When you turn to the political coverage in this month’s issue, you will notice two words conspicuously missing: Obama and Romney.
It’s not that we don’t have strong feelings about the candidates, but weighing in on the minute-by-minute, blow-by-blow process of politics is not what DISCOVER does. There is plenty of that (too much perhaps) elsewhere in the media landscape. I am much more interested in the broader perspective: not what politics will look like in two months but in two years, or twenty. On that scale, personalities become less important and the role of science and technology becomes much more clear.
The steam engine gave rise to the whistle-stop campaign tours of the early 20th century; television made the first 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate into a national event. Web-based organizing is ushering in new possibilities today. Not everyone will like the effects of technological change. In the United States, the effort by Americans Elect to create a centrist party via Facebook got zero traction in this cycle, but social technology is poised to have more influence over future elections. In the Muslim world, the open communications that helped topple dictatorships are also aiding fundamentalist forces. As always, technology is only a tool, not an ideology. We need to understand it in order to anticipate its effects and to exploit it in beneficial ways.
The most intriguing political concept in this issue is also the most scientifically far out. It is now possible, in principle, to build a largely autonomous seafaring vessel, sail into international waters, and create a new island nation. With wireless technology, the people aboard could remain socially and economically connected to the rest of the world while becoming politically independent. Each vessel could try a different political system.
Then the whole fleet could empirically address one of history’s seemingly unanswerable questions: Which form of government works best? That’s the kind of experiment that could really transform politics.