Let’s Talk About Something Else

04/14/2020

Let me make it clear up front that I am not totally anti-technology. I know that I have gone off on a number of tirades in the past, complaining about the evil of computers, cellphones, the Internet and social media, both in the classroom and elsewhere, and have earned a reputation as something of a Luddite.

I even wrote a column a few years back in which I argued that we had developed all the technology we really needed by 1939. That premise was stretched to include other fields as well like art, music and literature. (Not medicine, however, as I hasten to point out during our current crisis.)

In retrospect it all sounds a little like “make America great again” thinking, which was not the way it was intended. Social justice has come a long way in the past 80 years, and that’s a very good thing.

In terms of technology, though, I’ll stand by my assertion that life would still be worth living if progress had stopped on the day that “The Wizard of Oz” hit the theaters. As any Rolling Stones fan can tell you, though, there is a difference between need and want.

I don’t need 21st-century technology, but there are a couple of things that I not only appreciate, but wish had been around 50 years ago. One of them is Google (I know, it wouldn’t work too well without the internet.).

This is basically a matter of laziness. When I think back on all the time I spent researching things, from high school through my first couple decades in publishing, it now seems like a gigantic waste of time. If you put it all together, it represents years of my life that I’ll never get back.

The other is a cellphone, but not the one I have now. I could happily do without a pocket computer that wants to manage every facet of my life, but I often think of that first little Nokia that I bought 22 years ago. It was not about the internet, or photography, or getting directions, but simply about actual conversations with other humans.

Young people probably can’t imagine how much time we used to spend just trying to get ahold of each other, getting busy signals or no answers, leaving messages with other people or machines, or even looking for a phone booth (which was invariably occupied). “Long distance” calls were so expensive as to be avoided whenever possible.

That phone would have made business a lot easier and more productive, especially when you were out on the road. It also would have facilitated social connections and arrangements, which were pretty much hit and miss back in the day.

At a deeper level, I like to think that easier communication would have made me a better communicator. I would have called my mother more often. I would have kept in touch with old friends. Of course I know that I’m probably kidding myself. Communication couldn’t be much easier than it is now, and I still suck at it. As I told a friend the other day, social distancing is my default setting.

In any case, we can’t change the past, but I think it’s important to remember that events in the past continue to affect us, even in the application of technology that didn’t exist at the time. That may sound like gobbledygook, but I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush and Al Gore battled to a virtual tie, leaving the race to be decided by Florida. Whichever way the sunshine state ended up, so would the race, but unfortunately nobody could figure out what that was.

Out of nearly 6 million votes cast, the two candidates were within a few hundred votes of each other one way or the other. The problem was that the voting was so close statewide that it triggered automatic recounts, but there were no firm rules on how to conduct those recounts.

Back then, Florida was using punch-card ballots. You had to fit your ballot onto a template, and then use a stylus to punch holes next to the names of the people you wanted to vote for. Ordinarily the ballots were read by machines, and the day after the election the state conducted a complete machine recount.

That recount rendered the tally even closer, prompting the Gore campaign to request a manual recount in four large counties that had large Democratic majorities. That’s when we went through the looking glass.

When people started looking at the paper ballots, they discovered that the intention of many voters was a matter of opinion. The little piece of paper punched out by the stylus, known as a “chad,” was not always punched out cleanly. That resulted in the famous hanging chads, dimpled chads, pregnant chads, and so forth. How could anyone determine whether a voter had changed his mind, or realized he was punching the wrong name or just lacked the vigor to push the thing all the way through?

The winner could be decided either way, depending on whatever rules were established for validating votes. At this point the Florida secretary of state, a Republican named Katherine Harris, decided that the machine count should stand and moved to certify the results.

Harris was overruled by the Florida Supreme Court, which ordered that the entire state returns be recounted, by hand. Then the Bush campaign appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in a 5 to 4 vote that the recounting would stop, and that the machine count in Bush’s favor would stand. The whole process had taken six weeks.

God only knows what all the ripple effects of that decision have been over the past 20 years, and I couldn’t begin to guess. I do know what one of them was.

Due to the vagaries of handling paper, like losing it, damaging it, miscounting it or whatever, there was a popular outcry against old-fashioned voting systems. Here we were in the middle of an explosion of electronic technology that was revolutionizing every facet of our culture, and yet we were counting scraps of paper like monks in a medieval monastery.

Elections are run by states and local districts, not the federal government, so everyone went off in their own direction, trying to out-tech everyone else. It yielded a patchwork of electronic systems, at great expense to taxpayers.

Fast forward 20 years, and we arrive at the Iowa caucus this February, which was conducted by the Iowa Democratic Party. High tech these days means anything that can be done with a cellphone, so the IDP paid $63,000 to a company called Shadow Inc. (for real) to develop an app on which the 1,700 precinct captains were supposed to report their results to headquarters.

Shadow is a relatively new company which had never done a project on this scale. To make a long story short, the app didn’t work. They did have paper ballots to fall back on, but since they didn’t expect to use them they didn’t have a good system in place to count them.

By the time they figured out who won a week had passed, along with the New Hampshire primary, and it was almost meaningless. This was after a year of intense campaigning and advertising in the state by more than a dozen candidates.

It will be interesting to see how the Iowa debacle will affect the movement toward sophisticated electronic voting processes. Because of Iowa there has already been a backlash against paperless systems, but there was a very big reason to be wary of technology to begin with.

As you may have heard, worrisome actors such as Russia have taken a keen interest in our elections. That they will try to influence voters is not in doubt, but what if they could influence the vote counting? Not a pretty thought.

I am not totally anti-technology, but if something is really important to you, I suggest you keep it on paper. That’s the medium I write on, and I intend to continue.

I know we have other issues on our minds right now, but how we manage the elections this fall is a big deal.


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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