Meet the new political elite: Computer programmers


View Photo Gallery: It used to be that being a big donor, a pundit, an elected official or elder statesman was the way into the political elite. Today, it’s through HTML, javascript and ruby — in other words, computer programming.

Correction: A previous version of this post described Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as “pro-SOPA.” Ryan, in fact, does not support SOPA. While Ryan was perceived by opponents of the bill to be in favor of it, he released a Jan. 9 statement outlining his opposition to the bill“in its current form,” saying that he “will oppose the legislation should it come before the full House.”

Code is becoming the new lingua franca of Web activists around the nation, powering Anonymous-style movements against politicians and the status quo. In the process, programmers and coders are helping to create a new power base within the electorate. If you can code, you can launch new movements, upend traditional campaign dynamics and pressure candidates in a low-cost, high-tech and highly effective way.

Does this mean computer programmers and coding experts are the new political elite?

Take, for example, the pending SOPA legislation in the U.S. Congress, which has ignited a firestorm of protest across the Web. The grassroots anti-SOPA online campaign, which includes bare-bones sites such as #BlackoutSOPA and new apps that help you boycott SOPA supporters, is built, in large part, around people who can harness either their own coding skills, or the skills of others. The Internet “hive-mind” is suddenly everywhere in cyberspace, putting pressure on companies like GoDaddy.com to pull their support for SOPA, launching attack campaigns against legislators, such as Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) whose position they believed to be insufficiently clear, and ruthlessly forcing individuals and organizations to take a stand when it comes to supporting free speech on the Internet.


U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) (Jeffrey Phelps/AP)

The ability of these new coders to take out their frustrations on a candidate is quick, surgical and unforgiving. Consider what has happened with social news site Reddit, which has transformed into a political sledgehammer of sorts, weilded by programmers and Internet users attempting to change the online debate. In addition to coordinating attacks on SOPA supporters such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ("Operation Graham Cracker"), Reddit has been the conduit for amplifying attacks on politicians like Rick Santorum. Santorum, the target of “Google bombs” years ago, continues to attract the (very not-safe-for-work) ire of Internet supporters of same-sex marriage and gay rights.

As tech and media guru Douglas Rushkoff has written, we’ve entered an era where "It's Program or Be Programmed." Either learn to speak the language of the disaffected tech-savvy masses, or face the consequences of being a candidate who promises politics as usual.


Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. (Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

At tech incubators in cities across the nation, there are new classes popping up that promise to teach coding to everyday people. Even NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged that he wanted to learn to code this year (perhaps the Lady Gaga kiss at midnight on New Year's Eve temporarily impacted his judgment?).

In 2011, Anonymous showed that the Internet had the power to force greater online transparency, Occupy Wall Street showed that it was possible to mobilize supporters online, and the tech sector continued to churn out super-easy, off-the-shelf tools that make it possible to build apps and Web sites in hours—not weeks or months. Add to that mix the super nastiness of a Super PAC and a bunch of idealistic young political activists who can code, and you might just be able to change the complexion of the 2012 election campaign. As the election trail winds through New Hampshire, the lesson is becoming increasingly clear: If you don’t speak code, you don’t speak the language of the election’s new activists capable of changing the political zeitgeist.


View Photo Gallery: Washington Post columnist Vivek Wadhwa outlined his top 5 predictions for innovation in 2012.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

Photos | The rise of a new political elite

Wadhwa | Why it’s China’s turn to worry about manufacturing

Opinion | The clean-vehicle paradigm shift

Nemko | When to say ‘do more with less’

CES 2012: A ‘circus ... for entertainment rather than knowledge’

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.

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