"You got technology in my politics!" - Recapping the Permanent Campaign conference - Macleans.ca

“You got technology in my politics!” – Recapping the Permanent Campaign conference

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So, as I may have mentioned once or ninety times, earlier this week, I donned my ninja gear, scaled the barbed wire fence and headed Outside The Queensway to attend a conference on politics, technology and the evolution of the so-called Permanent Campaign, which the organizers described as “a non-stop political battle for attention, momentum and influence.”

Hosted by the MaRS Discovery District as part of its “Emerging Technologies” seminar series, the afternoon event promised “a hosted interactive discussion with a diverse set of panelists,” which would anchor a more wide-ranging debate on “the influence of technology in general, as well as the impact and use of specific techniques and tools.”

Really, with a writeup like that, how could a notorious technophile and incurable political junkie resist? So I packed up my trusty rolling backpack and trekked off to Toronto to hear all about how the next federal election could be decided by Youtube views, Facebook friends and the collective chatter of the twitterati. Was it worth it? Definitely — but not nearly so much for what came out of the official program as for the dynamics at play on the floor.

The audience was billed as ‘diverse’ – but that doesn’t even begin to describe it. Self-satisfied hipsters sat cheek by jowl with alabaster-skinned coders, who stared with disbelief as academics waxed macrophilosophical, as though craving the ability to delete uncited claims, Wikipedia-style. Old-school party bagmen and campaign organizers glared impatiently at their BlackBerries, mentally calculating the billable hours being lost to esoteric discussions on ‘community’. Social media, Web 2.0, whatever. How does any of this help us raise cash and scare up warm bodies to deliver signs and lick envelopes?

Meanwhile, starry-eyed “internet evangelists” (to borrow a term from the bio of panel wrangler Jesse Hirsh) lauded the memetasticness of the now ubiquitous Yes, I Can video, and the Obamanomenon at large as journalists – yes, there were a few of us, although I think I may have been the only one who writes exclusively online – winced under the undercurrent of hostility towards the dreaded ‘mainstream’ – ‘old school’; ‘legacy’; ‘dinosaur’; choose your pejorative – media.

A daring social experiment, yes. But did it work? Not really. Before launching into the keynote presentation – an exploration of the Permanent Campaign theory by Infoscape director Greg Elmer – Hirsh acknowledged that the format for the afternoon was an “experimental alpha.” In that spirit, then, and to continue with a metaphor that likely left at least half the audience scratching its collective head in confusion, here are a few of the more annoying bugs to crop up in this build – as well as some features that should be included in the final version:

THE GOOD

  • Effective time management – Despite the relatively short timeblock – just three hours from start to finish, not counting the post-event reception – the organizers managed to deliver a dizzying amount of information, opinion and discussion, mostly by eliminating the often unnecessary mid-session breaks from the schedule, and instead keeping the audience constantly engaged.
  • Inspired choice of hosts – An unabashedly enthusiastic ringmaster, Jesse Hirsh, whose passion for the topic was nearly impossible to resist. As panel moderator, he also did yeoman’s work in keeping the conversation flowing, even when confronted by an audience that, clearly, had very different views on what the focus should be
  • Wall eye candy – A (perhaps overly ambitious) realtime demonstration of various online applications, from a live Twitter feed to a “web jockey” who kept the attention-challenged amused with a steady stream of websites, and concepts referenced by speakers and panelists — Wiki entries, Google image searches, political websites, blogs and newsfeeds — delivered via wall projection as a sort of ‘second stage’ parallel to the main presentation

THE NEEDS WORK

  • Overreliance on technotoys – As much potential as the live twitterfeed, in particular, held as far as sparking a truly interactive exchange between the presenters and the audience, it became almost immediately apparent that only a handful of attendees had any previous twitter experience, which meant that most of the commentary came from the half dozen or so guys in the back row, sitting side by side tapping furiously on their laptops, and then looking up to see their words appear on the flickering screen on the wall.

    (Full disclosure: I attempted to join in the discussion, but annoyingly, had almost no luck getting a wireless signal, so was forced to wave my berry around, looking for all the world like a semaphore operator, and with about as much luck in getting my message out to the world.)

  • Underemployment of human beings – The panel had serious potential for lively discussion, but seemed almost lost in the noise due to a deliberate decision to keep the format as open-ended as possible. Long rambling questions begat equally long, rambling answers, and there was very little back and forth between panelists.
  • Not nearly enough focus on the practical application of campaign technology – This was, by far, the most common complaint from the political organizers and campaign runners who showed up to find out how they could harness the power of Facebook to raise funds, and get out the vote, not for a sermon on how user-created content will change the world.

Permanent campaign or not, it seems that, for those in the life who turned up at Tuesday’s conference, politics is about the practical, the actual – the hereandnowical. That’s not to say it pays no heed to emerging trends, but it does so from a point of view based entirely in self-interest. That doesn’t mean that there’s no overlap between geek and political animal, but when it comes to the logistics of running a campaign, the theories and speculation as to the possible influence of technology takes a backseat to hard data on how it works in the real world. It’s not quite a never the twain shall meet situation, but it takes work – and structure – to bring the two together under a common theme.