalable, impactful non-partisan civic or democratic app & website, it is unlikely that the net will instantly throw up an equal and opposite counterweight. There is a real possibility that the whole experience of being a citizen, the whole task of trying to govern a country well will be given a shot in the arm that won’t go away as soon as someone figures out how to oppose it. I’m not talking Utopia, I’m just talking better. But what motivates me is that it could be better for good, not just until the Other Team matches your skills.
And that – in rather more words than I meant to use – is why I am still excited by non-partisan tech, and why I really hope that some of the awesome technologists who worked in the political campaigns of 2012 get involved in our scene.
I’m on Twitter if anyone wants to talk about this more.
* You can certainly make an argument that Twitter and Facebook sort-of represent non-partisan democracy platforms that have scaled. But some people disagree vehemently, and I don’t want to get into that here.