Internet Politics

by Kurt Cagle

I'm going to break something of a cardinal rule for me (and doubtless will rue it later) ... I've tried in general to keep this particular blog as apolitical as possible. I think that this is important - as I've become older I've realized that it is difficult to persuade people about the rightness or wrongness of their political beliefs, and that, especially in such a technical venue as this it is unwise to try.

However, I recently read a fascinating article, The Revolution Is Not Being Televised, by Stirling Newberry, a columnist and political consultant who has been fairly heavily enmeshed in the political uses of the Internet. Given the source (Truthout), I do not doubt that there are those readers who will sigh or even turn apoplectic at the political messages, but I wanted to comment not on the politics so much as at the message he himself presents.


2006-08-04 19:48:38
Here in Canada the Blues are the Conservatives, Reds are Liberal. This being the case, the best way to maintain a balanced political outlook is to cross the 49th several times a year. Even the most staunch Liberals and Conservatives will come through a sublimly neutral brown!

Life in Victoria, where the Liberals are the conservatives and the NDP are the liberals, should only increase political neutralization. From what I can tell, this confusion has to do with our flag only having red and white, instead of red, white and blue, but enough lessons for one post!

PS. Kudos on your progress with the celcius scale! And thank you for the informative XForms articles, keep them coming!

2006-08-05 05:54:22
Or begin to reform the evangelical base. In some places, the liberals who have stayed away from their places of worship to avoid the politics of the church are returning to provide a different voice and a fresh perspective over the legalists who use literalism to trump common decency.

The signs of change are always weak signals from the edges of the network. Have faith and patience and a fool's love of right over might and the long tail. And no fear. At the worst of times a good joke is more powerful than a shrill challenge.

2006-08-05 05:56:16
Oops. Didn't mean to post anonymously. I abhor that. It's early in the morning in 'bama and my eyes haven't caught up yet.
Michael Bolger
2006-08-05 07:13:02
Thanks Kurt, encouragement in these dark(politically hideous) times.
"new politics... integrity and connection and coherence of community"
-The Revolution Is Not Being Televised
Cool water in this desert.
Kurt Cagle
2006-08-05 11:36:42
There's a corrolary on the religious front - one of the interesting facets of the religious right is the fact that it properly exists as a fairly limited number of organizations, mostly based out of the Southeast US (with a few outposts in the Western mountain states). This has long been a group that has been politically active, and seems to kick up a particular type of charismatic religious leader every so often that take well to television.

However, one of the things I've found quite fascinating has been the degree to which other churches that have traditionally represented a less parochial viewpoint have become a major factor in the opposition to the Iraq war and to many of the more extreme social policies that seem to be emerging as a direct consequence of this. Most of this organization is again taking place not through the media of television and national newspapers but through the electronic ether of the Internet.

I think that what you're seeing here is a form of long tail dynamics that the Internet has been noted for previously. The religious movement on the right is extraordinarily hierarchical in its structure, with the interpretation of belief largely coming down from on high through the filtered bureaucracies of the religion in question. It is, to borrow a singularly appropriate (albeit mixed) metaphor, a cathedral. The Roman Catholic Church is perhaps a good emblem of this, though this isn't an exclusively Catholic phenomenon (and certain sectors of Catholicism definitely fall outside of this).

The religious movement on the left is distributed, locally autonomous, placing more emphasis on individual interpretation and more likely to be cellular in nature ... the corresponding bazarre. I think the most emblematic movement here is the Unitarian Universalists.

The Religious left has typically suffered politically because of its very nature - organizing beyond a fairly minimal level (usually limited by geography) was very difficult, because any given "church" might have a third the size of the corresponding church on the right and the much broader spectrum of beliefs involved meant that it was not logistically viable to organize.

In other words, if you think of the set of all religions by population, you get a fairly typical long tail distribution in which in the aggregate the "left" and the "right" are roughly equal in size, but the "right" has tended to be concentrated in the first few highly populated silos of distribution while the left was (largely) what remained.

The Internet dynamic has made it possible for the first time in history for that long tail to begin working together with a certain degree of unity. It's also meant that many of the people that were incorrectly "represented" by the broad label of a given religious right organization (and hence would have their church contributions, if not their votes, being used to fund political activities that they disagreed with) are increasingly able to shift outside of that space (by contributing to other causes) while still maintaining their associations with their church of choice.

I've not seen a lot of discussions about the implications of long tail dynamics within social movements, but I suspect we're seeing just the beginning of this phenomenon as well.

Again, I want to avoid necessarily placing moral judgements on these labels - the same factors that make it possible for a rise in the Religious Left also make possible the rise in neo-Nazi and similar hate group activity, for instance, as these organizations also tend to be network based and cellular in nature.

Hierarchies are capable of rapid, decisive movement, there are clear channels of responsibility and getting a snapshot of the state of the organization at any given time is usually quite simple. Distributed networks are often slower to react, tend to lack cohesion except in the presence of an obvious threat or attractor, are chaotic (by definition) and lack accountability.

Hierarchies are geometric and linear - a given amount of input while usually provide a corresponding linear output - while networks are non-linear, in which there may be no apparent response no matter how much energy is put into the system, then when the tipping point is reached, a phase shift occurs and a (hopefully desired) change takes place over night.

