As the silly season comes to a close with today’s election (at least for, like, a week or so) there’s a change to the political process I’ve been thinking about a lot. And it’s not e-voting, election fraud, or other issues we’ve occasionally discussed.
On this site (and others) we’ve discussed the ongoing erosion of personal privacy. More of our personal information is publicly available, or stored in private databases unlocked with a $ shaped key, than society has ever experienced before. This combines with a phenomena I call “The Long Archive”- where every piece of data, of value or not, is essentially stored for eternity (unless, of course, you’re in a disaster recovery situation). Archived web pages, blog posts, emails, newsgroup posts, MySpace profiles, FaceBook pages, school papers, phone calls, calendar entries, credit card purchases, Amazon orders, Google searches, and …
Think about it. If only 2% of our online lives actually survives indefinitely, the mass of data is astounding.
What does this have to do with politics?
The current election climate could be described as mass media shit-slinging. Our current crop of elected officials, of either party, survives mostly on their ability to find crap on their opponent while hiding their own stinkers. Historically, positive electioneering is a relative rarity in the American political system. We, as a voting public, seem to desire pristine Ken dolls we can relate to over issues-focused candidates. No, not all the time, but often enough that negative campaigning shows real returns.
But the next generation of politicians are growing up online, with their entire lives stored on hard drives. From school papers, to medical records, to personal communications, to web activity, chat logs (kept by a “trusted” friend) and personal blogs filled with previously private musings. It’s all there. And no one knows for how long; not really. No one knows what will survive, what will fade, but all of it has the potential to be available for future opponent research.
I’m a bit older, but there’s still an incredible archive of information out there on me, including some old newsgroup posts I’m not all that proud of (nothing crazy, but I am a bit of a geek). Maybe even remnants of ugly breakups with ex-girlfriends or rants never meant for public daylight. Never mind my financial records (missed taxes one year, but did make up for it) and such. In short, there’s no way I could run for any significant office without an incredibly thick skin.
Anyone who started high school after, say, 1997 is probably in an even more compromising position. Anyone in the MySpace/FaceBook groups are even worse off.
With so much information, on so many people, there’s no way it won’t change politics. I see three main options:
- We continue to look for “clean” candidates- thus those with limited to no online records. Only those who have disengaged from modern society, and are thus probably not fit for public leadership, will run for public office. The “Barbie and Ken” option.
- We, as society, accept that everyone has skeletons, everyone makes mistakes, and begin to judge candidates on their progression through those mistakes or ability to spin them in the media of the day. We still judge on personality over issues. The “Oprah/Dr. Phil” option.
- We focus on candidate’s articulations of the issues, and place less of an emphasis on a perfect past or personality. The “Issues-oriented” option.
- We weigh all the crap on two big scales. Whoever comes out slightly lighter, perhaps with a sprinkling of issues, wins. The “Scales of Shit” option.
Realistically we’ll see a combination of all the above, but my biggest concern is how will this affect the quality of candidates? We, as a society, already complain over a lack of good options. We’re limited to those with either a drive for power, or a desire for public good, so strong that they’re willing to peel open their lives in a public vivisection every election cycle.
When every purchase you’re ever made, email, IM or SMS, blog post, blog comment, social bookmark, WhateverSpace page, public record, and medical record becomes open season, who will be willing to undergo such embarrassing scrutiny?
Will anyone run for office for anything other than raw greed? Or will we, as a society, change the standards by which we judge our elected officials.
I don’t know. But I do know society, and politics, will experience a painful transition as we truly enter the information society.