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Our Technological Fetishism Has Real Life Consequences


The idea that Iowa Democrats could just drop an untested app into the middle of the caucuses and nothing could go wrong says a whole heck of a lot about Americans. The first thing to note is that there is no room for untested technologies in our elections, which is a lesson a whole lot of people don’t want to learn.

After Monday’s Iowa caucus debacle, I’ve decided that Americans should vote by etching our preferred candidate’s name into a stone tablet with a hammer and chisel.

Or maybe by dropping pebbles into a series of urns, as the ancient Greeks did.

Or possibly just by voting the way we voted for much of the 20th century, on analog punch-card machines that spit out paper ballots to be hand-counted by election workers, with zero iPhones in sight.

Basically, we should be begging for the most analog election technology possible. Because what happened on Monday night — a long and confusing delay in vote counting, due in part to a mobile app that was hastily designed and inadequately tested before being deployed in one of America’s most important elections — was an inexcusable failure. It caused distress and confusion, set off innumerable conspiracy theories, and started the 2020 election season by undermining trust in the democratic process.

And all because Iowa Democrats wanted a new app.

The app, whose name was kept secret by Democratic officials, was compared to a “fancy calculator” that was supposed to help Iowa caucus chairs send their results to the state Democratic Party. But as my colleagues reported, it posed problems for caucus precinct chairs all day.

Some chairs weren’t able to use it at all. Others had connectivity issues, or simply didn’t know how to work the app, and were forced to endure long hold times on a phone hotline instead.

There is no indication that any of these technical issues changed the results of the caucus, or that any systems were hacked or compromised. And there were nontechnical issues that may have added to the chaos, such as new rules and worksheets that were designed to simplify the caucus process, but seemed mostly to have sowed confusion.

Regardless, the damage was done. The hours spent waiting for overdue results created an information vacuum, which was quickly filled by conspiracy theorists. By nightfall, liberals and conservatives alike were tossing around allegations of vote tampering and election rigging, and casting doubt over the caucus’s legitimacy.

It’s enough to make you wonder: Have these party officials ever been to a polling site or a caucus venue? They are not pristine WeWorks with blazing fast internet connections and an army of Geek Squad workers on call. They are mostly high school gyms, nursing homes and church basements with cinder-block walls and horrible cellphone service. The people who work at them are volunteers, and many are — how can I put this delicately? — members of the generation that still refers to the TV remote as “the clicker.”

Using a proprietary app to report vote totals is the kind of thing that sounds simple on a start-up’s whiteboard, but utterly falls apart in a chaotic real-world environment, where connections drop, phones malfunction and poorly tested apps strain under a surge of traffic. Add an army of frenzied poll workers, impatient voters and twitchy news media, and you might as well have asked the caucus workers to whip up their own JavaScript.

Personally, I think this is pretty funny because a) it undermines Iowa’s future as the ridiculously unearned arbiter of American democracy and b) it is such frustration for all the people who have thought the Democratic primary is the be all and end all of politics for the last 18 months. But of course, it’s also a real problem. Part of the reason that Democratic insiders make these choices is that there’s plenty of connection between Silicon Valley and the Democratic Party. It goes back to two interrelated American problems.

The first is the fetishization of technology. Americans have repeatedly plunged headfirst into technological innovations without even considering that there could be problems we might want to think about first. From the railroads to DDT to Facebook, it’s only been after massive horrifying problems develop that anyone begins to question the value of the technology. And even then, that questioning remains specific to the given technology and not to the relationship we have with technology generally.

The second is the valorization of the rich. Is it any surprise that the Democratic Party that calls in Mark Zuckerberg to advise on Newark schools and Bill Gates to shape global health policy believes in tech bros ability to run the Iowa caucus? They are rich, therefore they are smart is the biggest mistake we can make in our society and yet we do it again and again and again. I have little doubt we will learn anything from this debacle and certainly nothing systemic.

That said, I have no belief that this is some kind of big conspiracy by centrists to rob Bernie or something. It’s far more easily and accurately explained by the fact that a lot of people are really not very smart or competent and that doesn’t exclude them from running an election.

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