An Amazon Prime Air Drone
An Amazon Prime Air Drone

The Victorians were into some weird stuff but one thing that could stand to make a comeback is a subgenre of speculative fiction called “utopian romance.” These books were somewhat light on plot and spent most of their pages describing utopian futures where everything you could ever want or need was directly at your finger tips. I suppose that is as good a way as any to work through the existential angst that persists in the face of incredible violence mixed with the lavishness of global empire. One person that was not too keen on these novels was a legal stenographer by the name of Ebenezer Howard. He was reading one such utopian romance called Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy which described something akin to Amazon: an enormous network of hyper-efficient delivery systems that could get you just about anything you want nearly as soon as you wanted it.

Unfortunately for Howard he could not partake in the excitement about this new novel because he kept getting caught up in the details: What was keeping these supply routes running? Who made all of that possible and what was keeping them from going on strike, raising prices, or demanding some sort of unimaginably high concession from the rest of the world to keep the supplies flowing? These questions plagued Howard so much that it drove him to create a whole new profession that has touched just about every city on the planet: urban planning.

And now here we are, in the future, and Amazon wants to surpass the speed of human delivery systems by using drones to airdrop our orders.  I won’t pretend that such a prospect is uninteresting to me. I want robots to do my bidding as much as the next guy, but our history with labor-saving robots has been sketchy at best. We’ve been here before and there are lots of predictably bad outcomes from automation.

Amazon’s promo videos for their drone service conveniently obscure the humans in their warehouses and only show happy customers along with providing the DJI Phantom 3 review for customers to get an idea of what technology they use. Unless entire production lines are automated there is inevitably someone somewhere trying to keep up with the inhuman tempo. And if the suffering human isn’t in one production line, they are somewhere else in the production chain, either providing the raw materials or receiving the finished products. In any case the story remains the same: Human labor is rarely saved in a way that is good for a worker. No single worker in an automated factory is working less or more comfortably, rather there are fewer workers doing more repetitive tasks faster than ever before. David Noble, in America By Design showed that automation, when it is first implemented, is never as efficient or cheap as the human labor it supplanted. It takes years before assembly lines reach the quality and efficiency of human assembly lines and so the loss in productivity can be seen as a down payment on a smaller, more pliable workforce. Robots do not need health insurance, retirement packages, or break rooms.

This dynamic can even be found in spaces that too few people are willing to acknowledge even contain workers: home kitchens. Home appliances, as Ruth Schwartz Cowan famously observed, never reduced housewives’ labor. Instead, the amount of work expected of them increased. Rather than cooking a meal and repairing some socks, a day’s work involved multiple meals, a spotless house, and several loads of laundry.

If the past is prelude then the drones that replace your delivery person will probably be good enough. That is, the automated portions of the delivery system will work enough of the time that few customers will drop the service while engineers perfect the drones and the delivery person’s union loses its appeal in court. Legal and technical timeframes are both taken into account in this sort of transition.

Write-ups on automated delivery like the one that ran in The Verge last January, cast regulations as something in the way of an inevitable future. Regulations are “holding back” exciting new developments. And on one level that’s true, although I would say that is a good thing even though the wording of such articles clearly begin and end with the opposite assumption. What’s even more frustrating is that all the regulations that do stand “in the way” of drone delivery are safety regulations for flying aircraft. While safely rolling out an automated fleet of drones is important, no one is asking if the roll out should happen at all. How will this impact Amazon’s notoriously sad and overworked employees or the employees of competing firms? Transportation is an enormous sector of the economy and delivery in private and public organizations constitute some of the largest unionized workforces. The prospect of replacing one of the biggest employment opportunities in North America with drones should at least merit a public conversation.

Of course none of this is a problem if we decouple work from individuals’ means of subsistence. If extended unemployment were not tantamount to a slowly unfurling death sentence, then the rise of robot deliveries would be very desirable save for those that gleam some sort of emotional reward for delivering the mail. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their new book Inventing the Future: Folk Politics and the Left do a thorough job of describing the work needed to have our cake delivered by drones and eat it too:

If we think of global just-in-time supply chains, for example, these are economically efficient under capitalism, but also exceptionally effective in breaking the power of unions. In other words, hegemony, or rule by the engineering of consent, is as much a material force as it is a social one. It is something embedded in human minds, social and political organizations, individual technologies and the built environment that constitutes our world.

