Politics Won’t Know What Hit It

July 14, 2015

Phil Howard's latest commentary essay for Politico on how the "Internet of Things is poised to change democracy itself.

In the evolving conversation about the “Internet of Things” — the growth of networked everyday objects and the data they generate — analysts tend to focus on business opportunity, or the security risks, or the potential for making our cities smarter.

But larger than all of those possibilities, and of key public importance, is the impact of the Internet of Things on politics. This might sound unlikely at first, and it won’t be felt right away. But it’s important to realize that when we look at the Internet of Things, we’re seeing a technology, or rather a technological system, that will not just pose challenges for governments, but change them completely. In all of history, there has never been anything like the constant and intimate feedback loop that the Internet of Things is creating between citizens and whoever is on the other end of their data.

In researching my new book on the IOT, I spent a lot of time with the computer scientists and entrepreneurs who are designing new device networks. But I looked at their projects as a social scientist, considering them in the long history of how technology and infrastructure affects human politics — a history that goes all the way back to the Roman Empire.

The conclusion I couldn't escape is that the Internet of Things will be the most powerful political tool we've ever created. For democracies, the Internet of Things will transform how we as voters affect government — and how government touches (and tracks) our lives. Authoritarian governments will have their own uses for it, some of which are already appearing. And for everyone, both citizens and leaders, it's important to realize where it could head long before we get there.

BIG DATA IS often defined as large amounts of information, collected about many people, over many kinds of devices. People savvy about modern political campaigning know that Big Data has already changed how we do political analysis and communication. Polls, registration rolls and credit-card data help campaign managers efficiently target the citizens who will give donations and show up on voting day. And having Big Data has allowed party strategists to do in-house research and experimentation on the mid-spectrum, undecided or ideologically “soft” voters to see what kinds of contacts and content will attract new supporters.

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