by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume V, No. XVI
For the Week of April 23, 2001

This Week's Clue: New Horizons in Political Organization

This Week's Clue: New Horizons in Political Organization

SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)

The Three Laws of Robotics

The Future of Always-On

Business Lessons from the Big Collision

Clued-in, Clueless

Today's political parties are top-down affairs. Money buys the megaphones with which they shout one another down. The TV shows that generate the most heat (and the least light) draw the best ratings. It's no surprise, then, that democracy is threatened, not so much by the money but by what the money is buying.

A close friend preparing to attend his first political fundraiser got me thinking about how political parties might be organized in the Internet age.

The two key problems are flames and getting the point across. The answers are moderation and scale.

All political volunteers should be organized to act as discussion moderators, starting on the issue that brought them to the organization. Every issue needs multiple moderators, not only to handle the load, but to provide a check on one another. Moderators don't speak for the campaign. Instead they facilitate. They solicit feedback, they answer it, they organize it, and they calculate it.

We quickly get to the question of scale, where the campaign data warehouse becomes a key element. You're trying to build networks of "suppliers" (moderators and other campaign volunteers), of "customers" (voters) and of "products" (issues), one that will respond to your strategies (campaigns). 

It's vital that everyone be listened to respectfully. It's also important that you know where your flamers are, the degree of opposition on specific subjects, and the intensity of support. It's also vital that you communicate clearly through the Internet, using the database, not only when you agree with correspondents but also when you disagree. 

Let's say Max Cleland (a Georgia Senator coming up for re-election) has to cast a vote on an important bill. He should feel free to cast that vote either way, but he should be informed by the database of what it might cost him. And he should be able to respond via e-mail directly to all correspondents, both those who agreed and disagreed, when he casts that vote, soliciting their continued interest.

Notice here that I'm recommending e-mail and computer systems be owned by campaigns, and by parties themselves. Investments by both will be necessary. But it's the skill of the human interaction with these systems that will make the difference between victory and defeat, not the money involved. 

This again gets back to the question of moderation. How do you tell someone firmly that you aren't with him or her while retaining goodwill? The database should be able to parse multiple responses, all approved by Sen. Cleland beforehand, and delivered to these different audiences. The moderators (campaign workers) on those issues should be ready for a rough ride from opponents, but must (at all costs) maintain a welcoming attitude. 

Democracy is about compromise. Most issues demand compromise. Compromise is anathema to advocates. The best politicians know how to take all this into account. Some will use the information in their databases to take the easy way out on issues. I think these politicians won't be successful. It will be those who can explain their opposition to voters, while retaining the general goodwill of those people, who will win the day.

This is a completely different form of political organization, and political discussion, than exists in today's mass-market politics. There it's heat, not light, that rules. One ad, one line of thought, one e-mail - life ain't like that. Life is more complex. Politics, and political systems, must come to reflect that complexity. Computers and networks are all about dealing with complexity, and the ubiquity of those networks will bring those advantages forward. 

It's a big job. But the tools are now in our hands - in the form of the Internet, discussion lists, and databases - to begin that job. The U.S. Constitution was forged at a time when the number of people discussing issues was small, when letters were the main medium of discourse and pamphlets the main form of advertising. An opportunity exists to bring some of those days back, but in a scaled format where everyone can participate. 

Someone needs to start the job of taking democracy back from the TV. It will take technology, sure, but it will also take money, people, and a willingness to experiment. 

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

Boardwatch  has launched its newsletter under my byline called ISP Executive. Check it out. I'm also doing a series of features this month for Advertising Age on new media technologies, for publication in June. If you want to be interviewed for it give me a call.

Join the A-Clue.Com discussion at I-Strategy , our shared e-mail digest produced with Audettemedia. You can also read me daily at ClickZ , monthly at B2B, and Boardwatch, and once every two weeks at Internet Content. (More deals are being negotiated as this is written, so call me at 404-373-7634 to get in on it.) Remember that it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...

Takes on the News

The Three Laws of Robotics

We all remember these from Isaac Asimov . A robot's first priority is to try and keep humans from harm. It must obey orders that don't conflict with the First Law. It may protect itself only when that doesn't conflict with the First or Second Law. (Yes, I know the movie was crap   - don't change the subject.)

The true form of these laws should be found in the Robot Exclusion Standard . Unfortunately the implementation of that standard by sites is not usually aimed at preventing harm to people, but to protecting "secrets" that may in fact be public information.

The folks at eBay want the RES to become a law controlled by the private property interests of sites. But if such a law is to emerge those interests must first be balanced against other rights, including the public's right to know and the need to maintain competition. Before West Coast code becomes East Coast code, in other words, it must conform to East Coast norms and to the needs of all the people, not just the big property owners.

The Future of Always-On

Questions of law enforced by software become vital when we consider that the future of the Net will be heavily influenced by the rise of "personal robots."

The May issue of "Scientific American" carries a feature under the byline of (among others) Tim Berners Lee  called "The Semantic Web," describing this evolution. The key is a Resource Description Framework (RDF), a set of XML tags defining how pages relate to one another. All this is designed to make the Web usable by computer programs acting as agents of their human masters. This is vital if you want to, say, get your mom the right treatment for a new and dangerous health condition.

While the authors say that digital signatures and other technologies can create "proofs" that verify the credibility of people and information, such things can always be faked. If they can't be anonymity becomes impossible and absolute control probable. It's the old choice between trusting technology (and the people behind it) or trusting only yourself (and your limited resources).

As the Web becomes more automatic in our lives, in other words, control mechanisms, which are in turn controlled by the free consent of people, become even more necessary.

Business Lessons from the Big Collision

Nothing is set in stone. All our assumptions should be subject to change. No Clue lasts forever.

These are just some of the Internet Commerce lessons that can be gleaned from word that scientists have a new theory to challenge the "Big Bang" as the origin of the universe. The "Big Collision" holds that our three-dimensional universe was created in a collision with another universe, part of an even higher (and more complex) multi-dimensional construct.

If that goes over your head, consider this. What you've assumed to be true may not be. Dinosaurs may well have been birds. Always question your assumptions, not just the results those assumptions give you. What's true for the universe is also true in business, you only learn when you change your mind.

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is Marketperform.com, a site designed to analyze just how well stock analysts are doing in making their clients money . Of course stock analysts are dying off so it's hard to see how many $15/month subscriptions they'll get. But the idea is clued-in. (This proves that having a Clue doesn't guarantee success.)

Clueless is Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago , who claims personalization and filters threaten democracy. The danger (from not listening) is real, but it comes from people, not software. Every time I get a note from someone who dismisses everything I do because I dare spout a political opinion he (or she) disagrees with I see the danger. But that's a problem with wetware (brains), not silicon.

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