Note: I’ll be spending the next few months writing a book about the new generation of internet-mediated political groups. This post will be my first “book blog,” in which I try out new ideas that I’m planning to include in the manuscript. Book blog pieces will be less tied to the politics-of-the-day, and will be a bit lengthier. They also give readers a window into the broader project as it develops. As such, feedback is particularly appreciated.
I’ve written once before on this blog about Moore’s Law, the surprisingly accurate 1965 prediction that computing capacity would double every 18-to-24 months. What I’ve noticed recently is that, while Moore’s Law is common knowledge within the tech community (you see it mentioned in almost every issue of Wired magazine). it’s much less well-understood in the political and social science communities. Those crowds are aware, of course, that their computer from 4 years ago now seems ancient, slow, and lacking in storage space, but it appears to me that the deep political implications of Moore’s Law (which I’ll be calling “Moore’s Law Effects” in the book, unless someone wants to earn their way into the acknowledgments by suggesting a catchier name!) have largely gone overlooked.
I checked through the indexes of several major internet-and-politics books and, sure enough, there’s no mention of Moore’s Law. Bruce Bimber’s Information and American Democracy, Matt Hindman’s Myth of Digital Democracy, Bimber and Davis’s Campaigning Online, Phil Howard’s New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen. I’ll check a few others on Monday when I’m in the office, but I’m pretty sure there’s no mention of it in Kerbel’s Netroots, Davis’s Typing Politics, Chadwick’s Internet Politics or either of Cass Sunstein’s books either. …These are good books I’m talking about here — award-winners that rightly deserve the praise they’ve received. I’d be thrilled if my book ends up half as good as many of them. Yet Moore’s Law doesn’t earn a single mention, nor does it show up in most of the influential articles in the field. It just hasn’t entered the discourse.
The one exception I’ve found is a Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy working paper by Zysman and Newman that eventually became the lead article of a co-edited volume, How Revolutionary is the Revolution. It’s a political economy treatment of the digital era as a whole and seems pretty promising (amazon should have it to me by mid-week). I really enjoyed the following quote in the working paper: “…Information technology represents not one, but a sequence of revolutions. It is a continued and enduring unfolding of digital innovation, sustaining a long process of industrial adaptation and transition” (pg 8). That “sequence of revolutions” line is what I think we’ve largely been missing when talking about digital politics.
Take Bimber and Davis’s Campaigning Online for instance. They conducted first-rate research in the 2000 election cycle on citizen access to campaign websites. The central finding was that, by and large, the only citizens who visit such sites are existing partisans. The sites are useful for message reinforcement, rather than message persuasion. As a result, Bimber and Davis conclude that the impact of the internet on political campaigns is pretty slight. Web sites simply don’t reach undecided voters, so they aren’t of much use in determining election results.
Their book was released in September, 2003. By that time, the Dean campaign had already attracted overwhelming media attention, leading observers everywhere to rethink the importance of mobilization. It was an unlucky sequence of events, having a definitive work on the internet and American political campaigns come out just as the Dean campaign was overthrowing everything we thought we knew about the internet and American political campaigns.
Here’s the thing, though: Bimber and Davis weren’t wrong. The Internet of 2000 wasn’t particularly useful for mobilization. John McCain raised a bit of online money around his primary, but online bill paying was still in its untrustworthy infancy, and the social web was still restricted to the lead adopter crowd who had heard of Pyra Labs. The suite of technologies making up the Internet changed between 2000 and 2003. It changed again between 2003/04 and 2006. [Pop quiz: what was John Kerry's YouTube strategy in the '04 election? (A: YouTube didn't exist until 2005.)] And it continues to do so. The internet of 2010 is actually a different medium than the internet of 2000. The devices we use to access it have changed. Cheap processing power and increasing bandwidth speeds let us access video and geolocational aspects that were prohibitively expensive and technically infeasible or impossible in 2000. We’ve traveled through five iterations of Moore’s Law, and that means that the devices and architecture of the earlier internet have been overwritten (html to xml being just the tip of the iceberg).
