My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In The Big Disconnect, Micah Sifry provides a clear, concise, and important perspective on how the internet and related technologies have yet to transform the practice of politics in the Unite States. As the editor of techpresident and co-founder/curator of Personal Democracy Forum, he has closely tracked the role of the internet as both a technology and cultural movement through several presidential election cycles and complicated legislative battles in the past 10-15 years.
Sifry takes a stand as an optimist in the potential of the internet to change how we relate to government and participate in making society better, but it is clear that he is a deeply disappointed optimist. His main gripes stem from how the ability to connect people and scale actions online have largely led to disempowerment of average citizens by strengthening broadcast forms of communication and organization rather than nonhierarchial, peer-to-peer, and other more participatory forms. The two expressions of this he puts under the headings “Big Data” and “Big Email.”
In Big Data, Sifry discusses how political campaigns have taken the model of polling and audience research to a point where voters are entirely abstract concepts, represented by numbers slotted into certain buckets that either help or hurt the campaign. Using this data, contemporary campaigns can pinpoint very precise demographics for television and internet advertising, and who needs more personal contact with staffers and volunteers via door-knocks and phone calls. This kind of communication and management pervades all levels of political campaigns as well—it determines what staff and volunteers should do and where they should go. Messaging is fine tuned from the top in a way that undermines local staffers ability to develop meaningful relationships with constituents. While we elevate Obama’s 2008 campaign for its community organizing spirit and spontaneous and ad-hoc manners of support and activation, Sifry argues that the real value created according to campaign managers during that cycle was a more effective voter list and the data science tools used to mine it and set strategy from the top. This is what is driving subsequent campaigns and disconnecting politicians from voters rather than involving them in the campaigns in any real way. Big donors are the only ones left with that kind of personal touch and influence.
In Big Email, Sifry looks at how this data-driven approach to political organizing of campaigns and advocacy organizations like MoveOn is based on clever and massive use of email. Email replaces the postcards of old in alerting supporters and organizational members of key issues, actions, and calls for donation. MoveOn certainly transformed how email is used for political advocacy but Sifry believes it hasn’t changed how politics is practiced. A few staffers at the head of such organizations control the email list and send all the emails. They may poll their members for input on issues and direction either explicitly via survey or implicitly via tracking email opens and clicks. However, their experiments in greater participation in decisions and activities have been one-offs, while the convenient one-to-many behemoth that is email has remained the main mode of interaction. Despite the fact that email efficacy is dwindling, as response rates go down, the groups that are large enough—in the hundreds of thousands and millions of subscriber-members—can maintain themselves with the tiny fraction that respond.
Sifry doesn’t see this as sustainable or desirable. In the latter part of the book, he explores a couple of projects he hopes will change the nature of internet-empowered political participation. He offers a detailed and insightful case study of New Haven-based SeeClickFix, a company that has created an easy way for citizens to participate in everyday governance of their city—reporting potholes, stray dogs, and other such problems in a way that makes it easily usable by appropriate government departments and trackable. Moreover at the scale SeeClickFix has been adopted in its native city, it creates a backchannel for citizens to discuss the performance of the government and see the gestalt of what problems plague the city. Sifry also introduces Loomio, a consensus-building tool, that is trying to support and scale the kinds of decision-making that the Occupy Movement employed and popularized—giving participants a more equal opportunity to be involved in political processes.
The Big Disconnect ends on a bit of a curveball. Sifry reflects on the state of transparency and whistleblowing in light of the Snowden NSA revelations. He tries to connect this to the larger question of how internet’s culture of openness may or may not be changing political practice through taking and supporting such actions. While this additional meditation connects well to Sifry’s other work, particularly his previous book on Wikileaks, it feels disjointed from the throughlines of the rest of the book and deserves a longer treatment elsewhere or a shorter tighter integration into the book’s main argument.
You should read this book if you study or build civic technology like I do. I must caveat that I know Micah personally and thus am more likely to read and review it as a result. I am also more familiar with the backstory of his thinking, which may bias my opinion of the book. Still, it’s a good, quick read, and should be considered if you are thinking about what it might take to really transform the practice of politics in the information/internet/network/digital age.