Hegemony, a theory developed by the Italian author Antonio Gramsci, tries to make sense of the fact that while capitalism benefits a relatively small elite it has many champions who are actually on the losing end. Gramsci argues that capitalism’s staying power resides in its ability to appear as common sense. Most of us don’t think twice about the relationship between hard work and material comfort, the former is simply a prerequisite for the latter. Drones, of course, make this all very confusing because on the one hand they are taking away opportunities to work but they are also the product of engineers’ work. We resolve this seeming paradox by creating a hierarchy of whose work is more desirable: the creative and complex labor of building machines is valorized while the grunt work of delivering packages is cast as respectable but not something to aspire toward.

Hegemony is much more than ham-fisted propaganda: it is lived experience. Or, as cultural theorist Raymond Williams puts it, hegemony is “a set of meanings and values which as they are experienced, as practices appear as reciprocally confirming.” We are not merely encouraged to strengthen the power of managers and put workers out of the job, we are surrounded by a world in which every marker of encourages us to destabilize other people’s means of subsistence while increasing the power of elites. If I sound conspiratorial it is because a crucial part of hegemony is making detractors sound like tin-foil hat-wearers. And of course, even saying that just makes me sound like I’m typing from within a faraday cage.

Srnicek and Williams point toward a way out of all this and it involves nothing less than undoing common sense itself. They prescribe a broad, long-term strategy that in many ways retreads the path that free-market radicals took in the 80s. We need new narratives of individual success and societal triumph. We must, as their title implies, invent a new kind of future that puts justice and dignity at the center, not growth for its own sake.

David is on Twitter

This essay was crossposted with Technoscience As If People Mattered

Image Credit: Amazon.com

 

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Hello fellow bloggers! Today I want to give you some helpful tips and tricks for using Twittr.com. Twittr, also called Twitter or http://www.Twitter.com, is like Friendster but not as good. (They’re working on it!) Twittr is a social network based off of the Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds and only lets you post 140 characters at a time but lets you tweet as many times as you want. The service is fairly limited (the company doesn’t even know what harassment is) but there’s still a lot of options so let’s dive right in!

First you have to pick a user name (also known as your call sign) which is what everyone calls you on the site. You should also pick a photo of a car to replace the standard egg that you get when you first sign up. A car let’s others know that you are successful and muscular. Don’t leave the default egg because that is a generally known as a sign that you are a member of Anonymous and then the FBI will never favorite your tweets. Put as many numbers as you can in your handle so that people know you are unique and also great with math.

Clicking the little heart on each tweet is called “favoriting” which lets others know that you kind of like a tweet but not enough to RT it. RT stands for “Renewed Trust” and is a signal to your followers that you would allow the author of that tweet to march under the sidgle of your house.  To RT someone (represented by the recycle symbol next to the heart) is the highest honor a Twittr user can bestow on a fellow twittr user because it shows a deep commitment that will last for minutes. When someone RTs you it is customary to tweet @ the person “Thanks for the RT and many blessings to you and your sons.”

Tweeting @ someone is like having a very private conversation that no one else is invited to. Generally, when two people are having a conversation over Twittr they are left alone by the rest of the user base. If someone does reply to you and your conversation partner unprovoked it is expected that you will mute them out of respect for civilization. Some people will also refer to “blocking” which is an inside joke. This feature does not actually exist.

Twittr is a great way to connect with people who hold very different views from your own. For example, I follow the Clorox Brand and they think Clorox is good while I think it releases pheromones that make you love the idea of Ronald Reagan. I have also had a lot of productive conversations with my internet service provider, Time Warner Cable:

The best part of Twittr is how much free beef stroganoff samples you can receive through various coupons and cyber flash mob giveaways. In the past two days I have been able to taste the bold flavors of beef simply by clicking Twittr’s new “Moments” feature. The egg noodles are a little over done but it is better than Pinterest because you can opt out of algorithmic sorting.

If you do a lot of tweetring and need to maintain multiple accounts so that your enemies do not triangulate your IP address and hack your PlayStation Network account, TweetDeck might be for you. TweetDeck lets you set up multiple columns for dedicated hashtags, users, and very important saved searches. For an example check out this screen shot of my Tweeting Rig

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Hashtags are a great way to connect with people who do or do not like beef stroganoff. A hashtag (also known as pound sign) collects tweets into easy-to-find piles of unique concepts. To expand your audience, use #asmany hashtags as #possible. More #people will see your #tweets and it shows how #savvy you are. A #hashtag## is also #### for when @#### feeds the @)—‘–,—–‘——- @clorox. Safety first!

