Politics: from Quantum to Thermodynamic

In the past, candidates campaigned with a quantum model of the voter. Each voter counts. The candidate needs to convince neighborhoods and each house on a block. It was quantum in the sense that individual action mattered. Every atom/voter needs a packet of energy to transform from one candidate another.

Now the quantum model of the voter can be replaced by a classical thermodynamic model. One thinks in terms of the temperature of groups instead of individuals. Rather than counting individuals, the campaign thinks of percentages.

For many issues, opinions are split nearly evenly. To get the electoral results for a candidate, moving a fraction of voters in the middle is enough. The effect is that, for the majority of the electorate, the candidates don’t need to address them. They won’t matter to the outcome because their votes are free energy to win an election without exerting any work.

Targeted advertising such as what is available with Facebook, YouTube and Google allow candidates to focus their appeals to the subgroups that are in the middle. Adding heat to targeted parts of the pot can be more successful.

Changing the votes of one or two percent in the right demographic can be enough to win the election. Narrow campaigns targeted to subgroups can be more efficient than mass appeals through TV and radio. A campaign’s money can be stretched further when it tries to change the temperature of small groups rather than trying to push individual votes one at a time.

In a quantum model of campaigning, each person matters. When a candidate shifts their efforts to a classical, thermodynamic model, what matters is convincing groups in the margins. People have been reduced from individual human voters into inhuman mathematical abstractions.

Annotating the Election

I’m struck by how the U.S. Presidential candidates are using such retro technology. The internet has infinite possibilities but Donald Trump and the other candidates only allow you to participate in the margins.

A focus of Trump’s site is to promote his positions and show his successes as a celebrity. The only interactive parts of the site help him raise money and sell merchandise. The web site lets you “get involved,” but that section is very 1968. The way you get involved is to sign up for a newsletter to receive updates from the candidate. In ’68, you could get newsletters from the Nixon campaign in the mail. That’s not that much different from the emails I’ll get from the Trump campaign.

In the new century, Web 2.0 technology can provide much more to citizens than broadcasts from a candidate’s campaign. Right now, the changes since the election of Nixon in 1968 have come down to little more than allowing instant self-promotion. We can get updates from the candidates whenever they choose to broadcast info, but only on their terms.

We *can* mention @realdonaldtrump on Twitter and *feel* like we’re connecting. It’s a complete illusion. There are hundreds of tweets every minute that reference @realdonaldtrump. Donald Trump has made about 30 posts in the last 24 hours. His interactions were with other television celebrities, not everyday Joes like me.

He definitely isn’t personally involved with any of the endless Twitter conversations. A special effects tour de force lets us imagine that Twitter gives us a connection to him.

However, we are not in 1968 and there are other ways to interact. One I’d like to mention is Open Annotation.

The concept of open annotation is to allow users to “discuss, collaborate, organize your research or take personal notes” of the information on the web.

In 1945, The Atlantic had an article As We May Think written by Vannevar Bush. Near the end of his article, Bush foreshadows some of the basic concepts behind the world wide web.

One part of the article explores the possibility of finding connections between distant information sources and then sharing those discoveries with others. These connections could include comments that would be separate from the actual documents. In other words, notes in the margin for others to find.

Hypothes.is has implemented the tools needed to write those notes–to annotate the web. Their web page Hypothes.is allows you to access or create annotations by pasting a URL into their “Annotate!” tool. They also allow you to access a page’s annotations directly by clicking on a bookmark Hypothes.is has created for browsers.

One core property of open annotation is that annotation doesn’t require cooperation of the host of a website. However, nothing is changed on the host either; the annotations are only visible through the annotation tool. For example, when Donald Trump talks about China as a currency manipulator, one can add this annotation to reference Wikipedia:

A screen image of an annotated web page

An annotation of Donald Trumps web site’s discussion of U.S. China Trade Reform

Private annotations allow one to keep crib notes of the evidence supporting or refuting a candidate’s claims. Public annotations let one share that evidence.

It is possible to do more than just name-drop Donald Trump on Twitter. One could annotate his discussion of Second Amendment rights with statistics about gun violence in this country and relevant court decisions. You might annotate Hillary Clinton’s web site with information from her Senate career related to education.

You can annotate the candidates’ content today. You can connect distant pieces of information on the web in the place where that information is most relevant–by the candidate’s own words.

This isn’t 1968. The Internet is interactive. Name-dropping a candidate is not participating in the civic life of your community. Open Annotation lets you expand the margins using the technology of today.