Mother Jones: In your opinion, what’s the most exciting use of technology in politics right now?
Esther Dyson: Technologies don’t need to be exciting to be exciting in politics. So it’s not the jazzy stuff. The big one was email, and that was actually picked up by the Republicans first, and I would say it is still probably the most important thing used in politics and nobody pays attention to it. If I were ever to write a poem about something, it would be an ode to the cc: line. It’s free, it’s not advertising-supported, and it’s probably one of the most important things in online communications.
MJ: Does new technology make candidates more responsive?
ED: The fact is, you don’t want a politician who reads the blogs and does what the blogs tell him, but you want someone who responds and reads the blogs and says why he is not doing what the blogs tell him. It’s not that you should necessarily do what the blogs tell you, but you need to prove that you are listening. Anyone who is good at running a company occasionally listens to the customer-support lines and gets a reality check, and that is what politicians should do. The best communications technology is the ear. Once I asked this guy from the Dean campaign what they do with all the feedback they got—did they actually respond to it? He said, “Oh yes, we pay a lot of attention to the feedback; we have made several changes to the website.” I said, “No, I was talking about your policies.”
MJ: Do you think the advent of open-source politics will affect most Americans?
ED: I don’t really know what you mean by “open source.” I would call it peer-to-peer, more likely. As the old ones die off, the new ones will be the YouTube generation, people who are comfortable using email and editing things on Wikipedia, and I think it will be part of their daily lives.
MJ: Will innovative use of technology be the thing that brings politics to someone for the first time?
ED: Just as eBay turned people into active buyers and sellers, the new tools will turn people from passive consumers of politics into active participants. If you want to change something, you can start a campaign. And as people see more people doing that, they will realize: “Oh, I can do that, too.” You will have the long tail of politics, not just the long tail of commerce, which is eBay. The long tail of politics is, “I can find out what my town dogcatcher is up to.”
MJ: Do you see any pitfalls?
ED: [Candidates] have to tell the truth, because if they don’t someone will call them on it. They have to spend more time listening and being responsive. With luck, I’m hoping that this will produce better campaigners and, ultimately, better government officials. Because they will be more accountable.
MJ: There has been a lot of discussion about the power of the Internet to hold elected officials accountable.
ED: Yes, but there is a difference between being held accountable for doing something bad and this stupid attack stuff—because you misspoke your mother’s name and that means you must not love your mother. Let’s grow up and pay attention to whether the candidate delivered what he promised. That’s what accountability is.
MJ: How do you think peer-to-peer politics will change campaign strategy?
ED: Broadly, it will change where you go, who you listen to, the kind of issues you focus on. It will require the candidates to reach out to influencers. Some candidates will have good judgment and some won’t. The candidate who figures out the right people to respond to and the right way is going to win by definition. It doesn’t mean genuflecting and doing what they tell you; it means understanding how to respond to their demands or their questions or their needs. And one hopes that people have enough sense to elect the right people. They don’t always do that. And there is a question of what is right and what is effective in winning a campaign. Right now we have way too much pandering, which is unfortunate. By listening I don’t mean pandering. That’s what many politicians understand it to mean.
MJ: Who do you think will benefit more from the use of technology, Democrats or Republicans?
ED: By and large the Democrats have been more effective using the latest generation. The Republicans have been very effective using email.
MJ: Do you think a candidate who doesn’t harness new technology has a shot?
ED: It’s now de rigueur. I think the exciting thing is that it takes politics out to the long tail and makes people realize that they can have a much more direct impact than just voting for president.