There, now you know what it takes to be a real Twittr surfer. If you post a lot make sure you use correct punctuation. This is called “sexting” by experts. Finally, remember that twittr is a manifestation of millions of individual humans’ thoughts and feelings and we call it a dumpster fire because late capitalism relies on cynicism and calculated emotional distance that can be filled with plastic shit bought on debt. An entire generation’s conversations –thousands of birth announcements, breakups, and late nights with pizza rolls– are all the private property of companies run by people that think countries should be managed by CEOs and in the meantime are all buying water futures so that they can profit off of the coming resource wars that will be brought about in no small part by the reckless and insatiable greed that churns out Tide Amazon Dash buttons which exist because all of a sudden going to a fucking website is too much of a burden. An oligarchy built on convenience. We deserve this.

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David is on Twitter.

 

Edit: Some helpful people who can’t keep their opinions to themselves have reminded me that I didn’t really talk about BRANDS. Here is what is important to know about brands on Twittr: No one has ever seen a brand in person. We only get pictures of brands. For example:

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No one has ever actually touched a Coca-Cola! Scientists predict, however, that if a normal human were to actually touch a Coca-Cola they would experience a sort of ecstasy that begins just as huffing nitrous oxide does, but would quickly descend into a state of being that a paper in PLoS One described as, “churning self-awareness.” Wow!

To engage with a brand on Twitter you should first put on your apiary outfit and @ them with a deferential comment about a product. For example, if I wanted to interact with @Clorox I might begin with “@clorox your liquid washes the world with a sinister water-fire that raises all boats.” This will signal to the brand manager that I am ready to receive free coupons and subscribe to their Tiny Letter. There you go! BRANDS!

Toilets are rife with politics. The things we do immediately before and after using the toilet are subject to all sorts of social and cultural power structures. Even getting a toilet in the first place can be swept up in the larger political debates about development and infrastructure investment. Everything from global finance to local political corruption can determine whether or not any given person on this planet gets to relieve themselves with comfort and dignity. It is a sad but true fact that an estimated 2.5 billion people do not have regular access to a toilet. Enter “The Nano Membrane Toilet” an invention from Cranfield University which uses state-of-the-art nano technology to make a toilet that does not require plumbing. Instead it needs batteries, regular servicing of complex and proprietary parts, and safe, dry removal of wax-coated solid waste. The decision to help fix this enormous problem is laudable but the Nano Membrane Toilet side-steps the real social and economic problems that keep people in unsanitary conditions. It might even create new, unintended sanitation problems.

I’ll get this out of the way: the only reason I have lived in homes with not just one but two toilets, and other people have to walk miles for toilets that are shared by hundreds of people, is because we live under an immensely unfair and unjust system called capitalism. Other systems have been unfair too (Feudal peasants had to poop in buckets while their lords relieved themselves on resplendent wood-carved thrones.) but that doesn’t make present inequalities any more excusable. What is more important than just blaming capitalism though, is looking at how inequalities persist even in the face of well-resourced groups looking to mitigate those inequalities. Put another way, why hasn’t the millions of dollars and award-winning talent put into the Nano Membrane Toilet gone towards political and social programs that finance the installation of regular old plumbing? Why does it seem easier to built a toilet out of experimental polymers than just build a sewer?

The historian of technology Leo Marx once pointed out that we are keen to conflate technological breakthroughs with social progress: automated cars and smartphones are seen as indicators of an advancing society not just a set of technical achievements. It makes sense then, that we also cast challenges like ending poverty or unsanitary conditions as technical problems in need of inventions, rather than social problems in need of political action. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s support for the Nano Membrane Toilet is a good example of this. Rather than fund governments to build out their sewage systems or provide monetary assistance to employ more sanitation workers, or even give scholarships to people who want to go into public utility management and help their own communities, the Gates Foundation wants to build things that negate the need for public sanitation systems as we know them.

The Nano Membrane Toilet is also subject to the “appropriate technology” critique. Appropriate technology is an approach developed in the 70s that asked technologists, engineers, and, designers to consider the larger context of their creations: If something breaks does the user have to rely on a single company (or person?) to make expensive repairs or can they fix it themselves? A battery operated device might be problem-free in a modern home but if it is put in a home with a leaky roof or a dirt floor, the whole thing might behave differently. Then there is the issue of unintended consequences that come from the wide-spread adoption of a new technology. What happens if the sophisticated materials in the toilets end up in open waste dumps? Once there is a company selling these toilets are they going to lobby local governments against any future expansion of utility services in the future?

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Our first fully-working prototype condom vending machine hung outside the STI clinic of a hospital in Kumasi.

