When Technology and Politics Collide

 
 
By Chris Nolan  |  Posted 2004-07-08
 
 
 
The point where politics and technology intersect isnt very neat or orderly. Its distinguishing characteristics include miscommunication, self-important, acronym-wielding know-it-alls, well-paid lawyers and no small number of crusaders on a mission to rescue the other side from itself. The recording industrys reaction toward peer-to-peer music sharing is a pretty typical example of what happens.

Until Howard Deans presidential campaign, the various factions kept pretty much below the political radar. In Washington, D.C., tech was Microsoft. Everyone else was little more than a broken-down dot-com experiment, an elaborate but expensive joke—like Napster.

Joe Trippi, Deans campaign manager—whose new book, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, The Internet and the Overthrow of Everything," is out this week—changed all that. And no ones laughing now. But that doesnt mean a new culture of understanding has been fostered, either.

To promote his book, Trippi has taken to the swagger that often accompanies tech punditry—like a pig to mud. The 236-page account of his tenure at the head of a truly exciting presidential campaign is one mans attempt to bridge the intersection of tech and politics. Its strongest appeal, however, will be for folks who arent all that politically savvy. Because as the book makes clear only in passing—and then only to the politically experienced reader—Dean for America made lots of mistakes.

Thats not because anyone was deliberately doltish. Trippi clearly loved the idea of what he built and he—rightly—can lay claim to understanding the Nets potential for political organizing.

And hes justly proud of the young Dean campaign folks such as Nicco Mele, Mat Gross and Zac Rosen, who are continuing to find ways to organize voters and causes on the Web. With these guys—and they are mostly men, Im afraid—Trippi really has bred a new generation of political activism.

The section of the book where he explains, in fast-paced and rich detail, how a presidential campaign works, what its supposed to do and how its various players interact and perform is worth reading for anyone who wants to really understand the competitive and fluid nature of presidential politics. Its a marvelous account that rings true in its genuine excitement and delight with politics.

But for the gimlet-eyed politicos, theres much that goes unsaid. Although he sings the praises of Webloggers, MeetUp and Net-based communication and fundraising, Trippi never talks about the millions of dollars the Dean campaign spent on TV advertising.

And while he sings the praises of representative democracy made possible by the Net, Trippi doesnt come to grips with the biggest problem it presents: getting all of those people and all of those ideas pointed in the same direction at the same time for the same purpose.

Trippi concedes that Dean had inexperienced field workers in Iowa, but he doesnt really admit that getting those folks in shape and keeping them there was his job. Hes happy to confess to some mistakes, but a lot of what he says—notably that he was leaving the Dean campaign even before the candidate told him he was being replaced—smacks of plain old political positioning.

So, youre left with a sneaking suspicion: Maybe Trippis simply ambivalent. After all, as an established Washington pol, he helped start "the overthrow of everything." He talks the talk—"You have the Power" —but in the end, Trippi cant seem to pull himself entirely away from politics-as-usual. Tech folks, even the ones who arent hard-core Liberal Democrats, hate that world. They consider it wasteful, almost sinful. Its just so illogical.

Pols, on the other hand, love ambivalence and illogic. And for all his considerable tech and political savvy, Trippi doesnt seem to grasp the importance of the divide between the two cultures. And its not clear that hes really interested in clearing up any misunderstandings. Thats why the books closing chapters come off as little more than blatant positioning for a consulting career teaching corporate America the value of "The Cluetrain Manifesto."

All of which is neither criminal nor inexcusable. With his love of technology and American politics, Trippi is uniquely positioned to talk to pols and geeks. The problem is that, like many smart and busy consultants, he needs to heed his own advice: Stop selling, start listening. In a networked world—particularly in one youve helped connect—its the safer strategy.

eWEEK.com Technology and Politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.

Check out eWEEK.coms Government Center at http://government.eweek.com for the latest news and analysis of technologys impact on government practices and regulations, as well as coverage of the government IT sector.

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