Articles by

William Powers

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    William Powers, a journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” is a research scientist at the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab. Today Knight Foundation is announcing support for a campaign analytics project at the lab, The Electome, to advance excellence in journalism and increase civic engagement. Photo: Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., by Nam June Paik at Smithsonian American Art Museum, credit: angela n. on Flickr.  The world has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Across every imaginable industry and sector of society, digital technologies have flattened old institutions and hierarchies. The change is evident in the public sphere, long dominated by the powerful and the journalists covering them. In the past, most voters didn’t have a real voice in the democratic conversation. They just listened, or, in many cases, tuned out. In the months preceding a national election, there was one place where the public’s views could be heard: opinion polls. But polls were used mainly to track the political competition rather than the issues and policy questions – the ideas – at stake in elections. Today everyone with a computer or mobile device has a voice and so many different platforms on which to use it, from Twitter to Facebook, Instagram to Snapchat. Yet when it comes to the most important political and policy decisions, are those millions of voices being heard? While the 2012 presidential election was widely viewed as a turning point for digital democracy, the advances were principally in two areas: 1) on the campaign side, data-mining by political professionals, and 2) on the journalism side, predictive analysis of the election’s outcome, most notably by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog via The New York Times. In short, the same forces that always held sway in the public sphere – the politicians and the media – leveraged the new technologies to focus on one question: Who’s winning the horse race?