I do not want to make it sound like approaching a social problem with a designed object is always a bad approach. My own research actually revolves around an invention of sorts, but rather than innovating in new areas of material science my colleagues and I have been trying to design something that could be manufactured locally and easily repaired. Our Open Source Condom Vending Machine (OSCVM.org) is an attempt to build reliable, low-cost condom vending machines in Ghana. All the schematics and designs are open and available to the public and we’ve partnered with a maker collective called The Creativity Group to build the machine. If we’ve innovated at all, it has been in the area of social relations, not technology. You can buy a well-built condom vending machine at Costco, but good luck getting it to Ghana. And even if you did get one there, buying a machine that was built in China or even the United States, doesn’t employ as many people as a machine built where it is used. That is why the machine’s internal mechanics are very simple to make and easy to repair. We wanted to reduce the barriers to making your own machine. The OSCVM is also an opportunity to buy condoms in private, something that is difficult to do in the crowded pharmacies and markets. Rather than try to invent something brand new, we worked to build something old in a new way.

If the Nano Membrane Toilet saves lives, then we should call it a success. But we need to take a harder look at how we frame these sorts of problems. Do we need cutting-edge nano polymers to solve a problem as old as where to put our waste? Or should our creative efforts be focused in re-arranging governance structures and financing so that proven technologies can serve more people more of the time?

David is on Twitter.

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At Nancy Reagan’s funeral presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told MSNBC that the Reagans “started a national conversation about AIDS.” The response to that obviously false statement was swift and loud. Even Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign (which endorsed Clinton), tweeted “Nancy Reagan was, sadly, no hero in the fight against HIV/AIDS.” Clinton’s apology was posted to Medium the very next day. Picking a platform for a message goes a long way in picking the demographics of your message’s audience. The decision to use Medium for her apology was pitch perfect: older (and statistically more conservative) voters who watch cable news will see her praising the Reagans while younger voters who might turn to Medium to read the definitive take down of Clinton will find her own apology next to their favorite authors. More than just an apology though, the post goes on to give a small history of AIDS-related activism before going on to describe the present challenges facing those infected with HIV. More than an apology Clinton’s Medium post is an example of what I’m calling the “Explainer Candidate.”

We may still be mired in “post-truth politics” but there is an equal but opposite force of (mostly web-based) explainer publications that seek to augment, rebut, and frame a further reaching TV-based media cycle. Vox, FiveThirtyEight, and Slate (among others) have made an industry of starting sentences with “well, actually.” If you look at these publishers’ “advertise with us!” pages, you’ll see that their reader demographics skew towards the young-ish, well-off creative professional which also overwhelmingly votes for progressive candidates. There’s a danger here that is far worse than anything that comes from the right’s concerted effort to divorce facts from political positions: progressives have started mistaking the recitation of political facts for political positions.

To be fair to Clinton she does outline actual policy she would be in favor of, including expanded access to PrEP, getting Republican governors to expand Medicaid, and try to punish drug companies when they price gouge patients. But when you look at the proportions –out of a thirteen paragraph article there is one paragraph devoted to the apology and two for what she will do as president—the vast majority of it is a rehashing of the AIDS Wikipedia page. This is fact but not substance. Of course political leaders should be seen to at least know the facts of a given political controversy but when the announcement of truths outnumbers descriptions of what is to be done about those truths, we start losing sight of what this whole process is even meant to accomplish. Electing someone with good ideas about the future is much different than someone who can recount the past to you and being able to do the latter is only a necessary (not sufficient) condition for the former.

Bernie Sanders is guilty of this as well, in fact perhaps even more so. Every time he responds to a debate question with inequality statistics I cringe ever so slightly. The difference here though, and it is a crucial one, is that Sanders’ policy prescriptions are as radical as the facts that he cites. Clinton follows up a brief history of a radical direct action organization with incremental reform, thereby giving it a radical sheen.

Facts about radical organizations sitting next to hollow phrases like “hold companies accountable” does a disservice to those radical organizations, especially when you have a history of ignoring the role of social movements in securing progressive wins. Writing in The New Republic Jeet Heer chronicles how Clinton’s comments about the Reagans and HIV/AIDS is similar to her remarks eight years ago when “she appeared to give greater credit to President Lyndon Johnson for civil rights laws than the movement lead by Martin Luther King.” Jeet also points out that Clinton does not seem to understand the strategic role of contemporary social movements like #BlackLivesMatter. When she condemned the violence at Trump’s Chicago rally she exclusively attributed social progress to victims’ families “melt[ing] hearts” and not the sustained activism of Bree Newsome and others.

This is the important distinction: A candidate is an Explainer Candidate when the recitation of facts about the past or the abstract present replace policies or promised material support for present political struggles. An Explainer Candidate will give you a thorough history of a radical social movement in 800 words but claim all future progress must come from reasonable incremental change. The Explainer Candidate is looking to run out the clock on your own attention: to show that they are with it –that they are on your side– but also hope you don’t read to the end where they under-deliver on supporting the change agents that they acknowledge were necessary to secure those political wins.

