The Political Slime Machine

by Henry on August 11, 2004

Steven Johnson has written one of the smartest political essays that I’ve read in a long while, using a simplified version of complexity theory to explain why the Dean campaign went bad. Johnson argues that the Dean campaign was based on a simple positive feedback loop in which more volunteers and donations led to increased publicity, leading to yet more volunteers and donations usw. However, its radical decentralization and lack of complex communication meant that it wasn’t able to cope when the environment changed, and the feedback was interrupted, it couldn’t adapt. Like slime moulds and pheronome-induced ant trails, the Dean campaign was “great at conjuring up crowds … [b]ut … lousy at coping.”

Johnson suggests that other forms of emergent behaviour cope better with changes to the environment, but that they don’t scale very well. They’re probably not suited to large-scale national campaigns in complex polities like the US. This seems to me to be a useful corrective to some of the hype about new kinds of campaigning and fundraising. They are having important effects on politics – but it is unclear (at best) whether they can radically reshape politics at the national level. Johnson suggests that the political lessons of emergence apply more clearly and easily to Jane Jacobs style urbanism and local politics. It’s a fascinating little essay, which packs a lot of punch into seven pages. Go read.

{ 11 comments }

1

Mary 08.11.04 at 11:32 pm

“How the Dean campaign was like slime mold”? Ooh, that’s gotta sting.

2

Cranky Observer 08.12.04 at 2:20 am

> if the Slashdot demographic could
> coalesce into such a powerful
> collective force in a matter of
> years, it

I like reading Slashdot as much as the next techo-nerd, but in what sense is Slashdot’s community a “powerful force”?

Slashdot has upwards of 600,000 registered users, 98% of whom profess to despise the DMCA; it regularly runs articles about pending DMCA bills, hearings, etc; whenever it does, various people post message urging readers to just write a short note to their Congressmen. But the latest word from Hill insiders is that they don’t even count DMCA-related letters anymore because they receive so few of them.

Same thing with Microsoft’s political groundwork now underway for outlawing the GPL: lots of grousing and posting, zero action to stop it.

I think that pretty well sums up the limits of self-organizing communities, because if the largest of them (and probably the one with the highest average {(spare cash) * (free time)} index) can’t get anything done, none of them will.

Cranky

3

Another Damned Medievalist 08.12.04 at 5:18 am

Never seen usw. in English, before, Henry. Were you thinking auf Deutsch?

4

Cranky Observer 08.12.04 at 1:09 pm

When the dynamics of the campaign shifted literally overnight, and the
external world began serving up genuinely bad news about Dean’s prospects
as a candidate, the Dean blog quickly became yet another campaign PR site:
willfully ignoring the steady stream of dismal numbers and declining support.
The authenticity of the site disappeared, because the authenticity had
ultimately been the product of a positive feedback cascade. When the
external environment turned negative, all that was left was spin.

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of feedback mechanisms here. A true “positive feedback system” would have correctly responded to good or bad signals. Using this author’s description (which may or may not reflect what actually happened on the ground), what the Dean campaign actually had was a good news filtering system no different than that in place at most mega-corporations: bad news gets filtered out, good news amplified and passed to the top.

You can dress that up with all sorts of analogies to slime molds, but it sounds like the typical corporate (and Washington DC) slime to me.

Cranky

5

Henry 08.12.04 at 2:27 pm

bq. Never seen usw. in English, before, Henry. Were you thinking auf Deutsch?

Yeah – my German is only mediocre-to-middling, but there isn’t any English equivalent for usw (maybe etc etc, but it just doesn’t seem as elegant or something). I hope it’s not pretentious.

bq. What the Dean campaign actually had was a good news filtering system no different than that in place at most mega-corporations

I think you’re missing part of Johnson’s point here. Mega-corporations, in contrast to Dean campaigns, have a fair degree of hierarchy and centralized organization. This means that when things go wrong, the bosses may be living in cloud-cuckoo-land for a while – but also have some steering mechanisms to get them out of trouble (even if they sometimes deploy them too late due to lousy information). With a radically decentralized movement, you can’t do that. The best treatment of firm hierarchy I know is Gary Miller’s _Managerial Dilemmas: The Political Economy of Hierarchy_ – a really neat application of basic social choice theory and game theory to the question of how hierarchies actually work, with some unexpected conclusions.

