"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Democracy is too important to trust it to an app

It’s easy to ignore complex technological systems when they are functioning properly. So long as the system fulfills its basic promise of making it a bit easier or more efficient to accomplish some task, most of us are quite happy not to look too closely at exactly how it is that this system works. However, when a complex technological system does not work as intended, especially when this failure results in some sort of highly public calamity, a great deal of attention suddenly gets directed to that system.

The debacle at the Democrat’s 2020 Iowa caucus is such a situation. The story is fairly simple: those tasked with reporting results from the various caucus locations were instructed to convey their results using a new app, the app did not work properly (for a variety of reasons), and thus chaos ensued while much of the media (and legions of voters) waited anxiously for results. In a genuinely impressive display of unintended consequences, the app managed not only to significantly delay the release of results, but also managed to cast doubt on the results as they began to trickle out.

Had the app functioned properly, few would know much about the IowaReporterApp, or about the team of people behind it, which is in keeping with the fact that people generally know relatively little about the apps they use. The prevailing sentiment is generally one of “as long as it works, who cares?” But in the wake of the app fouling up the caucus, much attention has been paid to the unfortunately named Shadow Inc., to the digital nonprofit ACRONYM, and to the various political connections (and political preferences) of the individuals involved with Shadow and ACRONYM. When technologies work properly they are often treated as though there are no human beings responsible for these things, but when those technologies fail a lot of questions begin to be asked about the particular human beings responsible.

To call what happened in Iowa a debacle is to be generous. And that is without even beginning to engage with the many important critiques of the Iowa caucus system, or why it is that Iowa is the first primary state in the US. Nevertheless, while it is always wise to resist the temptation to see vast conspiracies behind every screw up, one can still recognize that those responsible for the IowaReporterApp have done little to assuage concerns. Though less thrilling than a nefarious conspiracy, the most likely explanation is that the app’s development was simply rushed, that the development was underfunded, that it wasn’t tested properly, that those who were to use it were not properly trained, and that the Iowa Democratic Party did not have a contingency plan in place. Thus, in place of shadowy skullduggery the main explanation that has emerged seems to be one of general incompetence, with the bonus being that this explanation manages to distribute the failure amongst a variety of groups. It is a distribution that does not lay the blame solely with hubristic techies, but also with normal people who are framed as insufficiently technologically adroit.

Yet it would be unwise to chalk this debacle up to incompetence alone. For incompetence does not really explain how this situation arose in the first place. After all, before you can have a shoddy app that throws an election into havoc, you must first have a worldview in place that believes that for every problem (no matter how minor it may be) there must be a high-tech solution. The danger, as the Iowa meltdown swiftly recedes into the past, is that this affair will be remembered as just a case of human failure, which will thereby give the underlying ideology a pass. Thereby ensuring that it is only a matter of time before all of this happens again.

The belief that anything that can be done by a computer should be done by a computer is a pretty common belief amongst those who live surrounded by smartphones, laptop computers, and other computerized Internet connected doodads—even if they do not always realize that they actually believe this. Already there is an app for this and an app for that, so why shouldn’t there also be apps for all of these other things? If computers and the Internet have simplified dating, communicating, getting a ride, and shopping – why shouldn’t they also do the same for voting?

As a society becomes increasingly dependent on complex technological systems, that society gradually comes to be remade in the shape of those technological systems, and a clear case of this is the steady churn from “there’s an app for that” to “there must be an app for that!” Apps shift from one way to do something, to being seen as the only acceptable way to do things. These systems tend to keep their inner workings shrouded in mystery, and those that use them (and are used by them) are rarely able to crack the systems open to understand how they function, even as the humans responsible for building these systems also remain cloaked in obscurity. There may be an ambient awareness that these systems reify and reinscribe the biases of those who built these systems, but even as the tech companies vow to address the racism and misogyny built into their systems, the bias in favor of computerization rarely gets challenged.  It is not merely the case that there is a belief that there must be a high-tech solution to every problem, but rather that things that were working just fine without high-tech solutions come to be seen as problems insofar as they are allowed to operate outside the sphere of high-tech control.

All of which is to say: it’s not that the Iowa caucuses needed a better app, it’s that they didn’t need an app at all. And in assessing what took place one must be careful not to buy into the belief that an app was needed in the first place.

To be clear, it would be farcical to suggest that the questions raised by the Iowa debacle are about “technology” vs “no technology.” The question is instead about what kinds of technology are appropriate for this particular situation. There are some technologies that the Iowa caucus absolutely should use, and these include writing utensils, notebooks, telephones, and let us not forget that the physical structures in which caucus goers gather are also technologies. Indeed, it is largely because the Iowa caucus sites had these other technologies available that something is managing to be salvaged (no matter how slowly) from the wreckage wrought by the IowaReporterApp. It is true that a pen, a piece of paper, and a phone call, aren’t quite as thrillingly high-tech as a brand new app custom built for an occasion; however, they tend to work pretty well. And there’s something significantly more, small “d,” democratic about pens and paper than about a smartphone app.

In the lead up to the Iowa caucuses there were numerous commentators questioning just how democratic (again, small d) these caucuses really are. Yet in the aftermath of the Iowa debacle the other thing that needs to be considered is just how democratic the high-tech gadgets used to facilitate democratic processes really are. An opaque high-tech system that has been developed with extremely limited independent oversight, which has been developed by a team with somewhat eye brow raising political connections, is many things – but it isn’t particularly democratic. Even if it works fine. On the flip side of this, there is something much more democratic about simple tools like pens and paper and telephone calls that can easily be checked and verified. When a person writes a vote total down on a piece of paper and then speaks that vote total over the phone there need not be much worry about what the unseen algorithm is doing. Democratic processes are far too important, and maintaining confidence in them is far too vital, to entrust such processes to complex high-tech systems.

Whether anything will be learned from what transpired in Iowa remains to be seen. And it is quite likely that even as people briefly enjoyed heaping scorn on the app, that in the end the loss of faith will be directed at democratic processes, and not at the reigning ideology of fealty to all things computerized. Indeed, the Iowa debacle seems likely to be just another case of the cycle that plays out over and over again:

  1. A new high-tech tool is pitched to fix something or to make something easier
  2. Critics are ignored or mocked as Luddites
  3. The new high-tech tool is deployed without proper testing, training, or planning
  4. Things go very wrong
  5. “Nobody could have seen this coming!”
  6. Learn nothing
  7. Repeat

Alas, insofar as the IowaReporterApp is simply remembered as a case of human incompetence, as opposed to a predictable consequence of an ideological allegiance to high-tech solutions, we will have learned nothing.

Ultimately, one of the great risks of what has happened in Iowa is that it has undermined trust in democratic processes, when what it really should have done is made abundantly clear that complex high-tech systems should be kept away from essential democratic processes. After all, just because you can use a tool for democratic ends, doesn’t mean that the tool is inherently democratic itself. It’s true that less high-tech voting procedures may not be quite as speedy or efficient as ones that use a brand new app, but we should remember that there are higher values than speed and efficiency.

Such as, for instance, democracy.


Related Content

The illusion of “there’s an app for that”

Riddled with questions – interrogating new technology

Techlash! What Techlash?

Living well in the technosocial world

Islands of Reason in the Cyberstream

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on February 6, 2020 by in Government, Impending Doom, Technology, US Politics and tagged , , , , , .

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