The internet is a sequence of communications revolutions, and that is entirely because of Moore’s Law. It makes the internet different than previous revolutions in information technology. Consider: as the television or radio moved from 10% household penetration to 80% household penetration, how much did the technology itself change? I’d argue it wasn’t much at all. A television set from 1930 is fundamentally pretty similar to a television set from 1960. The major changes of the 20th century can be counted on one hand – color television, remote control, vcr, maybe a couple others. It is frequently noted that the internet’s penetration rate has been faster than these previous communications technologies. But what rarely gets mentioned is that the internet itself has changed pretty dramatically in the process. (Need further convincing? Watch the 1995 movie Hackers and listen for the reference to one character’s blazing-fast 28.8 kb modem. LolCats and YouTube aren’t so fun at 28.8kbs speed. Or read James Gleick’s 1995 New York Times Magazine essay “This is Sex?” in which he explains that the internet is a terrible place for pornography because search is so complicated and the pictures upload so slowly!)
Transitioning into the political sphere, it bears noting that every election since 1996 has been labeled “the internet election” or “the year of the internet” by a set of researchers and public intellectuals. The paradox, of sorts, is that they have been right every time. 2012 will be different than 2010, 2008, 2006 2004, 2002, and 2000. It will be a different medium, in which users engage in modified activities, and this will create new opportunities for campaigns and organizations to engage in acts of mobilization and persuasion. The cutting-edge techniques of last year become mundane, encouraging organizations to maintain a culture of ostentatious innovation.
Now I’m not suggesting that the internet exists in some state of quantum uncertainty, where we can predict basically nothing in the future based on the past or present. In fact, as Rasmus Kleis Nielsen points out, the tools that will have the biggest impact on campaign organizations will be the ones that have become mundane, reaching near-universal penetration rates and no longer subject to a steep learning curve. (As we recently learned with Google Wave, e-mail is much a settled routine at this point.) Indeed, one of the lessons here may be that we are on much safer grounds when studying individual internet-mediated tools that have reached near-universal adoption (within a given community). The techno-centric studies of facebook, youtube, and twitter that are a recent fad of sorts are on much weaker ground, because those tools are themselves still pretty dramatically changing thanks to increasing adoption and the ongoing influence of Moore’s Law.
The other thing it tells us, however, is that we should focus attention on the new organizations and institutions being built out of the digital economy. The continual waves of innovation made possible by Moore’s Law mean that existing industries do not solely need to adapt to a single change in communications media. Rather, an existing market leader who hires the best consultants, purchases a fleet of state-of-the-art hardware and software, and spends two years developing their plan for the digital environment will suddenly find that the internet has changed in a few important ways, their hardware and software is outdated, and the plan those consultants developed has collected more dust than accolades.
Communications revolutions (or changes in “information regime,” if you prefer to avoid talk of revolution) create a classically disruptive moment for various sectors of the economy. Rather than advantaging existing market leaders, whose R&D departments let them lead the way in sustaining innovations, disruptive moments tend to lead to the formation of new markets that undercut the old ones (this is classic Christensen). Startups do better under those conditions, because they have low operating costs and no ingrained organizational routines. And while individual areas of the internet eventually give way to monopolies (particularly if we lose net neutrality and let major firms capture markets and tamp down on competition), those monopolies aren’t as secure as they were in previous eras. Just ask AOL, Compuserv, Microsoft or Yahoo. The wrong policy decisions can still basically kill the internet, but Moore’s Law creates a scenario in which ongoing disruptions continually advantage new entrants, experimenting with new things.
That, frankly, is why my focus has been on the rise of these internet-mediated advocacy groups. It’s because they represent a disruption of the advocacy group system. They embrace ostentatious innovation, keep their staffing and overhead small, and otherwise continue to act like a start-up (and are often founded by technologists with a background in startup culture). They fiddle with membership and fundraising regimes, and develop new tactical repertoires unlike anything found among the older advocacy groups. And Moore’s Law suggests that the internet is still in a state of becoming, that the emergence of these new institutions is much more substantial than the mass behavioral patterns found among citizens in the internet of 2010, which may very well be altered as Moore’s Law allows the internet to become something else in 2012.
Moore’s Law, disruption theory, and new developments at the organizational level. That’s what I think has been missing from our understanding of the internet and American politics thus far.
What do you think?