October 19, 2016

RUSSELL | Gravity, Government and Google

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The final scene in the movie Gravity has always stuck with me. It’s beautiful: after 90 minutes of nail-biting space hullabaloo, viewers watch Sandra Bullock’s character swim out from the underwater wreckage of a spacecraft and gratifyingly tread up to the surface. It’s a long-awaited denouement, the moment when she finally reaches home. When her head rises from the water, you can hear mosquitoes and see the outlines of mountains in the distance. Her gargantuan breaths feel like a chorus of voices proclaiming the magnificence of earth and everything in it.

I remember watching the movie on my couch in high school, glued to the screen as this 40 something in a pixie cut reminded me to appreciate where I live. But these final moments were only meaningful because of the hour and a half that preceded them — without a space adventure, it would just be Sandra Bullock swimming with her clothes on.

Maybe this is an odd analogy to introduce a political topic, but the truth stands regardless: in both sci-fi screenplays and electoral campaigns, the outcomes are made far more interesting when one knows the trials and difficulties that enabled them to happen.

So, in preparation for the upcoming end to this election journey, I’ve spent a lot of time this week looking at the inner-workings of the two major campaigns.

It’s no secret the candidates have busy schedules — flying out to unexciting towns, talking about the same policy ideas and then flying back home to New York every single day. But the more meaningful moments in their story are the unexpected ones: when the tapes are leaked and the investigations are waged. These are the twists and turns that make our American story so intriguing, the did-you-hear-abouts and the can-you-believes we all discuss around our proverbial water coolers.

Most importantly, however, these instances force campaigns to dramatically shift their talking points and strategies.

As we approach election day and look back at the unexpected moments that have been thrust upon each campaign in this whirlwind of a general election season, one thing is clear: If Obama won his campaign because of the internet, this cycle’s runner-up will undoubtedly lose because of the internet.

Whether it’s Clinton’s emails or Trump’s regrettable tweets, both candidates reveal their flaws most clearly online. It’s a race to make the public forget the past, and the person with the smallest pre-election digital footprint wins.

Clinton and Trump aren’t the only people who have seen the world-wide-web turn on them: even the beloved Ken Bone was served a steaming slice of humble pie last week when his online comments about pornographic images and controversial topics were found and scrutinized.

This is the major pitfall of the information age: because of our connectedness, if you aren’t squeaky clean, the public will soon find out. Even the content that isn’t generated online can be posted and consumed by an incredible percentage of the population in minutes. Nowadays, unflattering videos and sound-bites leak more often than my frat house bathroom sink and make waves with every drop.

As a result, the Clinton and Trump campaigns often spend their time fighting not against each other’s tricks and tactics, but against the facts and rumors of the past and the tenacity with which they spread. We’ve come to a point in our political system where the hardest blow to any candidate doesn’t come from their opponent at all. It comes from everyone else.

This is a fundamental change to the way things work in elections. Don’t believe me? Take a quick Google search of the decisive moments in the presidential campaigns before the last decade. Chances are, you’ll see lists of policy points and quotes from debates and stump speeches. Investigative journalism about the candidates was around, but it was far more difficult and most stories about the past couldn’t be discovered, circulated and thoroughly analyzed by the populous quickly enough to ruin a candidacy.

When scandals like Watergate occurred, only top newspaper journalists had access to the information and contacts necessary to get to the truth. If and when they overlooked or neglected key facts, even the most informed voters didn’t know better.

Now, anyone can find or release devastating news on a whim. To be the next president, you don’t just need to pay careful attention to your choices after your candidacy is announced; you need to pay careful attention to your entire life.

So, later this year, when presumably Hillary Clinton is elected president of the United States and takes a gargantuan astronaut-at-the-end-of-a-long-journey-home breath, it won’t be a reflection of a well-played election season. It’ll be the culmination of a lifelong struggle, proof that she lived a life that was a bit more acceptable to the public than the competition’s and that the internet spared her just enough blows for her to squeeze out on top. And I guess that’s something to be proud of.

Paul Russell is a sophomore in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at prussell@cornellsun.com. Russelling Feathers appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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