David is on Twitter.

Image Credit: Hermann Kasser

weber tedI’ve dedicated a few essays to interrogating encryption and automation as a replacement for human judgement, politics, and inter-personal trust. Central to that argument is the observation that the replacement of institutions with technologies like blockchains are a rehashing of the arguments that set up those failing institutions in the first place. (You can read the full argument here and here.)

This is important because the problems with have with our present institutions –how they are exploitable, alienating, or otherwise broken– may very well be exacerbated by these technologies, not solved by them. To drive this point home I have pulled a few excerpts from Max Weber’s writing on bureaucracy but I have replaced a few nouns (in bold) so that his references to human organizations are replaced by algorithms, blockchains, and other technologies. With just these few noun changes a 19th century German sociologist of modern statecraft turns into the next great TED talk:

An algorithm offers above all the optimum possibility for carrying through the principle of specializing administrative functions according to purely objective considerations. Individual tasks are allocated to heuristicfunctions who have specialized training and who by constant practice learn more and more. The ‘objective’ discharge of business primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons.’

Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs– these are raised to the optimum point with blockchain technology.

The tendency toward secrecy in certain development communities follows their material nature: everywhere that the power interests of the domination structure toward the outside are at stake, whether it is an economic competition of a private enterprise, or a foreign, potentially hostile polity, we find secrecy.

The absolute monarch is powerless opposite the superior knowledge of the crowd–in a certain sense more powerless than any other political head.

And here are the originals:

Bureaucratization offers above all the optimum possibility for carrying through the principle of specializing administrative functions according to purely objective considerations. Individual performances are allocated to functionaries who have specialized training and who by constant practice learn more and more. The ‘objective’ discharge of business primarily means a discharge of business according to calculable rules and ‘without regard for persons.’

Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs– these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration, and especially in its monocratic form.

The tendency toward secrecy in certain administrative fields follows their material nature: everywhere that the power interests of the domination structure toward the outside are at stake, whether it is an economic competition of a private enterprise, or a foreign, potentially hostile polity, we find secrecy.

The absolute monarch is powerless opposite the superior knowledge of the bureaucratic expert–in a certain sense more powerless than any other political head.

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In December 2015, the Democratic Party’s data infrastructure became the subject of fierce controversy. When it was publicly revealed that staffers of Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid breached rival Hillary Clinton’s voter data stored in NGP VAN’s VoteBuilder, this infrastructure, normally hidden from view, suddenly became a contested matter of concern. As the Democratic Party closed access to VoteBuilder for a period of time for the Sanders campaign, the candidate’s supporters, competitors to NGP VAN, and journalists publicly debated why the party had such control over voter data and, ultimately, the dangers that such centralization might pose for the party and the democratic process. I have spent the past decade studying platforms such as VoteBuilder. While the incident with Sanders raised a number of important issues, the Democratic Party’s data infrastructure, developed in the wake of the 2004 presidential election cycle, is a key reason for its well-documented technological advantages  over its Republican rival that persisted at least through the 2014 midterm elections.

Before I go any further it is worth providing some background context from news reports on the Sanders data breach, with the caveat that I have no direct knowledge of and have not conducted original research on the incident. From journalistic reports, the basic facts behind the Sanders data breach of NGP VAN’s firewalls between campaigns seem clear enough. By exploiting a vulnerability in the NGP VAN system, staffers on the Sanders campaign pulled multiple lists of voters from the Clinton campaign’s voter data. According to news articles, this included data on things such as strong Clinton supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire, 24 lists in all. The DNC responded by temporarily suspending the Sanders campaign’s access to VoteBuilder, in effect preventing staffers from using their voter data less than two months out from the Iowa caucuses.

As Larry Lessig has pointed out, there are legal questions here relating to the actual contract that users of VoteBuilder and the DNC’s data sign that, without direct knowledge of the matter at hand, I am not going to opine on. However, the consensus among practitioners is that Sanders’s staffers knew what they were doing and it was a clear ethical violation of the use of the NGP VAN system (indeed, the campaign’s national data director was summarily fired and the candidate apologized). In the end, the campaign filed a federal lawsuit against the DNC, and the entire matter was resolved in 24-hours with the campaign again gaining access to its voter data after the DNC stated it fulfilled its requests for more information.

