Title

Three Random Thoughts

. . . after another incredibly stressful election.

November 7, 2018
 
 

1) When a nation allows people who hold power to use the tools they control to prohibit people from voting or to make it so difficult it amounts to the same thing, it’s a stretch to call that nation a democracy. In my state, which pretty consistently has the highest voter turnout, it’s not hard to register to vote, you can vote early, and though the lines can be long in the Twin Cities at certain times, public servants make sure there are enough ballots, machines, and election workers to make it work. In my small town precinct, I’ve never had to stand in line and at any given time there are more volunteers helping out than there are voters there to cast a vote. Why is this so hard in many places? At times, it just seems like cack-handed incompetence (I’m looking at you, New York, with no early voting and a shambolic election apparatus). Too often it’s political suppression of the voters whose forebears fought and died for enfranchisement and yet the powerful still are unwilling to recognize their full citizenship (I’m looking at you, North Dakota and Georgia and all the places where machines didn’t show up or were broken, electrical cords were missing, polling places were shut down or moved or not open when they should have been.) This is an international embarrassment. There’s no excuse.

2) Appeals to reason and deployment of fact-based arguments apparently can’t compete with appeals to emotion, particularly fear and it’s doppelganger, anger. This distresses me. I’m a librarian. I work at a college where people put a lot into teaching things like history, ethics, science, how to create arguments using solid evidence. I and my neighbors have endured weeks of the most bizarre barrage of political ads I’ve ever seen, mockeries of argument and evidence. Everyone hates these ads, so how can they possibly work? Likewise, I’ve been getting dozens of emails daily for well over a year, cajoling, threatening, begging, alternately predicting disaster and success as if perpetually conducting A/B testing. Every one of those hundreds of emotion-laden emails asked for money. Couldn’t those billions of campaign dollars and hours of labor have been spent on something useful? Think if the spending invested on local ads could have gone to, I don’t know, fixing potholes or filling shelves at the food bank? Which brings me to . . .

3) . . . a growing conviction that advertising doesn’t work, and yet it is the technical and economic engine driving nearly every exchange of information today. Advertising is the infrastructure for our searching, our conversations, our self-expression, our political decisions. It’s not just intrusive and irritating, it appears to me ineffectual – at least in terms of helping people make choices that improve their lives. Decisions made by the largest and most influential companies in the world hinge on attracting more users to spend more time poking at screens so more data can be gathered and more tailored ads can be placed in front of them. What exactly does that accomplish? Why is every intimate detail of my behavior so valuable to so many companies when I don’t have all that much money to spend anyway? What if this attention economy is nothing but a spectacularly huge speculative bubble - and it pops? What happens to our information infrastructure then?

One last thought . . . in all of the political ads that have clamored for my attention, none of them talked about the fact the planet is facing imminent disaster. It’s as if we just don’t want to think about it, which may be the most perverse effect of the attention economy. We’re too busy poking at screens in the moment to think about our all-too-near future.

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