By Matthew Gray
I’ve always been fascinated by politics and technology, and the possibilities of where the two intersect. In my experiences on campaigns, digital media startups, and now in government, I’ve had a chance to observe some of the ways in which evolution in technology is driving change in our public sphere.
Last year, I was lucky to work on the Common Ground digital consultation led by Groundforce Digital, with a varied group of young volunteers. There was a heady mixture of aspiring political staffers, people from the non-profit sector, and technologists who were interested in applying their craft to solving public problems in a new way.
There’s a distinct feeling that change (call it disruption, if you like) driven by digital technology in the area of political campaigns and media has outpaced change in our core democratic institutions. New tools, like NationBuilder, are allowing organizers to create spaces online for communities to mobilize and get involved in the political process. Techniques of digital storytelling, pioneered by traditional and startup media organizations like the New York Times, Vox and Medium, are allowing people to interact with complex issues of public policy in a wholly new way.
Just as digital advertising technology — which is data-centric, adaptive, media rich and device agnostic — has boosted the ad industry to new heights in terms of message penetration, activation and cost efficiency, so to must change occur in the organizations that support our democracy.
There have been too few examples of successful mass mobilization of people on the Internet by traditional political institutions in Canada. Political parties are only beginning to evolve their understanding of how to use the Internet beyond simply putting one-to-many communications online. Substantive online conversations led by parties about policy issues remain few and far between, and one page microsites with unpersuasive rhetorical talking points dominate.
The future lies in combining techniques developed by leading journalistic organizations, such as data visualization and media rich digital storytelling, with organizers who understand how to combine on-the-ground community building with online tools. It’s in creating spaces for people to organize, deliberate, and engage with competing ideas of how we should best deploy our collective resources to solve collective problems. During the Common Ground consultation, for example, we directly involved tens of thousands of people into the policy process for the first time.
To be sure, this is not just about change in the tools themselves — a repackaging of the politics that already existed, where voters are assaulted by rhetoric that only seeks to persuade them through negativity and partisan jostling — but a deeper change in the way politics is conducted. A new politics based on openness, trust, and mass participation where citizens are able to formulate their perspectives based on evidence.
About Groundforce Digital: We work at the intersection of politics, technology, business and community. We help organizations grapple with complex community organizing challenges by laying down digital infrastructure designed to allow a new generation of civic leaders to experiment and chart new paths forward. http://www.groundforcedigital.com