What I want to focus on here is the call after the Sanders incident, among some practitioners and firms with a stake in the outcome, to open up the DNC’s voter data so candidates and their campaigns, not the party, own what they use and produce. Part of this response stems from fears over monopoly power. The Democratic Party has built the most powerful political database in the world, and serves as the ‘obligatory passage point’ through which all of its political campaigns must go to gain access to it. Presidential campaigns essentially rent the DNC’s voter file, which is in effect a collection of 51 different state voter files (including Washington D.C.) that states share with the national party and are all hosted in the same database and interface system, VoteBuilder. The Democratic Party contracts with NGP VAN to make the state parties’ voter files accessible to and actionable for campaigns at all levels of office through VoteBuilder. As campaigns use VoteBuilder, they enrich the voter file through all of their canvassing and voter contacts. The voter contact and identification data of campaigns are firewalled from each other during elections. However, after elections, this voter contact and identification work conducted by campaign volunteers and paid staffers goes back to the DNC and the state parties, and is ultimately made available to subsequent Democratic candidates. In this system, campaigns do not own these voter files that they helped to enrich.

The basic architecture of the Democratic Party’s voter data was put in place by Chairman Howard Dean, with VAN gaining the contract to put together VoteBuilder in 2007. The national party provides access to VoteBuilder for its presidential candidates, while state parties determine access for state-level campaigns. As I have previously detailed, this architecture grew out of the party’s experiences during the 2004 cycle, when John Kerry’s multiple state voter files, housed in many vendor systems responsible for providing access to them, crashed in important states. The data was unstandardized across states, vendors had uneven track records, there was little in the way of field tools for accessing voter files, much historical data on voter contact was simply lost, and candidates even had trouble accessing state voter files. During the 2004 cycle, the Democratic Party was significantly behind the Republican Party and its voter database and interface system VoterVault.

Dean and his staff turned the Democratic Party’s data architecture from a mess of often vendor-controlled state voter files into the nationalized system it is today. Dean’s team created a set of agreements between the national and state parties, where the former works to ensure that state parties are fair arbiters of their voter files and make them available to all Democrats in an open primary, and the latter can hold the national party to account for what they do with the data.  Former party staffers argue that because the national party is an outsized player in terms of funding, the national organization has a significant role in making sure state parties are not unfair and can mediate disputes when they arise. That said, disputes between candidates and state parties do occur. For example, the policies of state parties with respect to challengers to incumbents in primaries varies, with states such as Missouri only providing access to VAN for incumbent office holders as the “winner of the last primary.” This policy was recently called into question by an African American state senator who was active in the protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown after she sought access to VAN to contest a congressional incumbent. The rationale of the state party is that there needs to be an incentive for incumbents to continue to use the party’s voter data, and ultimately share their voter identification work back with other candidates, or they will view their electoral work across cycles simply as being used against them. What this in effect means is that, in some states, challengers to incumbents cannot access the party’s extensive voter file and the competitive advantages it might entail.

While there is a romantic notion that candidates should be free of parties and just make their own direct appeals to voters, especially among organizations that stand to profit from the decentralization and fragmentation of the party’s data, the Democratic Party’s voter file is an acknowledgment of the fact that American political life is, for worse but mostly for better, organized through parties. The DNC’s voter file architecture is ultimately a distinctly partisan resource, designed to strengthen its candidates’ ability to contest elections by providing them with far more data than they could ever muster on their own in discrete electoral runs, or even through data swaps with allies. As such, it is a tool of the party, not a ‘democratic’ technology in the sense of facilitating the efforts of independent candidates across the ideological spectrum to contest elections or even challenges to Democratic incumbents.

While this might not accord with our deep-seated longings for democratic technologies that will afford things such as more open and participatory elections (although this cycle is certainly testing that normative democratic wish), it does fit with the structure of American democracy, which is organized through parties. Political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has argued for the “moral distinctiveness of partisanship.” Parties, in Rosenblum’s eyes, are the institutions that define representative democracy. As Rosenblum argues, parties not only organize elections, they define political issues (and the political center), organize intra-party deliberation, are responsible for mobilizing the electorate, and are pluralist in having to negotiate intra-party compromise. Rosenblum, for instance, notes the irony that the celebrated “civil society organization” is the foremost example of political extremism, given that it often pursues single issues at the expense of multi-issue coalitions and tends to be the most uncompromising (single issues candidates would fall into a similar category).

