Technology can’t solve every problem

David Phillips

The chaos surrounding the Democratic caucuses in Iowa raises many questions, including this non-political one: Are humans harnessing the power of technology or is technology sapping the power of humans?

In Iowa last week, the presidential preference results of the Democratic caucus were delayed several days due to problems, mainly a coding issue with a new smartphone app used to report results. The delay brought quite a backlash with threats to eliminate the caucus system and prevent Iowa from being first in the nation to register presidential preferences.

The reason for the app was reportedly to provide faster reporting of results to the public. However, it is easy to envision a different scenario.

Perhaps party officials saw they were getting a lot of heat that caucuses are antiquated, so 19th century, they are confusing and they limit potential voters because of the time commitment. They needed to do something to freshen up their image, so they decided an app would be so 21st century, something to show they are on the cutting edge of technology.

That fictional scenario seems plausible because the complaints about the caucus system never focused on the speed of reporting; it was focused on the quality of voting as the small numbers of participants compared to primary voters aren’t representative of the makeup of the population. Most people were satisfied with the reporting in past elections, realizing that caucuses do take slightly longer to tabulate.

While caucus officials may have wanted to push everyone in Iowa into the 21st century, they forgot that rural areas have limited broadband/cell tower capabilities and there are many older caucus chairpersons who might not have smartphones or aren’t technologically savvy. Although it is true that our world is saturated with apps, not everyone craves apps and party officials apparently didn’t realize the difficulty for people to navigate a new app.

Even more problematic, officials underestimated the amount of testing and training required to launch a new app.

The Iowa fiasco leaves open the question of whether there was a real need to change the caucus reporting system or if it was just a bow to technology because technology is cool.

After all, technology has infiltrated all other aspects of our lives. Many people use apps to measure every moment of their waking life, and there are many that even measure their non-waking life, such as sleep quality. Business and governmental units are hastening this surge of technological intrusion into our daily lives, not only by giving people the choice, but also, in some cases, requiring people to go online to interact with companies and agencies.

The more addicted we become to technology, the more control it has over our lives and the more ways it makes us vulnerable to glitches or even attacks.

Those attacks don’t have to be the sophisticated hacks that make the headlines so often. A recent article in Wired magazine reported that a German artist named Simon Weckert “hacked” Google maps in a very unsophisticated, and interesting, way.

He borrowed 99 phones from friends and rental companies, put them in a little red wagon and randomly strolled an empty street for most of a day. The stunt tricked Google Maps into thinking the empty street was experiencing a traffic jam.

Although his method could be used to disrupt traffic patterns for nefarious purposes, his goal was to make us think.

When Wired asked him about his motivation, he said, “What I’m really interested in generally is the connection between technology and society and the impact of technology, how it shapes us.” He cites philosopher Marshall McLuhan: We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. “I have the feeling right now that technology is not adapting to us, it’s the other way around.”

Most of us feel that technology has improved our lives, but that doesn’t mean more technology is the answer to every problem. As Iowa Democrats found, sometimes the old way is just fine.