Election Special October 27, 2004
The golden hammer these days isn’t any particular item of technology. It isn’t the Internet, solar power or space travel. It’s technology itself. It’s not that a particular gizmo or gadget will solve any problem, but that there is some new technological solution to any problem. The problems don’t even have to be physical anymore - technology is seen as a panacea to social and political issues as well.
In the third US presidential debate, President George W. Bush argued that “we’ve got to introduce high technology into health care” in order to bring costs down and to help make health care affordable to more people. The only specific “technology” mentioned was electronic medical records. Vague references to technology are often enough for many people to perceive that someone has a solution to a problem. The idea seems to be that technology is complicated, therefore non-experts can’t understand it but simultaneously trust it to fix any problem.
In politics, the technology solution isn’t always just rhetorical. In the wake of the voting scandal of the 2000 US presidential election, the Caltech/M.I.T. Voting Technology Project undertook a scientific study of the problems and issued a report with several recommendations. According to a Scientific American article about the report, the Project recommended that the entire electoral system be strengthened from registration to vote handling and no particular technological solution was endorsed. However, many jurisdictions simply turned to new electronic voting machines to solve the problem of lost and residual votes and to deal with any recount, rather than addressing any other issues.
Interestingly, once shortfalls of a technological solution become apparent, public opinion as to its efficacy seems to change quickly. Current lack of public confidence in voting machines has been well documented, and many groups have tried to change or eliminate electronic voting machines from their jurisdictions. The machines are still being used in many areas in the upcoming US election, and some critics are encouraging voters to report any unexpected experiences at the polls due to these devices.
People in power are using the promise of technology as a way to alleviate the legitimate concerns of citizens without providing a specific solution. Even when possible true solutions are presented, organizations would rather spend money on machines than spend time correcting systemic problems. This happens in corporations, households and in governments. Surely it’s time to demand thoughtful solutions from decision-makers rather than be placated by a shiny new toy.