What would a piece of software look like that could transform a political party’s effectiveness? I don’t know, because, as far as I can tell, very few entrepreneurs are investigating how the disorientating new world of social media and big data might be brought to bear on the most lucrative and powerful vertical of all.
It’s all very well David Cameron having an iPad app, but is there any evidence of a big data room at the heart of Government co-ordinating public services and informing policy? (I’m not talking about polling data, about which more in a moment.) Why haven’t we seen more imaginative deployment of mobile voting?
And when will the Government – or any of the major parties, for that matter – come up with a way of sourcing policy ideas from the public more akin to an open newsroom than the patronising e-petitions site, which was launched in August 2011 with only the very vaguest promises about what would happen to petitions that collected 100,000 signatures?
Neither party politics nor the business of Government seems to have been transformed by a digital revolution that is having massive shockwaves in all corners of the economy.
There are a few obvious reasons why it hasn’t happened yet. For a start, entrepreneurs tend, on both sides of the Atlantic, to be relatively apolitical at the start of their careers. (It’s only when they make a bit of money that they lurch violently to the Right.) That promises to generate missed opportunities as the US and UK go to the polls in in 2012 and 2015.
When start-ups do engage in dialogue with the Government, it’s generally either to take money or to bleat for more support and services. In neither case is a relationship being explored that identifies how technology can be leveraged to wage war, which is where the money, power and the truly exciting possibilities are.
People who claim they are interested in both technology and politics tend to be far keener on, and better suited to, life as an influential player in the political arena than being a tech start-up chief executive. I won’t name anyone specifically, but I know several start-up founders who should have stayed political strategists.
So political tech start-ups tend to be rather superficial consumer plays that fail to capture the imagination, partly because they tend to be somewhat hubristic in ambition without having the psychological understanding or technical flair needed to execute on big ideas.
And founders without solid backgrounds in technology tend to focus on cosmetics and public relations, often creating campaigning sites masquerading as businesses. They don’t see the potential, as yet unrealised, of technology as a transformative electoral force. Because it’s only the technology that gets people down to the voting stations every four years that has guaranteed commercial viability.
I mean, is it me, or is there something mildly absurd about the fact that our elections are decided by students and old people herded down to village halls by party activists and given pencils and scraps of paper to express an opinion? Why is the electoral process, particularly in the UK, still so hilariously archaic?
Much is made of the potential of “big data” to analyse the electorate, but you have to ask: how much of those endless new methods for crunching demographic information are having an effect at the ballot box? Political parties that base their strategies on information garnered by survey and data analysis, such as today’s Conservative party, seem, if anything, hamstrung by an overabundance of feedback.
It’s often said about today’s Tories that they are obsessed with polls and polling data, which is the apotheosis of a trend that began with Tony Blair’s focus groups in the 90s. But the results are depressing: our leaders are spooked by temporary, Twitteresque frenzies into multiple policy u-turns and spinelessness in the face of adversity.
There are so many ways of looking at the electoral battleground, this surfeit of data breeds confusion and undermines conviction. At precisely the time the public want to see politicians offering strong and consistent solutions, incumbent politicians are flip-flopping hopelessly on the basis of extrapolated numbers.
That’s just one example of how technology can create a lot of noise without being particularly effective or useful. Despite buckets of cash from Lord Ashcroft, the Tories failed to win a majority at the last election, based, in part, on their failure to offer a convincing view of what Britain ought to be like. That’s a moral question, and not one that can be read from polling data.
When it comes to the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the commentariat’s techno-utopian hangover is only now starting to fade. Party activists are sounding warnings that his re-election, though likely, might not be plain sailing. Obama’s victory wasn’t, as was claimed hysterically at the time, a triumph of internet campaigning, even though a lot of money was raised though micro-donations. It had more to do with disaffection from the young and a widespread dislike and distrust of George W Bush.
American technology pundits tell me that part of the reason Mitt Romney actually stands a chance in November is that, for all its technological wizardry, the Obama campaign will struggle to muster up the same sort of enthusiasm from feckless young people, for whom sending a tenner to a smooth-looking Democratic candidate is easy, but showing up to the polling station on election day can be more challenging.
If the kids can’t be arsed, it’s all for nothing. So what’s going to change? Ever-more sophisticated data? Some sort of direct democracy enabled by social software? When you hear Silicon Valley founders talking in those terms, you can’t help but think them a bit naive. (Unless, as has always been the case with Twitter, the founders are cynically playing to their customers’ prejudices.)
Perhaps the real excitement will be in the black arts of political propaganda – for example, ways of making extremely damaging material go viral. Because it’s the people who know how to seed reputation-destroying videos about their opponents who will be the valuable strategists in an election fought digitally.
In an age of anodyne politics, in which conviction is generally punished by squealing from over-represented minority groups and professional grievance-mongers, it will be those with access to powerful multinational public relations experts, and to the money to pay their bills, who will claim the upper hand, taking out opposing candidates before they become problematic and toxifying enemy brands.
Getting the right YouTube video out at precisely the right moment in the news cycle is a science, not an art. So if Burston Marsteller, Bell Pottinger and their ilk have any sense at all, they will be seeking out experts with just the right balance of psychological insight and technical skill and training the next generation of public relations virtuosi.
Meanwhile, don’t expect the fortunes of political parties to turn on social media. As we’ve seen time and again, it’s a medium that entrenches pre-existing prejudices, not a place for constructive discussion. The real question is: where are the businesses developing tools and intelligence to support digital political warfare?
Or have we all given up?