The story of parties in America is long and complicated, but suffice it to say they are central to democratic processes. In an era when there are stark differences between the two parties, voters have clear choices and responsible parties attempt to pursue power through the ballot box. Parties do so, in no small part, through their ability to serve as databases for their candidates. In the process, they often do not fulfill other democratic longings or normative aspirations that the public has for electoral politics. However, parties fulfill their normative democratic role in representative democracy by working to defeat the other side in elections and create governing majorities according to the most advantageous means that they collectively decide upon. Indeed, Rosenblum argues that it is ultimately a good thing that parties have to balance multiple interests within them, lest we empower extremist single-issue candidates or ideological movements that brook no compromise (indeed, the Koch Brothers’ network invested in its own data firm http://www.i-360.com/ precisely to help bend the Republican Party to its ideological will). And, ultimately, a party may decide that protecting incumbents in exchange for them contributing back to a common data pool that candidates at all levels of office may subsequently benefit from should come at the expense of individual candidates’ attempting to access data. We should respect the decisions of parties to judge what is in their collective best interest according to their normative role of, according to Rosenblum, mobilizing citizens, pursuing political power through majorities, and making government work once in office.

One final consideration. There are alternatives to the Democratic Party’s data – although most would argue that they are inferior to the party’s historical data provided through VoteBuilder. There is nothing precluding a candidate that does not want to opt-into this system from relying on third party data firms such as Aristotle, Catalist, and NationBuilder, and taking advantage of any of the commercial customer relationship management platforms available to manage it. And, there is nothing preventing them from purchasing data, generating their own contacts, and then building their own independent operations. But it will never be as powerful as the DNC’s communal and partisan resource, and these candidates will find that even if they gain office, they will diminish the resources available for their partisan and ideological allies to do so as well – in the end, this hurts their ability to enact legislative change.

In essence, the Democratic Party has created a powerful and robust tool that facilitates its efforts to secure political power. And, I believe, in keeping with the normative role of parties in democratic societies, the party should have the ability to control access to it according to their own policies designed to further their governance interests. As a matter of course, these policies and remedies should be transparent and ultimately contestable (which appeared to be part of the issue in the Sanders and Missouri cases), but in the end I believe it is a good thing that as a multi-issue coalition of heterogeneous actors the Democratic Party sets its own policies and procedures for its use as a database.

The buy-in across the Democratic Party network to the party’s voter file and interface system provided by NGP VAN has resulted in a powerful and robust piece of infrastructure that the party’s ecosystem convenes around and that is ultimately enrolled in the pursuit of electoral power. The DNC’s voter file is an asset for the party because of the trust and culture of collaboration and sharing that has grown up around it. As a result of the fact that there is broad buy-in to VoteBuilder, the party’s data is standardized and accrues across election cycles and moves up and down ballot. Democrats in races across all levels of office and election cycles share the data they collect about who their voters are and what they care about. The fact that campaigns have to provide the data they generate through canvasses and contacts back to the party (excluding campaign proprietary data on donors), means that data is a shared asset across the party as a whole. At the same time, there is one system for accessing the voter file, so volunteers without much in the way of technical skills or training in states such as Iowa use it easily from cycle to cycle. Voter modeling flows downward from comparatively well-resourced presidential campaigns to state and even local races. And, the universal buy-in to the party’s data has meant that the expansive, hybrid Democratic network ecosystem of firms and organizations [PDF]  all work from the same basic data infrastructure. These organizations adopt and use the party’s voter file and tools for accessing it  – which facilitates the complementarity of campaign services.

The danger, as a number of practitioners have suggested, is that with monopoly comes the possibility for suboptimal technologies and stasis. However, the fact that the Democratic Party has been well ahead of its rival with a more fragmented data and analytics ecosystem for nearly a decade suggests that this fear is overblown. Another concern is that the party might behave arbitrarily, such as in the case of the Sanders breach when it appeared the party’s own policies were unclear, but there are a host of normative pressures exerted by the DNC and other party actors and regulative agreements and policies against this (indeed, the Sanders situation was ultimately resolved quickly). As former Clark and Kerry 2004 veteran and director of political data and analytics from 2005-2007 and director of technology from 2009-2011 at the Democratic Party, Josh Hendler argued, “the state parties decided that while they would be giving up some power, they trusted the DNC to be stewards of the data.” In that trust, the Democratic Party as a whole benefits from access to the data generated by their candidates, especially their presidential candidates with their vast mobilization of resources and volunteers to generate voter contacts.

Daniel Kreiss is Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kreiss’s research explores the impact of technological change on the public sphere and political practice. Kreiss is the author of Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama (Oxford University Press, 2012) and Prototype Politics: Technology-Intensive Campaigning and the Data of Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2016).

 

Header image credit: Keith Bacongco

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Donald Trump’s Twitter account is a huge part of his presidential campaign (Huge). The media quotes from it, his opponents try to score political points by making fun of it, and his fans / supporters constantly engage with its content. @realDonaldTrump is just that: a string of pronouncements that feel very (perhaps even a little too) real. As Britney Summit-Gil wrote back in December: “the beauty of Trump’s tweetability is that his fans don’t really care if he’s manicured or carefully crafted—it’s what they love about him. His tweets read just like his speeches sound. They’re off the cuff, natural, and engaging.”

