Why Hasn’t ‘Big Data’ Saved Democracy?

Review by Marshall Ganz : “In his new book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet), Personal Democracy Forum founder Micah Sifry asks a very good question: what ever happened to the prediction that a radically cheapened cost of connection would displace traditional political gatekeepers, not only radically opening up politics, but also producing a real shift in the balance of power?
Sifry, an insider, offers an honest assessment of the effects of the new technology on politics, calling out his colleagues courageously in ways that can be useful to outsiders as well. Defining his terms at the outset, he provides us with a helpful roadmap: the “Internet” is “the set of protocols and practices that allow computing and communications devices to connect to each other and share information and the set of cultural behaviors and expectations that this underlying foundation makes possible.” Politics is “everything we can and must do together;” democracy is “a system in which all people participate fully and equally in decisions that affect their lives.”

Sifry’s case is persuasive, but incomplete. Although he sees the problem, he locates its sources, and solutions, only in the technology. But what about the people who chose to use technology in the ways they do? Is the agency in the tools, or in those who use them?
One glaringly important question noted but left unaddressed is why new technology seems to have had a far greater impact on progressive politics than on conservative ones. Why is the NRA, for example, indifferent to the new technology, while anti-gun violence groups are almost entirely dependent on it? Are progressives more technologically minded? Do their causes and candidates lend themselves more to digital mobilization? Are they more creative?
That new technology enables the emergence of a professional cadre whose wealth and power depend on control of that technology is nothing new. It happened with television, direct mail fund raising, and early forms of targeting, too. But why, unlike television and direct mail, has the Internet effect has been far more evident on the Left than on the Right?
The fact that Sifry fails to explore this question may be rooted not only in a kind of “technological determinism” but also in a kind of commitment to direct democracy—a belief that “true” democracy requires the ongoing and unmediated expression of a preference by every individual affected by any decision.” This makes it hard for him to recognize good organizing, which is based on the role of leadership in mobilizing, developing and expressing shared preferences through organization, party, or chosen representative….”