This time, Silicon Valley’s technology changed U.S. politics

[19 November 2008]

By Mike Cassidy

San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

It struck me as I sat at the computer in the kitchen the night of Nov. 4, with the TV blaring election results in the background.

I was doing my best John-King-on-CNN imitation, showing my kids a Web-based electoral map while trying to explain why 270 votes was the magic number.

And you know what it was that struck me? That the TV was in the background.

This presidential election was different. Different in profound and poignant ways, yes. But different in mundane ways, too - ways not marked by a milestone or a moment, but rather by the evolution of how we find out what we want to know.

This election and the way we followed it and fought about it had everything to do with what has happened in Silicon Valley in the past decade. The Internet, social networking, blogging, the mobile phone as laptop.

I know. It’s way too late to declare the 2008 presidential contest as the first election of the Internet age. But at our house, and I imagine at houses across America, the Internet for the first time became a nearly seamless part of our election experience.

There is more coming, no doubt. By 2012, we’ll barely recognize the ways we gobbled up the late-breaking results this year from Ohio and New Mexico while trying to divine the winner in North Carolina by clicking on piles of exit poll data.

Consider how odd it was this Election Day to have CNN’s Wolf Blitzer actually tell viewers to take their eyes off him and his coverage and instead feast their eyes on the CNN.com Web site.

By 2012, the television and computer monitor will be one. One big screen. Click on Wolf for his words and wisdom. Click on a corner icon to bring up CNN.com.

Our TV stayed on, but information also flooded into our house through digital pipes. Our 14-year-old daughter, Bailey, inspired partly by the realization that she will vote in the next presidential election, used Gmail to instant message with her friends as they monitored an electoral map on ABC.com.

On television, Barack Obama addressed supporters in Chicago’s Grant Park, the site of riots and mayhem during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The scene was infused with history and poignancy. The first black man ever elected U.S. president. The joyful faces of a proud throng. The tear-streaked face of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

When Obama finished, I made a rare visit to my Facebook page. “It went better than the last time a whole bunch of Democrats got together in Grant Park,” I typed as my new status message.

I just wanted to be clever. Instead, I found myself in a digital version of one of the spontaneous street dances that erupted Tuesday night. Obama backers among my Facebook friends were expressing pride, relief, wonder and optimism in short bursts well into Wednesday morning.

My niece Maggie, who’s 23, wrote on Facebook about the Chicago rally. “Being in Grant Park tonight,” she said, “I saw the hope and joy of people who thought that they would never see this moment come (I admit that I did not believe it myself).”

She’s among a generation that must find my epiphany odd. The considerable crowd of young voters inspired by this campaign followed it from the beginning through Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It’s what they do. And by all accounts Obama tapped into that more effectively than John McCain.

But there’s no reason Obama’s digital call to action needs to be confined to one campaign - or to campaigning at all.

While my wife, Alice, and I were watching his victory speech, an e-mail from Obama landed in her inbox. It was a mass mailing thanking my wife for her support. And then it said: “We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.”

Why not? Why not harness leaps in technology and changes in the way we talk to each other to call for service or sacrifice or debate? And why stop at the highest office in the land or at the nation’s most vexing problems?

My hope is that the digital revolution will continue to find new ways to bring us together to tackle issues in our towns, schools and neighborhoods. My hope is we’ll start a new conversation aimed at solving our problems and sharing our solutions.

That, I’m guessing, is a change we can all believe in.

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(Mike Cassidy is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Read his Loose Ends blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/Cassidy.)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/65909-this-time-silicon-valleys-technology-changed-us-politics/