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Potty training at the edge of the network

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Campaign 2004 Did the bloggers blow it? For the past several months - before a single vote was cast in the process of choosing a Democrat Presidential nominee - we've been hearing how politics as usual has been transformed.

The Howard Dean campaign, which on Tuesday crashed on its first encounter with the ballot box - has been a remarkable effort. But it has little to do with "The Internet". The campaign has become a blank canvas on which every techno-utopian can project their favorite fantasy, or plug their current book. Every interested party had their favored explanation for the Dean phenomenon. For weblog software vendors, the answer to Dean's success was of course, weblogs. For devotees of New Age junk science - the Dean campaign was cited as an "emergent" phenomenon: an example of spontaneous self-organization.

True Deaniacs should also find time to ask why so many advisors - clearly with their own agendas - had attached themselves to the campaign. Belief that "the Internet" or "blogs" had magical vote winning properties - weblog software vendor and hyperbolist Dave Winer recently pronounced that one weblogger is worth ten non-weblogging voters - certainly helped distract from the down and dirty interfacing with wetware that's needed to win real votes - to change hearts and minds.

(The fact that many of these boosters, for whom the word "meme" is simply a synonym for "idea", couldn't tell a chaotic attractor if it hit them right in the state space, speaks volumes about how people are attracted to bright, shiny words without really understanding what they mean. And that's very emblematic of the "hive-mind", noosphere fantastists who became the Dean campaign's amplifiers in the tech media.)

If the Iowa caucuses proved nothing else, they demonstrated these projections for us. We're indebted to media commentators who were eager to explain the Dean phenomenon for us, and predict its triumph before a vote had been cast. Let's run through some of their more hubristic examples.

Whizz for Atoms!

"The intersection of political analysis and Internet theory is a busy crossroad of cliché, where familiar rhetorical vehicles - decentralized authority, emergent leadership, empowered grass roots - create a ceaseless buzz," wrote Gary Wolf in Wired.

(Actually, only in California. Global net.theory debates range a lot wider, treading into areas such as political economy, and narratives which draw on broader and richer philosophical sources).

"The degree to which Dean's staff is trusting people out at the edges of the system to be the campaign is remarkable," wrote old Reg friend Dan Gillmor in August.

Theater critic Frank Rich in the New York Times was beside himself.

"They've tapped - but crucially not tried to control - the growing ability of people at the edges to express themselves," he wrote. "Dean online followers collaborate on organizing and perfecting the campaign, their ideas trickling up from the bottom rather than being superimposed from national headquarters."

We were ceaselessly told how Dean was "harnessing the power of the Internet" - as if The Internet was some fabulous, many-tentacled creature of truly divine authority. An invisible God of such luminosity, that we couldn't quite look it in the eye - until now.

And all before a vote had been cast.

Do you get it, stupid person? Do you?

On Sunday, The Observer's John Naughton in a piece entitled Dean's secret for success? It's the internet, stupid summed up the hubris perfectly:

"Even as the Dean campaign appears to be becoming unstoppable, many of those inside the Beltway still don't get it!" wrote Naughton.

(It was John C Dvorak who first picked up on the bloggers' use of the admonition "you just don't get it!". This is a hugely condescending turn of phrase that implies that the listener is congenitally stupid and can only be corrected by the use of a large blunt object, such as a weighty piece of weblog).

Writing in PC Magazine Dvorak noted -

"The giveaway that cult thinking is present in any environment is how responses are given from possible cult members to probable nonbelievers. If you disagree, then you 'don't get it. Werner Erhard of EST (the über-cult of the 1970's) used to use this phrase over and over. Tell Erhard that something makes no sense. 'You don't get it.' Tell him that something is self-contradictory. 'You don't get it.' Tell him that something is just plain stupid. 'You don't get it.' This is the level of debate you can expect when cult thinking is present. But, of course, 'I don't get it.'")

On the eve of the caucus, Naughton stuck faithfully to the script: "Dean works on the basis that there is more intelligence at the edges of his network than at the centre, and that the thing to do is to harness this creativity and energy by letting it do its thing."

Ah, the edge of the network! Who says it's an echo chamber in here?

At another time, we ought to devote some space to examine the lobby's very condescending view of us as "intelligence" spontaneously "emerging" at the "edge of the network".

What next? Will they be congratulating drivers for not crashing into each other on the freeways? Or thanking shoppers for not shoplifting? Or simply thanking us for being potty-trained?

All spontaneous examples of self-organization. Well, we'll see.

But back to the election: as the Dean campaign gathered momentum, its success offered a platform for every kind of quirky fetish, short of the Oxford Street Protein Man. Even the libertarians' pet economist Ronald Coase was trotted out, in a spectacularly hubristic piece by Everett Everlich entitled The Democrats and the Republicans are about to lose badly to the Internet (Whoa! It's that God-octopus again!)

By Monday webloggers had descended on Iowa in droves, and Harvard's Berkman Center - a cross between a law school and a New Age spa; it's very keen on "emergent" manifestations had decamped en masse to the chilly Mid West.

Why the bloggers aren't to blame, really

Dean's success - which is very real, as he remains indisputably ahead of the pack in campaign contributions and led a campaign that's seen an obscure Governor rise from a tiny East Coast state into the national spotlight - is surely attributable to just three things.

Firstly, the man himself clearly has an appeal; secondly his message has an appeal; and thirdly, he has found thousands of people who like the man and the message. All three are human qualities: 100 per cent human representations. The means by which he achieved this may be any number of tools, but the commentators, for their own reasons, mistook the medium for the message. Dean's success is entirely human and can't be attributed to machines. Let alone an octopus.

Correspondingly, Dean's failure this week isn't down to the shortcomings of the Internet or weblogs: unless you insist on attributing mystical powers to either, which as we've explained, we don't. Dean's failure this week was that not enough people like the man, or the message, and/or his base can't convert the unconverted. Maybe all three can be fixed, maybe not. But they'll only be fixed by reasserting the human qualities of all three.

The Iowa caucus has done us all a huge favor by reminding us of this. As for the Matrix-lobby - these secular religionists who spin a future where we're watched over by benevolent machines, and who spectacularly over-reached themselves in their Velcro-like attachment to the Dean campaign - what next? Few people would object to a lobby presenting an imaginative or colorful belief system for our inspection, for example, one that suggests that we're directly descended from fish. But it must be out in the open, where we can debate the social and philosophical implications of trusting the machines and of being slightly less than human, honestly.

No one gets a free pass. ®

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