6

Brad 08.12.04 at 7:09 pm

usw = und so wieder = and so forth

So, ne?

7

Matt Weiner 08.12.04 at 7:36 pm

Eh, I think I’m going to start a Pretentious Lib movement. We should be proud of being pretentious! Pretentious is good! At least if you’re able to back it up.

(One of the problems with being pretentious is that it tends to come with a lot of irony–at least if it’s the good kind of pretentious–so it may not be immediately obvious that I mean what I say here.)

8

Ian Montgomerie 08.13.04 at 2:24 am

Actually I don’t think this analysis is particularly good at all. Of course Dean’s support was in many respects an “emergent phenomenon” – we know that from existing media reports without having to be lectured about slime molds – but criticizing its emergence for not including “coping with problems” mechanisms seems to entirely miss the point.

Of COURSE all that grassroots stuff just provided loads of money and support – that’s what it’s SUPPOSED to do. Since it all revolves around one man (the candidate), it’s essentially a non sequitur to complain that the “emergent” grassroots organizations don’t have coping-with-problems mechanisms to deal with what happened to the Dean campaign. The point of these organizations for every campaign is to make a lot of positive noise and raise a lot of money. The campaign management then decides what to do with the money and what policies to support. You can’t shape Dean the man, or run a TV ad campaign targeted at key states, based on “emergence”. (Moveon had a good idea with their ad contest but it didn’t change the fact that it was their central organization deciding what sort of ads to emphasize and where).

The brains of the whole thing was, and had to be, the campaign HQ. There has already been plenty of more informative stuff written about the problems of the Dean campaign HQ. Trippi basically focused so much on building a grassroots movement with lots of left-wing support, that he pushed Dean to appear as a left-wing icon rather than his center-left reality, and and they spent their hordes of cash rather wastefully.

Grassroots support in politics is not new, either. The internet part is new, but the right wing in the US has long had extensive, real grassroots movements based around local conservative churches and social associations and the like. They don’t get the volume of small individual contributions that Dean does, but they get groups of people who are quite willing to make lots of noise on the right issues.

9

Ian Montgomerie 08.13.04 at 2:35 am

“I think you’re missing part of Johnson’s point here. Mega-corporations, in contrast to Dean campaigns, have a fair degree of hierarchy and centralized organization. This means that when things go wrong, the bosses may be living in cloud-cuckoo-land for a while – but also have some steering mechanisms to get them out of trouble (even if they sometimes deploy them too late due to lousy information). With a radically decentralized movement, you can’t do that.”

Do you have some insight into how some lack of control over the “Dean phenomenon” of organizations caused Dean particular problems, moreso than the actions of Dean and his campaign management about how to present Dean, what ads to run, what strategy to use with the money, etc?

I never really got the sense that Dean’s problem had to do with the movement associated with him. They were fairly left-wing, but the targets of anti-Dean campaigning seemed to be more Dean and his (supposed) positions, rather than the sort of people who supported him or what they did.

10

howie 08.13.04 at 3:11 am

he pushed Dean to appear as a left-wing icon rather than his center-left reality

Yes and most Democratic primary voters felt that dissonance and were unenthusiastic and skeptical about Dean’s presumptive nomination. The interesting emergent behavior is how this huge, quiet, and relatively passive group of not-Deaniacs found a crack and rapidly coalesced around a solution that would make sure Dean was not the candidate.

11

tatere 08.13.04 at 4:52 am

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of feedback mechanisms here. A true “positive feedback system” would have correctly responded to good or bad signals.

I don’t think so:

In every feedback loop, as the name suggests, information about the result of a transformation or an action is sent back to the input of the system in the form of input data. If these new data facilitate and accelerate the transformation in the same direction as the preceding results, they are positive feedback – their effects are cumulative. If the new data produce a result in the opposite direction to previous results, they are negative feedback – their effects stabilize the system. In the first case there is exponential growth or decline; in the second there is maintenance of the equilibrium.”

Johnson’s point (I think) was that the official blog’s appearance of authenticity was based on all the news being about “mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money”. Each new dollar led to still more new dollars. But the campaign was hardly going to facilitate positive feedback in the other direction – toward exponential decline. So when the news turned bad, it disappeared.

At least, that’s how I read it. But even if I’ve mischaracterized it, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Steven Johnson knows what feedback is.

Comments on this entry are closed.