IDEA IN THE NEWS / June 16, 2009 -- Over the weekend, Iran hurtled into political upheaval, and America's 24-hour cable news networks hardly noticed. Mark Ambinder explains the role Twitter played in Iran. Here in the United States, Andrew Sullivan made The Daily Dish a leading worldwide information hub for updates, an impressive feat for a guy blogging from a pier in Cape Cod (aided back at the Watergate by the most skilled aggregation helpers in the business). I'll leave it to others to remark on what this means for the Iranian people, or authoritarian governments generally. (See these stunning photos too.)
What I want to suggest is that events like this portend an interesting, largely unremarked upon change in American political discourse.
Consider the two groups of friends I saw in Washington DC this weekend. Group
1 is largely composed of young DC journalists, most of them bloggers.
These folks were well aware of events in Iran by Saturday afternoon,
getting their updates from blog coverage via Google Reader, or Twitter,
or both -- the same way a few of my tech friends in San Francisco and my human rights advocate friends in NYC knew about the news.
Group 2 is more diverse--really just a collection of friends and acquaintances--among them federal employees, interns in several Obama Administration agencies, a high school teacher, three corporate lawyers, and other young professionals. This latter group knew almost nothing about the Iranian election, even Sunday night. One said she heard that Ahmadinejad won, but didn't yet realize the results were contested.
Yeah, it was the weekend. Who keeps up with the news outside the office? If CNN didn't even bother to jump on the story, why would various white collar professionals who work outside journalism bother? And the folks I know who write or follow blogs have been ahead of the curve on news for some time now.
But I've never seen an information asymmetry quite like this. The folks in the know had a pretty sophisticated grasp of events (though perhaps they thought they understood things better than was in fact the case).
And those out of the know? They aren't any longer just grandmothers, the apolitical, and the middle manager in Scranton who gets all his news at 11 o'clock after the game. Now people who watch The Daily Show, subscribe to The New Yorker, and read the CNN subtitles as they run on the 24 Hour Fitness treadmill possess radically less information than a self-selecting group of their fellow citizens, granting that they mostly catch up on any given piece of information in a matter of days.
Does this time lag matter? On the Iran story, probably not. There isn't anything particularly significant that the average American can do to influence events. Elites spreading information for a global audience was enough. But I can't help noticing that information elites are able to process breaking news and form political opinions about it faster than ever before (see the Feiler Faster thesis as told by Mickey Kaus); that these folks are blogging and Tweeting their policy suggestions and demands almost immediately; and that due to arguably dubious strategic political considerations, all of Congress seems to be getting on Twitter.
Are we approaching a point where political information is processed so fast that an event happens, information elites weigh in to shape the discourse surrounding it, the conventional wisdom is communicated to Congress, and elected leaders formulate reactions based on public opinion... all before most of even the formerly plugged in members of the public ever learn what on earth is going on, or have a chance to form an opinion? Is anyone who works at a company that blocks their Facebook feed going to be meaningfully disadvantaged in the political process? Egalitarian concerns aside, are the information elites going to set a course, ossify as they always do in their opinions, and influence the nation's course too hastily? Are we on course for a kind of political singularity?
It isn't quite time to declare that these ills are upon us. Or maybe it is, and I just don't know it yet.