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EmTech Preview: The Politics of the Outsider

Can the technology tools that defeated proposed legislation like SOPA/PIPA bring about a government that works?
August 29, 2012

The technology of politics is bipolar. One part is insanely boring (tinged with a bit of terror); the other part is the only interesting politics in town.

The boring part is the normal part: the politics of Democrats and Republicans, and the ordinary stuff of campaigns. The last presidential election cycle was a generation ago in Internet time. Its technology was e-mail and the Web. This generation is bigger and different. The key now is social. But like all social media, political social media means giving up all privacy. Fans of Obama and Romney are thus discovering an interesting cost built into the many political apps floating about the Net: give us all your data for the sake of some cool graphics and perpetual Electoral College counts.

This part is not boring because the technology is bad. It’s boring because even the best technology could achieve so little. We’re in the age of stalemated government. So what’s the most either side could deliver? Of course, we want our side to win—but only so the extremes of the other side lose. “Change” is not a word anyone in normal politics utters seriously anymore. And given the endless super-PAC ads in every competitive state, “change” (as in the channel) isn’t even an option for those who want it—that is, most of us.

The interesting politics is different. Falling outside the normal dynamic of Republicans and Democrats, it is better described as what Nigel Cameron, the founder and president of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies in Washington, calls “exopolitics.” That’s not the politics of extraterrestrials (though that is the first hit on Google) but, rather, the politics of outsiders. And as Cameron rightly notes, it is here that all the action has been for the past two years, from the Tea Party to the Occupy movement to what he calls the Internet Party, which defeated SOPA and PIPA: activities that were born among people who live outside Beltway politics but that use technology to generate and coördinate enormous pressure inside Beltway politics. Here the technology isn’t necessarily fancy. But the movements are more genuine and hence more powerful. There isn’t a single Hollywood executive who believed that online petitions and Facebook groups would be enough to rally millions to stop SOPA and PIPA. But they were, because they tapped into something genuine and real—i.e., nothing to do with ordinary politics.

The real challenge for America is whether it can leverage exopolitics to fix ordinary politics, too. Can the tools that brought down SOPA/PIPA bring about a government that would work?

That is not a challenge easily met. For if the core flaw of the current government is polarization (driven, in my view, by the addiction to a corrupt system for funding campaigns), that polarization is not limited to life inside the Beltway. The business model of hate isn’t the domain of cable television alone. Indeed, it is often the model adopted by some of the most significant exopoliticians. And that is a flaw—a constitutional flaw—because reforming the inside will require a cross-partisan movement, as every successful transformation has. Not a kumbaya moment, in which we all agree about any matter of any importance, but a time when we can put aside our differences long enough to reform the corrupt system that blocks us all.

I’m not sure that’s possible. There are not a gaggle of good signs. But if it is, it is technology that will allow it to happen. Exopolitical and free.

At Technology Review’s annual EmTech MIT conference this October, Lawrence Lessig will discuss the influence of technology on the 2012 campaign.

Register today for EmTech 2012, October 24–25, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Lawrence Lessig is the director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University and a professor of law at Harvard Law School.

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