Goodbye, Old Politics

October 6, 2018

Almost everything here is my takeaway from ideas put forth by Ben Thompson from Stratechery and the Exponent podcast, being rehashed to cement my own understanding.

The world has changed a lot since 90s. Even though I'm only 30, I'm old enough to remember a time when the world looked very different. I remember fax machines and answering machines that recorded messages on tape. I remember the first computers that grade-school-me would see as nothing more than glorified game consoles. I remember when you had be very mindful of your time on the internet because your ISP was charging you by the kilobyte.

In the 90s and early 2000s, you had broadcast media with fixed schedules that you had to adapt yourself to, produced by a few big national players; you had big box stores that you'd drive to in order to purchase consumer packaged goods from brands that had been established for upwards of a century; and you had a handful of news sources that would tell you more or less the same thing, possibly with a slightly different slant.

We don't have those things anymore. If we do, they're merely a shadow of their old selves, clinging to dear life until their last remnants die with the last generation that doesn't know how to use the internet. Why did these things go away?

The central theme is that the internet allowed a shift from a world where the winners controlled the supply, to a world where the winners control demand. The few media companies that controlled the narrative surrounding the news before the internet didn't do so because theirs was the only narrative people wanted to read or hear. They did so because they owned printing presses and trucks and it was far too expensive for anybody else to compete with them. The consumer packaged goods that you would buy from the likes of, say, Gillette weren't there because they were the best product on the market, they were there because the manufacturers had the best deals with the big box retailers and could effectively block anyone else from entering the market. Shelf space was limited and they controlled it.

You could try to get your own competing products built with a higher quality or a lower price, but good luck to you for getting it to the market. Similarly, your cable or phone company was not entrenched thanks to consumer choice but because they owned precious limited infrastructure that nobody else could use, so consumers had no choice but to accept their poor service at outrageous prices.

Interestingly, this was even true of the technology companies of the 80s and 90s. Microsoft's dominance was built around it being difficult for consumers to be able to use the tools they wanted on any platform other than Microsoft's.

The internet changed all of this. It made distribution essentially free, so all of these industries that were predicated on monopolized distribution channels began to lose their grip. In the case of Microsoft, for example, the tools people really wanted were now one layer of abstraction above the chokepoint – you can access the information on the internet through any device regardless of whether it runs Windows or not. For the consumer packaged goods industry, online distribution meant that they were now on a level playing field with anyone who could produce the same product at them and deliver them to the consumers' homes. Shelf space was unlimited.

The story of the last decade has been one of distribution monopolies being sidelined by a new world where their strengths are no longer competitive. What they've been replaced by are new monopolies. These are monopolies of demand, such as Facebook, Google, or Amazon.

People don't use Facebook, Google, or Amazon because they have to. In fact, you and I are more than free to build and market our own competing products/services to all three (in part courtesy of Amazon and Google services) and market them directly to the same consumers who use them. But it won't make a difference. People won't want to use our service, they'll want to use theirs because they have network effects. You can build an alternative search engine (there are many), but Google's will always work better. You can build your own social network but it won't mean anything because people are already on Facebook (in fact, Google tried and failed). You can still go to any retailer and buy the same old products you see on Amazon, but nobody wants to do that.

This much is clear enough. Where it gets really interesting is when you consider the nearly limitless scope of these changes, and the one most pertinent to the times is the impact of free distribution on politics.

In the US, at least as long as parties have had votes for their presidential nominees, there has been an understanding that the selection of the nominee is somewhat democratic. In reality that was never the case. While the party base could vote to choose the nominee, they were really only picking one among a handful of candidates pre-selected by the party establishment. If you wanted to win an election, you needed the support of the establishment in securing donors and getting media coverage.

The first time this changed was before the 2008 election when the preferred Democratic party nominee, Hilary Clinton, got sidelined by a newcomer that used the new media to garner a larger support among the base. Then Trump took that game to a whole new level in 2016.

In a sense, this is the same pattern we've observed in multiple other consumer industries. The incumbent monopolies (the big political parties) held the choke point for reaching the masses. They controlled the supply (access to money, which then bought media). You could run for office on your own, but you weren't gonna get very far. The parties' monopoly has now been subverted by the internet. Distribution is now free – anybody can reach the populace just as well as anyone else on social media – and what matters is who controls demand.

Viewed in this light, the current political situation in the US is both unsurprising and an inevitability. Any expectation that we will go back to the good old days of "normal" politics are foolish. The entire paradigm has shifted and new actors (no pun intended) who can navigate the new world are going to win.

Like every distruption brought about by the internet, this will be a double-edged sword. While this disruption of the old order has led to some chaos (and will continue to do so until we figure out how to navigate the new paradigm skillfully), there is now some room for innovation in politics Admittedly, this may take some time. Personally, I don't think Trump is going to be the final iteration of this change. When Facebook and Google disrupted old school mass advertising, they may have eaten the lunch of the old media, but they also made possible entire new industries that couldn't have existed in the world of the old media. Today you can have successful Kickstarter campaigns that turn into new businesses with the support of a few tens or hundreds of thousands of people. In the old world, an ad campaign that only converted 20,000 customers would be an utter failure, given the cost of reaching them and distributing the goods to them. In the modern world, virtual mom-and-pop business can be started over night by targetting a narrow niche of just that size.

The major obstacle I see to this innovation is the marriage of politics to physical geography. On the internet, niche markets can be targetted because they're not constrained by the physical world. I'm not sure what the answer is here (perhaps Peter Thiel's floating cities). The only thing I'm sure of is that there's no going back to the old paradigm, and we can expect this new paradigm to become ever more pervasive: across more levels of government and across more governments.