How cybertools can improve politics

April 1, 2011

Conventional wisdom has it that the Internet is dumbing us down and making politics more partisan. Sound bites are more effective than substance. The punditocracy that shapes these truisms is, needless to say, pretty certain they apply most powerfully to people in the hinterland, especially those with a history of voting for the right.

That is why the election of Naheed Nenshi, a 39-year-old former business school professor, as mayor of Calgary, was a watershed event that should be of interest far beyond Canada, where he has already become a political superstar.

When Mr. Nenshi earned his upset victory last October, the first flutter of outside enthusiasm was about the fact that an Ismaili Muslim son of South Asian immigrants who moved to Canada from Tanzania had been chosen to lead the capital of the country’s conservative heartland.

The next wave of excitement was inspired by his campaign’s sophisticated use of social media to overturn Calgary’s old-boy political establishment. This Twitter revolution, with which we are now so familiar thanks to the oil states of North Africa, made a splash in the land of the blue-eyed sheiks thanks to clever tactics like a funny YouTube video of people struggling with Mr. Nenshi’s name.

But when I spoke to Mr. Nenshi recently in the elegant sandstone building that houses the mayor’s office, he told me that outsiders are missing the point. The real significance of his election, he said, is that it proves voters care deeply about big ideas and will elect the leaders who take the trouble to engage them. This is true, he insisted, even outside political and business centers such as New York, London or Toronto.

“We called it politics in full sentences,” said Mr. Nenshi, who has the energy and gregariousness of a born politician. “We called it the ‘better ideas’ campaign.” Those ideas were serious, and against the current of what many had assumed to be the cultural propensities of Calgarians. Mr. Nenshi is an evangelist of high-density living and of public transit, revolutionary notions in a city that is spread across as many acres as New York, but houses just a 10th as many people.

Calgarians love their cars – that’s how more than two-thirds of them get to work – and they are bullish on the oil industry that not only puts gas in their tanks but also is the lifeblood of their economy. Yet these same Calgarians embraced a geeky, Harvard-educated former McKinsey consultant, who loves technocratic solutions to urban problems such as “spot intensification” and containing sprawl by charging developers more to build on the outskirts of town.

Calgary is a “city of ideas,” Mr. Nenshi said. “Calgarians were really interested in having a conversation about the future of their city.” But the province of Alberta is the closest Canada comes to a one-party state, and until Mr. Nenshi and his pals came along, no one had really bothered to bring people in to that discussion.

This engagement with the community is the second important lesson of his win. In 1995, Robert Putnam told us that Americans had started to bowl alone. And many of us worry that the advances in technology in the subsequent 15 years have served mostly to alienate us further from our real-life neighbors as we retreat ever deeper into virtual communities of the like-minded.

What Mr. Nenshi found in Calgary was a passionate desire to be involved in the real, physical life of the city – and one that could be most effectively tapped by using cybertools. He said he adapted the classic marketing and political adage that you have to “go to people where they live” to the Internet Age. “One of the things we discussed is that a lot of people live online,” Mr. Nenshi said, including the 600,000 Calgarians, in a city of 1.3 million, who are on Facebook. “Social media was the tool that enabled our philosophy.”

He said that when he first moved back home to Calgary after professional stints in Toronto and New York, his East Coast friends were baffled: “The New York people and the Harvard people were like, ‘Naheed, why are you in the middle of the Canadian Prairies?’ ” But he thinks the “Four Seasons hotel tribe” of globe-trotting elites may be missing the fact that they inhabit a world that is rather provincial itself.

“This so-called borderless world has become more insular … I am very happy to let the Four Seasons tribe do their work on global prosperity,” Mr. Nenshi said. “I’ll do my work on local prosperity.”


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Part of what made the Four Seasons crowd dominant was that they dominated communication. As blogs and comment windows proliferate, they have less of a choke hold on publicly expressed thought. That does not make them comfortable. Their record of useful ideas is scant anyway.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

I would love to see computer voting to take over the present system of bogus elected officials.
Many years ago I remember an elected official telling a reporter … “I have yet to decide which way I will vote”.
This outraged me for years.
Later if I remember correctly it was made public this official was in trouble for taking bribes. He ended up losing his office seat at the next election.
But… for him to advertise on TV that he had not made up his mind was in that situation was a blatant effort to say nobodies paid me enough to see thing their way.

