Technology Can’t Change Politics

A surprising amount of academic articles about the internet–particularly those written in the early 2000s–refer to internet technology as a transformative tool that has the potential to fundamentally alter American politics. Unfortunately, it seems as if technological innovation isn’t sufficient to spur political reform. The past 30 years have seen enormous technological change, including widespread adoption of personal computers, the internet, and cell phones. These technologies have had a profound impact on the ways in which we interact with others and perform daily tasks. And yet our political systems remain unchanged. The political debates and challenges of 1994—or even 1984—seem remarkably similar to those of 2014.

This, I believe, is due to the powerful effect of institutions. America’s political institutions create an incentive structure for politicians. New technologies can change how we elect people, who we elect, how we interact with elected officials, etc. But in some sense these changes are superfluous. Whether you use social media to help elect Barack Obama or print media to put George H. W. Bush in the White House, there will still be two dominant parties. Money will drive political outcomes. Capital will accrue wealth faster than labor, leading to inequality. One Senator will have the ability to block entire pieces of legislation. Organized political minorities will have a greater influence than apathetic majorities. Technology, however great its effect on our personal lives, is largely unable to alter the incentive structures America’s political institutions create.

The fight to reform institutions is not a battle that can be resolved through technology. Rather, it is a struggle that involves political and philosophic debate. Technology cannot alter the fundamental inequalities of power and wealth that distort political outcomes and make change so challenging. To pretend otherwise merely obfuscates the real issues and makes effecting positive social change more difficult for everyone involved.