Political expression isn’t always protesting, writing letters to congressmen or making phone calls to prospective voters. As we learned from “My Experience Leading the Obama Campaign’s Tech Field Office,” sometimes political expression takes form in coding. Catherine Bracy detailed her experience as a tech organizer in San Francisco, where she recruited big-time coders to devote their time to Obama’s campaign. These tech gurus were eager to help out in the campaign, but did so in a way I wouldn’t typically associate with political activism. Bracy details their reasoning for coding:
We got hundreds of sign-ups and conducted scores of interviews with engineers and other tech professionals who were excited to help out. When we asked them why they were interested almost all of them gave some version of the same answer: “I’ve always wanted to help out but making phone calls and knocking doors wasn’t my thing (not to mention I live in California where this thing is in the bag) and I saw an opportunity to lend my skills to re-elect a president I believe in.”
<p> Bracy hints at something bigger that Obama was able to harness: the power of code as political expression. These coders were essential to Obama’s win in many ways. They made it easier for supporters to volunteer and donate money, for example, as well as micro targeting online to encourage people to vote for Obama.<b> In terms of political expression, a small group of coding volunteers was able to spread a political message to millions of people — which would be impossible under the typical campaign tactics such as phone calls and knocking on doors.<b>
Bracy doesn’t discuss coding as a form of political expression in too much depth, but others have. Code holds intense power – it can predict the future and make our lives easier, for one thing, according to philosopher Franco Berardi, who wrote the foreword for the book “Speaking Code”. And because code is affected by our environments, emotions, politics, and circumstances, it results in things like Wikileaks or hacking, Berardi says.
<p> However, coding as political speech is regarded as relatively new territory. The Obama campaign shows some of the challenges of this new form of political volunteerism.
Hierarchy doesn’t translate to local
<p> One interesting phenomena associated with this is that the political power of coding and, by extension, technology, is in the hands of few right now. Because learning how to code and coding requires having access to the technology, automatically higher-income people have an advantage. For Obama’s campaign, it wasn’t necessarily that there was a huge gap in access to coding, but there was a skills gap. Because the tech team was located in California, many state or local-level field offices didn’t incorporate technology or create specific technologies for their regions. Bracy points this out in Colorado:
<p> “It was stark what a disconnect there seemed to be between the tech team and the people who were using the tools. Centralizing the software development in HQ in part to avoid creation of rogue tools in the states, which is completely understandable, might have killed an important ecosystem for bubbling up innovation. You certainly can’t run a campaign where each state has their own show technologically, but there’s got to be a way to distribute authority at least a little bit down the chain. “
<p> In class, we discussed whether high-skill coding could be incorporated into local campaigns. My answer to this is that it will probably take five years in order for more people to learn the art of coding. Though coding is touted as something anyone can learn — and there are many free programs to learn it — there are still disparities in the tech industry that highlight the skills gap I mentioned. There are few women and minorities employed by top Silicon Valley companies, and few big cities have strong tech presences.
<p> The Obama campaign example also shows how hierarchical the technology team was compared to the rest of the campaign, which used a flat structure that empowered neighborhood organizing campaigns. Local campaigns thrive off of having flat structures, so the hierarchical way tech field offices are used might not translate well to smaller elections.
A culture clash <b>
<p> Two, there is often a tangible culture class between coders and campaign operatives. A Vice story details how the “Team Tech” had a “burn it all down” mentality when incorporated into the campaign. They often lacked basic political knowledge, the Vice story notes, which contributed to tensions between the two groups and lagging innovations from the Silicon Valley group. For example, one of the more successful Obama apps, Quick Donate, was created by a mid-level campaign staffer outside of the group of elite coders. That suggests that conventional tech ideas may have had an advantage in the campaign, or that the Obama campaign didn’t 100 percent use the political expression that coders could provide. It also suggests that there’s a learning curve for coders in the political campaign business.
Future of coding and campaigns <b>
<p> Clearly, coding provides an online megaphone for politicians that is extremely helpful. But until the two opposing forces — the longtime campaign operatives and the new coders — change these weaknesses, the future of campaign coding looks like it might not be as effective as it could be. And when it comes to coding — and campaigning — effectiveness is always the ultimate goal.