As the first televised debate between the U.S. Presidential candidates went to air in 1960 it made history and set a new standard in mass imagery for the political process with televised debates returning in 1976 and featuring in every U.S. presidential campaign since.
Mass imagery: from television screen to phone screen
When John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon adjusted their ties for the last time before taking to the stage on this day in 1960 it may have seemed unimaginable that 57 years later, presidential hopefuls would be able to communicate directly with the people in real time via hand held devices.
Thirteen tweets today, touched on the screen of a smart phone by the fingers of the current President, were transmitted to the screens of 39.3 million followers within seconds of Donald J. Trump typing his message.
The smart phone is one key manifestation of the transformative effect technology has had, and continues to make, on the political process.
The same power of mass images discovered and harnessed with television continues to be deployed to convey messages. The difference between now and 57 years ago is that technological developments increasingly allow the power of mass imagery to be a two-way street between those wielding or seeking power and those who are, or will be, subjects of those in power.
With more than four billion mobile phones in use worldwide (many of them ‘smart’), the monologue of imagery produced and disseminated by a rare few for the consumption of many has been replaced by consumers carrying devices capable of capturing, creating and transmitting imagery.
The consumers are often now the producers; and the producers are just as likely to consume content produced by their former audience.
Political funds: large amounts from relatively few donors to small amounts from relatively many donors…..
Almost as unimaginable 57 years ago is the transformation these same devices would have on another key aspect of the political process: fundraising.
The regulation of money in relation to the political process is an inherently complicated issue that has occupied the minds and endeavours of many throughout history. The smart phone confidently inserted itself into the equation during the last decade as a means by which small amounts of money from a large and dispersed group could easily and effectively be accumulated by one political ideal or person.
From one perspective, this could illustrate a democratization of the funding aspect of the political process; vesting power and influence where it had not previously rested. Political power emanating from the grassroots, literally dollar by dollar.
An alternative view may illuminate a continuation of the status quo whereby those with money and privilege (ie. A smart phone, network coverage and sufficient education to use the device) exert influence and those disadvantaged groups lacking access to the currency of the moment whether it be the right technology, the education and skills or spare money, struggle to have their voice heard.
Regardless of your perspective on the outcome, the greatest change in the political process in the 57 years since the first televised campaign debate is likely to be the impact technology has had on political fundraising and much of that impact can be attributed to the now ubiquitous smart phone.