We may be better off with an electronic house and senate that accepted real online votes from home computers.

We could cut billions of dollars nation wide.
First big saving will be fuel and parking costs for driving to the voting box.
Second would be the cost of the voting machines themselves, the electricity for operating them, the cost of heating building they are housed in and time and cost of the volunteers that oversee the operations.
Then there is the cost of maintaining those voting machines and paying huge fees for the companies that work on them.
Fourth may seem small but right now it is part of what is killing our schools … pencils, paper and books and those print outs with every bodies name. That is allot of paper and pencils.
And fifth … time. All of the report in the past in one way or another bring up the time wasted in talking and chatting in the business world … think of the time lost for those that leave work to vote. That alone must be a saving when it comes to our national budget.
Sixth is simple … safety.
Imagine the number of people injured and killed driving to and from a voting location… let alone the possibility of someone getting injured in a scuffle over teachers rights one way or another. It is a preventative thing like Bush and Cheney did when they went to war to prevent the use of nuclear arms.
Seven … all of the police and volunteers that direct traffic. The cost to the local public is at times considerable, not to mention the inability of officers to protect citizens that may be in much more need of their help than those driving to and from the polls, and of course fuel for there vehicles.

We could go on, I believe we could come up with approx. 30 issues here for a real.

One of the thing about today’s internet is the lack of privacy. Thanks to advertisers and safety factors now taken into account with the internet. One could safely assume that you are who you are because; when we got on line today all of our moves including key stroke signatures,location of your computer,those that live in the house and pay the bills would already be registered with information gathering equipment already used to track us for “statistical reasons”.

Thus giving way to getting rid of most of our state and federal officials, their minions of office staff, and unanswered voice mail machines that presently give the appearance of having a representative. Costs of offices and utilities for those offices. And of course fuel to get to and from work, lunch, meeting, the dentist and of course voting.

Lets put a real use to those cyber tools, I can hardly wait.

OH, and my computer can run on a solar operated battery back up … all night.
That equates to a representative on a 24 hour a day, seven days a week … 365 days a year …. depending on your religious outlook and work schedule.

Posted by Travelingman | Report as abusive

I agree that people, in general, would rather have an elected official addressing issues of a local nature and then addressing the ways and means on how to make things better.

The people are tired of the bickering, short sightedness of politicians looking to the past. They want to envision a new brighter day for their families.

Great article. Thanks

Posted by dementglobal | Report as abusive

So, your saying…that if a progressive is elected in a conservative district….then we are not ‘dumbing’ down the populace….but if the reverse is true, then we are dumbing down the populace?
wow…..really….just wow.


Posted by JayWx | Report as abusive

Some say controlling the cyber message about himself was how Obama was elected. Even after the election, the several floors full of internet surfing manpower was kept on, but this time paid for by tax dollars. So when there was an invitation to send the president an email, I was really stupid and sent him a note about spending. There after, I had this code implanted on my home computer that regularly copied and viewed what I was saying even to my relatives via the internet. I’d be typing an email about going on vacation to some town or whatever and then all of a sudden a little box with an arrow would hover, then —swish—- a few lines of type would just simply disappear. The “grabbing” got pretty dog-gone pesty. Several times, I just stopped trying to talk to my relatives and just started talking to the grabbers. The little box would show up, read what I said to them, and then like magic the disappearing act would quit bugging me.
I finally got tired of all that spying and just went out and got a new computer vowing never to email Obama again.
I guess it is legal for the CIA and all these secret floors of cyber people to “take the pulse” of just every day normal people’s conversations…homeland security, you know.
The day will come, though, when people won’t be so tolerant of this using cyber space to make sure a politician can read where people are at.

If you would really look at what internet controlling proposals have come out of the liberal camp since Obama’s election, you wouldn’t be thinking this is so way cool for governmental electeds to be so clever.

Posted by limapie | Report as abusive

“In the USA, Obama may destroy the country economically and still 40% of the population will blindly vote for him again. 40% will blindly vote for his opponents. So whats left? 10% of the THINKING voters of the USA controls politics.”

I don’t mean to be rude, but there’s a sense of irony in someone complaining about stupid voters, and then adding 40 + 40 + 10 to get 100.

Posted by KmacKenzie | Report as abusive