Mother Jones: What’s the most exciting new use of technology in politics?
Peter Leyden: I would say right now web video is without a question the big new thing. The main reason is that basically all electoral politics in the last 40 years have been organized around television, which is basically the 30-second broadcast television ad. I mean literally probably 60 percent of all money raised in politics goes into those 30- second ads. And that entire regime of broadcast television is kind of crumbling in front of us, for a lot of reasons, but not the least of which is the rise of TiVo and a lot of these digital video recorders. Now that whole world of video is essentially now migrating very quickly into this new environment. There’s nothing more emotionally powerful than visuals in the TV world.
The most fundamental thing that web video shows is essentially a structural shift from a kind of a top-down centralized hierarchical campaign structures to the bottom-up participatory democratized campaign strategy and that is like a sea change in politics. It’s just so fundamental it basically flips everything on its head. We’re watching all of politics try to adapt to that in real time and it’s a messy thing and it’s very difficult and it ain’t gonna be pretty, but it’s gonna be fun for those of us in the middle of it and watching it.
MJ: Are these changes turning the tables for Democrats?
PL: All the things that have been seen as liabilities to the Democrats—you can never get them to all agree, there’s diverse voices, everybody has something to say—in the new politics, this is completely the way it all works. There’s no question the progressive movement and the Democratic Party are much more strategically positioned to exploit the new environment. I think we’re in the beginning of another era of progressive politics.
MJ: Will technology bring in people who weren’t interested in politics before?
PL: Yes, if you think of it as politics with a small P. Which means people who want to change the world, change their communities, get involved, help other people out, you know, do something. And just the amount of money that’s been raised off the Internet this cycle—tens of thousands of people have been already throwing money in this early in the cycle. This early in the cycle you just used to have a bunch of millionaires playing the game. Now you’ve got literally upper middle class, middle class people throwing in. It’s totally energizing the politics in a way that’s completely good for America and society in general.
It is conceivable in this cycle that you could have 10 million people who will wake up and think, “I’m going to do something for the campaign, and it ain’t going to be coordinated by the candidate or the campaign staff at the top. I’m going to make a commercial today and send a viral message to everybody I know, and I’m gonna get all my friends to pitch in 25 bucks.” It’s going to be that kind of politics.
The 20th century was the cult of the artiste, the director, the president or the CEO, the mad genius who knows everything and controls everything. But the way our economy works now, the way our media works now—it’s increasingly made up of all kinds of people contributing at all different levels. Why wouldn’t our politics work like that, too?
MJ: So is Web 2.0 creating a new cultural model?
PL: Or it’s riding an even larger meta-trend that’s going on, which is toward a decentralized, self-organizing, emergent future. Which is enabled by the technology but it’s not determined by technology. Politics is just now catching up to the phase shift that happened over the last 20 years and now politics is realizing, “Oh fuck, it is not about one guy figuring everything out, it’s about catalyzing all kinds of people to solve these problems.” It isn’t about a campaign with one brilliant strategist and a team of 100 people; it’s tens of thousands of people.
MJ: What is the most overhyped open-source politics technology?
PL: The new, new thing is always the thing that journalists and early adopters want to hype, and Second Life is the new, new thing. But if you really talk about influencing electoral politics, we are talking about 300 million Americans, some of whom have never been on the Internet. Use of those virtual worlds for politics really is very marginal in terms of politics.