Zeynep Tufekci published an excellent opinion piece in the New York Times on Sunday, November 16, 2012. He joined a cast of thousands—millions?—who are trying to make sense of the 2012 election. I liked his piece because he drills deep into the heart of big data and big politics, and focuses on the acknowledged leaders: President Obama’s reelection campaign’s number crunchers.
By now anyone who can read a blog on the Web has heard a lot about the Obama “ground game” and how, unbeknownst to all manner of pundits, particularly on the right, a huge swath of hitherto unknown voters, many of whom hail from nice towns in Ohio, can be induced to get out and vote. The problem, according to Mr. Tufecki, is how they got there. Namely, by using state of the art data analyses and harnessing the entire fire hose of personal data that is constantly aimed at—us.
The striking success of Team Obama has left Gov. Romney himself, and many of the leading names in the right wing aristocracy of punditry gasping for breath. Well: it’s hard to resist a moment of schadenfreude after all the Rove years that we have survived. Even so, there was something poignant about the cluelessness of the Republican campaign; all of the tools available to the President, ranging from human know-how to data modeling, were available to them too.
But Mr Tufecki caught my attention by focusing on the “personhood” of people, versus their value as digital factoids and a mere means to an end. He spells out a very well-stated argument for the importance of retaining individual liberty in every possible way–including liberty for our “digital footprints.” It would appear that a need for liberty goes farther and applies to the Big Data Machine that is forever crunching away at our identities.
I agree with Mr. Tufecki on nearly all counts. After all, it’s patriotic to believe in checks and balances no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. Moreover, I admire the president and his team for the way they won, virtually in the face of a rhetorical tidal wave that seemed to suggest that the Republican ticket had a chance, when it turns out that it did not.
But here’s where I part company with Mr. Tufecki: despite all of the high tech wizardry of the president’s reelection team, I still strongly believe that it was the president himself who won the race, not the numbers racket. Although it is quite possible that the Republican campaign did not itself any favors by pushing a platform that seemed to have no place for gay, lesbian or transgendered folks, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, women of any political inclination; progressive white males. There was a visceral sense of high stakes many people in this election, and every person I spoke with (primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area) had a deep personal stake in the president’s victory.
Interestingly, the searing nature of the political rhetoric was so severe in its effects that normally indifferent voters and even conservative voters, in some cases, simply could not bring themselves to vote for the punitive platform of the Republicans. It just seemed so obvious that you, whoever you are—add any descriptors you wish, including blue-stater white male—couldn’t fit in the Republican view of the world. Karl Rove’s well-publicized Fox “meltdown” seemed to suggest that he didn’t know how appalling he had become to—well, everybody I ever met. So while the big data numbers game was important, in my view, nothing was more motivating than simply having to endure hearing the sorts of people you respect and love being basically regarded as unwanted “takers” and worse.
In the contest for what America was going to choose to be, it is very clear that the data helped, along with perhaps some pretty steely nerves in the Chicago headquarters. But in the end, the “informed electorate” of the Information Society exercised critical thinking. The result ran parallel with the data curve, but the gut-level motivation-derived-from-information was: vote for President Obama or say good bye to any reasonable facsimile of a nation you once thought you were a citizen of.
So even while the Smart Campaign was a foundation for success, the 2012 election, in my opinion, was won on a more visceral level. And at least in the case of this election season, “personhood” seemed to be alive and kicking.