Politics 2.0 and the “Town Hall” Machine

In speaking with a friend last Sunday I found out about a tool that Rob Ford, a front runner in Toronto’s mayoral race, is using in his campaign. It’s an automatic calling device that dials 20,000 homes at the same time. If you pick up the phone, Ford invites you to participate in a telephone “Town Hall meeting” with him (if you want to participate in the town meeting, press # 1). After a short introduction he begins to address specific issues (if you agree with gun ownership rights, press # 1, if you disagree, press # 2) and campaign proposals (if you agree with reducing the number of city councilors press # 3, if you disagree press # 4). The conversation lasts about an hour and includes some questions from citizens.   Just before the conversation ends he asks if you would like to display a sign on your lawn (if you agree to ….).

After the conversation finishes – I’ve been told it has a participation rate of 10% – Ford links the phone number with an address and name and has collected detailed statistical information on roughly 2,000 individuals. He can personalize his campaign by citizen, or target specific individuals (pro-gun ownership rights, send brochure to address X; reduced city council, send brochure to address Y; lawn signs, addresses X, Y and Z). He also has statistical analysis of how issues are being perceived by the population, and, within one hour, has asked 2,000 people if they would like to get involved in his campaign.

Impressive, scary and only the tip of the iceberg. E-politics brings immense possibility but also calls into question the nature of “political” participation. Unlike e-government – which, to generalize, focuses on efficiency in public administration, – e-politics involves a completely different set of issues. How do we understand democratic representation when “referendum” is the name of an Iphone app?

In my opinion, e-politics affects three key issues. The first is the nature of political representation (how does representative democracy justify its existence in a world where technology allows for the possibility of direct democracy). The second issue is about the legal implications of using personal information and opinions, gathered from data mining, for statistical purposes that could have policy implications.

The last issue is a little blurrier and it mirrors Baudrillard’s rhetorical argument about the end of history presented in The Illusion of the End. For him, history is a conscious reflection on our past. The current speed at which events are broadcast and the logic of consumption behind media and information deprives us of the time required to have that organized reflection. If we don’t “suspend” time, history, as a reflection on our past, cannot occur. My main concern is that if we don’t “suspend” time and give ourselves time to think, how are we going to work on what is ultimately the goal of public policy, an organized reflection on our collective future? These issues, and certainly many others, will arise with the increasing use of this political technology, and become key debates in the coming years.

How is the political game going to change with the proliferation of technologies like the one used by Ford? I don’t know. Personalized campaigns!!! Detailed information per citizen!!! Real time political participation!!! But something is going to remain constant. Information is power and power is always a double-edged sword.  May the force be with us all.

– By Jose Javier Iguiniz

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