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.

3 thoughts on “Technology Seduction

  1. Thanks, Bob for another thoughtful, timely reflection linking these two crises. I would add that social media plays on naive people: false belief it is “free”, not caring what the source is, thinking quantity of likes or hits or eyeballs is the only measure. Further, that this tech explosion is a job creator while the positions per market cap of the firms is very low since all the users do their work by letting their personal info be harvested, bundled, analyzed and sold to the real customers, the advertisers. The firms cannot longer hide responsibility for enabling the worst elements and hatreds to be broadcast anonymously, claiming they are not publishers!
    Finally, use of tech to link customers directly with services (uber) or products (amazon) sounds efficient and may aid the homebound or rurally isolated , but the collateral damage or externalized costs are humongous: lost tax revenue, undermining of legit service providers and main street merchants, destruction of the familiarity of place, of downtown. Finally, destruction of the social compact between employer and worker in the false name of flexibility. The temp industry pioneered this scam.

  2. Timely thoughts, Bob. Today, I happened to attend (remotely) a conference that focused on FinTech, Blockchain and Coins. The speakers were all thoughtful people, arguing for their proposed solution, or combination of solutions, and my remaining question is ‘solution to what problem(s)?’ It’s pretty easy to construct a software program that moves numbers from my bank to yours, or even from my phone to yours (for the unbanked folks), but at what cost and with what unintended consequences? ‘We’re all very concerned about that.’ OK, thanks.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. My current frustration is that just this afternoon three different firms/organizations wanted me to establish email contact but insisted on my creating new electronic personas in their style. If they want me to be able to respond without keeping a computer full of special passwords just for their benefit, they’ve got another think coming. Technology should facilitate communication not establish barriers I like your style on this, Bob. You accept me as I am…

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