The Iowa caucus debacle is but the latest example of how we too often expect technology to solve society’s ills, only to come up disappointed time and again. The app had a glitch, phone lines were jammed, systems for tallying totals and cross-checking results were poorly planned and implemented. Results—at this writing—are still incomplete.
One would think that those organizing the Iowa caucuses would be acutely aware of the broader context surrounding the election. Worldwide attention is focused on how free and fair elections can be influenced by electronic hacking or cyber manipulations. It seems nothing so sinister was at play here, but the Keystone Cops-style approach to handling the fiasco and its aftermath are a joke—a joke based on the underlying premise that, in America, technology makes things run smoother and smarter. In an age when fake news and foreign interference are in the headlines, the desire to defeat Donald Trump is on the minds of so many voters, social media giants are under scrutiny for failure to monitor their platforms and so much attention is focused on Iowa, this is inexcusable.
Media reports have concluded that the app used in Iowa was not fully vetted and those responsible for using it were not adequately trained. Say what!? My dad had a favorite phrase that he’d use to scold me when I’d to take shortcuts in school: Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. The Iowa Democratic party would have benefited from my dad’s wisdom. We have been seduced by the promise of technology yet again.
The Iowa results are symbolic of a larger trend in our collective thinking that technological advances are ordained to move the human species inexorably up the evolutionary ladder. The evidence, however, is often quite the contrary: technology exacerbates our human failings and exposes our social weakness.
And it is not just in politics. As the world confronts a pandemic in the coronavirus, China responds by using advances in communication technology to hide its slow response to the crisis and individuals, especially those on the margins of Chinese society, feel increasingly isolated and fearful of their future. Where is the reassurance that comes with human contact and concern? Medical technology seems almost other-worldly in its capabilities; but if we eliminate the human touch, full healing becomes elusive.
Designers of the internet and other social media tools have assured us that as our digital devices become more advanced, we’ll become more open minded and united. But instead of a global village where we celebrate opportunities to come together despite our differences, social media drives us deeper into our own silos, accelerating suspicions and fear about “the other,” making it ever more difficult to find common ground. In such a context, hate crimes and violence increase.
Technology is seen as the 21st century savior in things large and small—from securing personal safety to directing the course of political movements. But, we must be mindful that its promise often falls short of its performance. We have elevated science and technology to an almost spiritual plane, abrogating our human responsibilities and expecting the machines we create to redeem us from the havoc we have wrought. All the advances in our contemporary world cannot replace simple human contact and genuine teamwork. Thoughtful preparation, guard rails that promote respect and understanding, holding another’s hand in a crisis, investing in small measures to preserve the environment and engaging in local politics may all be “old fashion” notions, but such endeavors can avoid colossal failures like we witnessed this week in Iowa.