The Times They Are A-Changin': Why The Left Needs Better Tools

February 23, 2021

Imagine the world ten years ago: The final Harry Potter movie had arrived at last, the Tea Party was on the rise, almost no one had ever heard of Bernie Sanders, AOC, Black Lives Matter, Medicare for All, or a Green New Deal, and you had probably never been sent a political text message.

The world changes quickly, and the rate of that change is always increasing. Whereas previous generations of organizers could wait years or decades for political conditions to significantly shift, we routinely see new political possibilities emerge, expand, and contract in a matter of weeks or months before being subsumed by the next crisis, election, or media cycle.

Fast Change, Slow Tech

As the world constantly reshapes itself, new potent organizing opportunities for the Left are constantly arising and fading away, unrealized or underrealized. And as the rate of social change increases, our windows for intervention get smaller. What technology is available ends up playing a major role in whether or not we’re able to seize these moments, and to what effect.

Of course, there are countless variables that contribute to the relative success or failure of different movements and organizations; there are no silver bullets to overcoming entrenched structural power imbalances. But technology makes a big difference. When our organizing tools are mismatched for a project’s needs, it doesn’t have the chance to get off the ground, or if it somehow manages nonetheless, its existence is likely to be precarious, stunted, or brief.

We typically regard the overall pace of technological development as very fast, but within the context of political organizing, it can be halting and unresponsive. Software developers are expensive, hard to employ by temporary or unstable organizations, and hard to coordinate as volunteers. Even in a best case scenario, software development is much slower than the rate at which an organizing project needs to adapt its processes as it grows.

The basic quandary is this: If we attempt to build specific tools for specific organizing projects, we’ll miss our windows of opportunity, and if we don’t build anything at all, our capacity to organize will be constrained by the limitations of existing general-purpose data management solutions, like Airtable’s row limits or Google Sheets’ permission settings.

Neither of these are acceptable options if we want our political organizations to grow, respond to new threats and opportunities, and ultimately, win demands for a more just, free, and equal society. Our movements are already trying to build solidarity against the world’s most powerful forces – we shouldn’t have to also share spreadsheet logins, continually reformat CSVs, and debug broken syncs.

What the Left needs is a suite of general-purpose organizing technologies informed by distributed organizing principles that are both powerful enough to be the difference between an organizing project existing or not, succeeding or failing, and flexible enough to be applicable to a wide variety of project types over time, as our organizing conditions rapidly change.

Drawing from Distributed

Many of the organizing projects that are most in need of these general-purpose organizing technologies are the same kinds of complex and mass-scale projects that distributed organizing has succeeded in making viable in the first place. Such projects embrace ambitious goals; they pair together diverse scopes of specialized work and large-scale repetitive tasks; they require intensive data-tracking and management; and they depend on large numbers of volunteers with widely varying skills, interests, and availability.

Distributed organizing deploys a set of principles—applicable to both electoral and non-electoral work—to directly grapple with these project characteristics. These include:

  • breaking down work into discrete and standardized tasks that volunteers can easily pick up;
  • creating clear roles designed to accomplish those tasks while giving volunteers significant responsibilities;
  • utilizing widely accessible trainings and support materials to scale onboarding;
  • and systematically tracking the status and progress of tasks, contacts, volunteers, and teams over time and in relation to project goals.

Over the past decade, these distributed principles and the systems that they’ve shaped have revolutionized grassroots political organizing. It is impossible to imagine the Bernie 2016 and 2020 campaigns, the insurgent primary campaigns of Justice Democrats, or the mass youth mobilizations of the Sunrise Movement without the systems that allowed for a relatively small number of paid staff to unleash and channel the power of millions of volunteers and small-dollar donors. Those systems gave hundreds of thousands of people an onramp to get involved—people who agreed with our politics but would have otherwise had few meaningful opportunities to express their support. Instead of simply cheering from the sidelines, they were able to help build the progressive movement by making calls, sending texts, knocking doors, attending events, or participating in the countless leadership teams that make all of this possible.

Missing Technology

In other words, the way we think about and design many complex and mass-scale organizing projects has shifted to create new possibilities for the Left. But the organizing technologies we rely upon to implement those designs have too often lagged behind the concrete demands of our projects and the imaginations of our organizers, creating artificial upper limits to what we’re able to accomplish.

The intuitive response to this deficit between demand and supply of appropriate organizing technology is to build more special-purpose organizing tools that can address the specific need being identified. And of course, many high-functioning special-purpose organizing tools already exist to support various workflows: texting tools, dialers, event management tools, crowd canvassing tools, etc. But building these in response to new political and organizational developments is too slow and too cumbersome to be practical.

What’s needed instead are robust general-purpose organizing technologies that let organizers build new, custom systems on-demand and in response to emergent opportunities. We need databases that don’t run out of rows, workflows with flexible and precise permission settings, and software extensions that weave together texting, calling, canvassing, events, and more into one data-seamless meta-platform.

Organizers have already figured out how to work with general-purpose collaborative spreadsheets (e.g., Google Sheets and Airtable) to great effect in building powerful distributed systems. But developers and digital organizers have not yet figured out how to make spreadsheets work for organizers. Or put another way, we have not yet re-imagined what spreadsheets could be in order to serve the real needs of our organizers and organizations. The same could be said of organizing technology writ large. As a group of software engineers and distributed organizers who together built an unprecedented organizing program and its accompanying software on Bernie 2020, we at Rewired believe we’re up to the task.

What’s Next

In subsequent articles, we’ll detail what we are building, how we decided to build it, and how we think it will transform the work of Left organizers and the projects they are able to bring to life. In particular, we plan to share how we’ll re-architect data access permissions across the various tools used by organizers, as well as how we can overcome long-standing integration and data migration problems by using extensions to connect those tools back to an integrated central database. We’ll also explore what some of the political and coalition-building implications of this new technology could be.

Whether it’s at the ballot box, in the streets, or at the workplace, our movements will face tremendous challenges in the years ahead. Our goal is to eliminate unnecessary barriers raised by inadequate organizing tools and to empower organizers to build the systems they need to meet the moment.