Thursday, September 21, 2017
The Upstander

Wanted: Tech Savvy Activists

Alexander Wood January 9, 2017 Opinion Comments Off on Wanted: Tech Savvy Activists
Computer with code

A grassroots political movement is by nature a scrappy, rough-and-ready thing. Unlike a conventional electoral campaign or professional lobbying organization, it cannot count on big money or big personalities to achieve its objectives. What it can count on is the time and energy of its members. If a movement proves inspirational enough, it may even be able to mobilize these members in show-stopping direct actions that cut through the beltway bubble.

However, I’d argue the world of 2016 is a more hostile environment for barebones insurgencies than in decades before. And no, I do not include Bernie Sanders’ or Donald Trump’s campaigns as among these “grassroots movements.” Let’s not forget Sanders was already a senator when he ran for the Democratic nomination; an established political figure with the institutional resources of a federal office and a cadre of campaigning experts at his disposal. Donald Trump, on the other hand, was a national celebrity with millions of dollars to use on his campaign as he wished.

True grassroots movements are typically loosely structured, and oriented towards fuzzier goals than the simple election of a candidate to this or that political office or the passage of this or that bill.  Their greatest resources are the enthusiasm and skills of their memberships.

While the Anti-Trump movements I have become acquainted with in New York do not lack for enthusiasm, it’s unclear whether enough of their members have the technical skills needed to create a political opposition suited to the 21st century.

The ability of the Sanders’ to mobilize its legions of volunteers was built on an array of powerful digital tools. One of these was the ‘Bernie Dialer’, a predictive dialer system that enabled volunteers to get around federal restrictions on auto-calling cell phones. The system was spearheaded by Becky Bond, a telephony expert who joined the campaign as a senior adviser in September 2016, but built with the help of volunteer coders.

With the advent of digital campaigning, a coder is arguably more useful to a grassroots movement than an artist, a teacher – even a journalist. Not only because a vast amount of political action is now originated and disseminated online, but because coders can create tools that allow other activists to achieve their goals faster and more effectively: think auto-diallers for jamming the phone lines of Trump’s businesses, apps to alert activists to nearby flash mobs, and micro-investing platforms for social enterprises that will see their workloads expand as federal welfare programmes are scaled back.

At one stage during the recent ‘Good Guys NYC’ activist meeting, organizer Sarah Turbow asked attendees to split into groups according to their professional skills. There were plenty of communications experts, academics, teachers, artists, and non-profit and charity workers – but few software developers or programmers.

This is a problem, for though Anti-Trump activists have a surfeit of ideas about how to resist and frustrate the incoming administration’s agenda there may be only a few that have the requisite know-how to put these into effect.  This translates to longer waits to get planned initiatives off the ground, and the associated danger that activists will drift away from the movement out of impatience.

My message to Anti-Trumpists? Get educated and get recruiting. There is no shortage of opportunities to learn useful programming skills – some places in New York even offer them for free. Meanwhile, conventional political campaigns have become adept at organizing volunteers with coding experience – think ‘Coders for Bernie’ –  and putting them to good use. Grassroots insurgencies would do well to follow their example.

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