Thus, a good social systems engineer (re: non-linear politician) would need to understand feedback loops, chaotic transitions, information fluxes and other aspects of network systems analysis in order to work with this Internet generation, whether that politician is trying to mobilize the religious or social left. Sometime politicians implicitly understand that (the late Tip O'Neal's observation that "All politics are local" was perhaps as succinct a summation of this viewpoint as I've ever seen) but I think it safe to say that there are few such people in the current administration.

Indeed that administration is made up overwhelmingly of former CEOs, evangelical leaders, and hierarchically trained analysts, most of whom got their training dealing with the hierarchies of the Soviet Union, and who deal with such things as terrorism (which is a fundamentally distributed network-based activity) using all of the tools of the hierarchy. Not surprisingly, they're losing.

2006-08-07 07:52:27

While the left may have a lead in the blogsphere, the overall content is ugly...when it comes to light it embarasses the politician (as has recently happened to Ned Lamont, who tried to distance himself).

Lieberman Assails Lamont Over Supporter's Blog Post

It's just rather funny that you brought up Ned in this context.

Kurt Cagle
2006-08-07 09:41:03
Actually, this doesn't surprise me at all, and I think it's actually pretty typical of what can and does happen in long-tail politics. It's hard to control the message in a sea of blogs, and every so often that blogosphere is going to throw out something that may be inappropriate or even inadvertantly damaging.

In that particular race, I think the impact of this will depend upon whether or not Lamont can prove that he had no influence upon the blogger in question. If he can (and this is where that issue of accountability arises) then this backfires upon Lieberman, who gets portrayed as grasping at straws. If he can't, then Lamont takes the hit. My suspicion is that Lamont's doing precisely the right thing here - she's not on my campaign staff, I'm not responsible for what she or anyone else writes, I have no control over the messages of others ... "she's a member of the 'blog' press".

I'm accentuating that last point because I think it's perhaps the most important aspect here. Many professional journalists disdain the blogosphere, and for good reason - the new breed of "journalists" represent a significant shift away from the power base of the old ones, has the potential to take away their jobs (or debase already low salaries) and render moot any protection that they as journalists may have had. Most in the blogosphere do not have the hierarchies of accountability that the professionals do - but in many ways the rules acting on bloggers are just as strict, if not as well defined.

A blogger lives or dies based upon reputation. If he or she is seen as engaging in unfounded rants, or even worse if that person is "untruthful", making up lies to fulfill a specific agenda, then that person will not be seen as being representative of legitimate information (doesn't mean they won't have a following, mind you - there are those people who are looking for precisely this sort of thing, but they aren't generally in a majority). What that means is that the ones that are generally good have to develop a sense of journalistic ethics or they will become news, usually in the worst possible way.

The traditional journalist, on the other hand, is often shielded from this concern because they are already "blessed" with the authority of the media that they write with. Fox News, for instance, can provide incredibly biased, inaccurate and scurilous "news" that is still accepted by a fairly large minority because it comes from a "professional" television network. The medium is the message. The vetting process that such news goes through does not necessarily insure that it is any more accurate, only that it is sufficiently bulletproof that by the time any questions can arise the news has become stale and forgotten - only the tenor of the message remains.

I suspect that this will either make or break the reputation of the blogger in question (more likely the latter), but in the long run it won't matter. If Lieberman makes too much of an issue of the picture, he runs too many risks of painting himself as being unable to take legitimate criticism and of trying to seize on anything to tar his opponent. Thus, it makes for interesting mid-campaign fodder, it puts Lamont on notice that he does need to better control his own message, and in the end, it becomes a non-issue.

2006-08-11 06:27:13
As long as you remember there is no clean divide between hierarchies and networks (just as objects and relational systems can be frameworked) and the left and right can become equally adept at the game of non-linear directed evolution of short-cycle situation dynamics. The difference if the hierarchy is more narrowly goal directed and tends to win the short cycles unless an overwhelming signal from the environment galvanizes the loose confederations (think of the effect of energy bursts inside a ruby making a pulse laser organizing the coherent effect). Al qaeda relies on this tactic and it is the definition of asymetric warfare. It requires a resonant base. To stop this, one dampens the resonant frequency.

The next step in thinking is to look at controller types, eg, PIDs. Otherwise, you are looking at the difference in confederated and federated systems.

That is something federated hierarchies do better than confederated networks but individuals do even better.

V for Vengeance is a good allegory, but you may want to understand the value of common values. The biggest invisible contributor to the damping of race problems in the American South was not the power of Federal troops. That only had a short cycle effect. The long cycle damping occurred because the majority of the population shared a common religion and wives started telling their husbands that racial hate and a *satisfying* homelife weren't compatible.

Make of that what you will, but there is a lot of truth in what Golda Meir said: the killing will stop when we love our children more than we hate each other.

2006-11-04 15:54:16
Buon luogo, congratulazioni, il mio amico!
2007-12-16 19:21:25
'...candidates that are most effective at taking advantage of this technology are also more likely to be technologically savvy themselves...'

I am not so sure about this. Maybe it is important that candidates only recognize the importance of technology and hire the right people. Or, like Ron Paul buzz shows, it is enough that the supporters of a candidate are technologically savvy.