We’ve all read about the importance of databases and cell phones, email and text messaging to the Obama and Warren campaigns of 2012. The success of VAN and Narwhal and campaign media outreach were vital. But the next election will come; we should think now about the technology landscape we’ll face then.
I work for a small new media developer and publisher, so this question is where I live. Foretelling the future is chancy, but I think we can make some sound guesses about the landscape four years from now. I’ll use 2016 as a planning date, though for some of us the next election will come sooner.
I’ll stick here to tech changes I expect to impact campaigns.
In 2016, our computers and cell phones will:
- have about 6 times the memory we have today. The commodity low-end smartphone today has 16G, so we’ll have about 100G
- have about 4 times the number of processors. So, mobile devices will have 4 or 8 cores, and tabletop machines (including laptops) will have 16 or 32.
- have screens with familiar dimensions. Resolution on all will be too fine for the naked eye to detect individual dots or pixels. Some extremely large, wall-mounted or projection displays will be used in offices and in the living room.
- have ubiquitous access to the internet, at home and away from home, at better than 4x current speeds. Access to text and small images will improve greatly; video will still be slower than we like.
- be divided among three or possibly ecospheres: Apple, Microsoft, Google, and possibly a newcomer. Each will require separately developed native apps, but all will share HTML5/CSS3 Web apps.
- be increasingly open to the user’s speech and gestures
In 2008, a few early adopters had smartphones. By 2012, lots of rank and file volunteers could bring their own phones to phone banks, and plenty of volunteers were delighted to sit in front of their laptops and place long-distance calls to voters in Ohio and Colorado. These trends will accelerate.
We’ll continue to depend more and more heavily on the Web.
- Raw traffic numbers will be concentrated at a few incredibly large sites.
- The most effective political persuaders will continue to be small, independent sites with a distinctive personal voice and specialized expertise. We’ll depend more on writers like Nate Silver, Juan Cole, and Nouriel Roubimi, and less on horse-race pundits.
- The personal media landscape, today dominated by Facebook and Twitter, will continue to change rapidly. We’ll continue to use something like these, but the features, technologies, business models, and companies may all change.
- The separation of the political Web into Left and Right blogospheres will continue, and will continue to afflict the Right with a cacophony of infotainment and a dearth of grounded ideas.
- Web advertising will continue to decline in effectiveness, but will remain common. Lots of alternative business models will support writers, reporters, and activists.
Concentration of Web and other media delivery in the hands of phone, cable, and satellite providers will provide ample scope for sabotage, vandalism, and chicanery. Cable franchise deals may emerge as a significant issue in town and neighborhood politics, and a variety of dirty tricks may disrupt campaigns.
- Field coordinators and campaign managers will continue to struggle with their email. So will voters. Everyone will receive far too many messages, and everyone in the campaign will continue to be far too busy. New software tools will help people cope, returning us to the time when politicians could at least answer their mail.
- Campaigns will recognize and adapt to an increasing number of voters who are seldom at home and nearly unreachable by telephone. Email, microblogs, and other new media messaging strategies will be increasingly important.
- The opposition to progressive candidates in Massachusetts will increasingly identify as non-partisan, independent, or Democratic. The preliminary and early phases of local and state campaigns will assume greater importance.
- In place of mass mailings and email blasts, we’ll send more messages tailored to individual voters.
- Advances in Web Science will let us target voters more precisely, give us more useful information about each contact, and guide us in persuading voters to help persuade their circle of acquaintance.
- Technologies now associated with national campaigns will play an increasing role in downticket and local races where early supporters and contributors are especially vital.
In 2012, our databases let us build targeted call lists such as “persuadable, low-engagement Somerville women in a household with at least one Republican” — something that would have been incredibly hard to do a decade before. By 2016, we may be able to separate the women who read TALKING POINTS MEMO from those who read GAWKER. In place of a one-size-fits-all script, canvassers and callers can be introduced to individual voters as individuals.
We don’t need to limit ourselves to the tools we’re handed. We can make tools. We can adapt tools to new tasks. But it’s easier to plan ahead, to plan now for the tools we’ll want next time. I think the hardware landscape for 2016 is fairly clear, the media landscape somewhat murky, and the organizational landscape murkier still.
In the future, if there’s interest, I’d like to expand on some of the issues above and how they might change the way we campaign. But first:
What have I got wrong? And, given the landscape we can expect, what do we want?