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From the Iowa caucuses to the Barnes & Noble fiasco, it's clear: tech cannot save us | Julia Carrie Wong | Technology


Every four years, journalists from around the world are drawn to the Iowa caucuses like podcasters to a murder. The blatantly anti-democratic tradition appeals to certain journalistic biases: the steadfast belief of the political press that rural Americans are more authentically American than the vast majority of Americans who live in cities and suburbs – and the irresistible opportunity to pedantically explain arcane rules. You can also get something called a “pie shake” in Iowa, which is, truly, delicious.

I understand the appeal. In 2008, as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, I was so enthusiastic about the caucuses that I stayed in town through winter break during the snowiest Iowa winter on record, rather than risk missing my chance to caucus for Barack Obama. (This was long before I had even considered journalism as a career.) The exercise in “democracy” that I ended up experiencing was patently absurd.

The Democratic party caucuses drew a record turnout in 2008, and mine was packed. Crammed into a campus lecture hall with theater-style seating, none of the “how to caucus” tutorials that advised sending each candidate’s supporters to a different corner of the room applied. The vast majority of people in the room supported Obama, but figuring out exactly how many people that was eluded the party officials in charge. They told the volunteers coordinating the Obama group to come up with their count – and do it quickly. Those volunteers had come prepared; they had written the numbers one to 500 on slips of construction paper, which they planned to give to each Obama supporter. The last card distributed would equal the total vote count.

It was a perfectly reasonable plan that fell apart the moment someone got impatient and broke the single, numerically-ordered stack, into multiple stacks. Thus ensued much shouting and recrimination, futile attempts to claw back the cards, and vague threats from the party officials. By the time we were ready to start the second stage of caucusing – when those who opt for candidates with insufficient support can switch to their second choice – results from around the state were already being reported and discussed in our room, influencing some people’s decisions. It was a mess.

That ill-fated stack of cards in my caucus was a kind of analog version of the now infamous app that set off the Democratic party’s woes in Iowa this week: a perfectly fine idea stymied by poor execution, impatience, and a tendency to seek shortcuts.

Silicon Valley is the current spiritual home of hucksters selling plausible-sounding, technological “solutions” to complicated societal problems, so it’s not exactly surprising that the company that bungled the caucus app is tied to a group that exemplifies this unhappy intersection. Acronym, and its affiliated Super Pac, Pacronym, racked up glowing press by selling the idea that Democrats could win back the White House with better digital ads and a propaganda operation designed to appeal to Facebook users.

I’m sure that their pitch sounded very convincing. Advanced technology so often does. Just this week, America’s largest bookseller allowed artificial intelligence to convince it that the heroine of the Secret Garden – the child of British colonists in India who was sent home to be raised by her uncle in an English manor house – could be anything other than white. We are a country that allowed Theranos to perform blood tests on actual patients without ever proving its product worked; that has confronted the epidemic of school shootings with invasive digital surveillance of students’ email accounts.

We have become untenably susceptible to the idea that AI is a substitute for judgment and that technological shortcuts are a viable strategy. They aren’t. Pulling the US back from the brink of authoritarianism is not going to be accomplished with Facebook ads and liberal propaganda masquerading as local news. It’s going to take incredibly hard work from political and community organizers persuading those under the spell of Trump’s demagoguery, motivating the unmotivated to vote – and working precinct by precinct to counteract the well-funded systematic efforts to disenfranchise large swaths of the electorate.

There are no shortcuts to reviving American’s democracy. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you something.

What I’m reading …

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