I want to take a minute to dive into the powerful linguistic work that hides behind Trump’s natural and off the cuff style. Consider the following pair of tweets:

Here Trump’s campaign has attached what linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson would call “orientational metaphors.” These are very simple but powerful metaphors that help us interpret abstract concepts by embedding them in our embodied existence. “These spatial orientations arise” write Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors we Live By (1980), “from the fact that we have bodies of the sort we have and that they function as they do in our physical environment.” For example the phrases “over your head” and “behind my back” mean that we either do not understand or have been intentionally left out of something. In the tweets above Trump gets a lot of mileage out of one of the most prominent orientational metaphors: up and down. Up is conscious, happy, healthy, and denotes control or force. Down is sad unconscious, sickly, and might mean one has lost control or lack’s the force to impose their will or is subject to another’s control (e.g. You are under my spell). Jeb is low energy, Rubio is Mr. meltdown. 

These tweets are obviously directed at his competitors, not the public in general, but these tweets say a lot about how Trump wants to be seen and what aspects of our humanity he’s playing off of to garner support. Someone with an eye towards theories of embodiment and the power dynamics around ableist language will already note that this kind of language privileges normative bodies and especially rewards those that are considered traditionally beautiful or otherwise desirable. This is completely true and it shows how far we have to go to dismantle all sorts of structural oppressions. (Let’s not forget all of the moral metaphors wrapped up in light and dark.)

Given all this it makes perfect sense that fascism always relies on plain, straight-forward language and the strict labeling of desirable and undesirable bodies. These two prerequisites are, in fact, one in the same move toward command-and-control power systems. Systems that do not deal in nuance, only brute force. This may also be why, according to the late Umberto Eco, fascism always induces skepticism (if not outright hatred) of academics or intellectual thinking. Do not mistake Trump’s simple language as mere branding, it is a harbinger of things to come.

David is on Twitter.

Image “low energy light bulb” credit: Alexander Ortweiler

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I want to share with you a personal story – an experience that I dealt with about four months ago that caused me a great deal of anxiety: I found a flea on my dog.  That’s right a flea; not multiple fleas, a flea.  But I panicked.  I vacuumed everything – couches, throw pillows, mattresses, floors – twice a day, every day for at least three weeks.  I mopped every other day.  I washed everything in the house three times a week.  I bought some of that terrible chemical shampoo and washed my poor pup with it. I also bought my dog some dog treats from KarmaPets to calm his discomfort during the time.  I flea combed her three times a day.  I set up flea traps in every room before bed.  I caught three more fleas.  I started having recurring dreams about fleas multiplying on my dog – growing in size as in an arcade game while I tried to knock them out one by one.  My language changed.  I started singing the Pokemon – “Gotta Catch All” song while vacuuming and talking like Ted Cruz, using phrases like “we’ve got to obliterate…,” etc.  My partner was seriously concerned about my sanity.

Now this sort of anxiety is partly personal – an anxiety over microscopic things that have the potential to grow completely out of my control.  But I’m going to argue that there is more to it than that.  I’ve talked to pet owners who – upon spotting fleas – tore apart their houses, spent hundreds of dollars on flea products, set off chemicals in their homes that notably released the same poisonous gases that were instrumental to the India’s Bhopal disaster.  We can’t all be this crazy.

I don’t think we are.

For one, new information systems – PetMD, e-wiki articles, and veterinary forums –  instigate panic while setting impossible standards for care. While supposedly designed to help diagnose and treat our own issues, these are the same links that warn that for every one flea, there are a hundred fleas.  The same links that show images of hundreds of tiny bugs weaving in between a dog’s fur.  The same links that break down the scientific version of the flea life cycle into colloquial terms so that you know how serious the issue is.  The same links that suggest that you throw out carpets and bedding and that you vacuum ferociously several times a day for weeks.  They state at the beginning “Don’t panic!  You can get through this.” and then proceed to list a series of chores that working families cannot possibly get through.  It’s dizzying to click through them.

Now, these arguments seem to substantiate claims that Google has provoked a sort of “cyberchondria” – where Googling to find information about our health problems, pet problems, and house problems leads people to overact – to jump to irrational conclusions.  That the freckle on their finger must be cancer.  Or that the spot on their dog means they need to burn their houses down.  But I find this to be an extremely gendered argument – one that positions information seekers as emotionally-charged and unreasonable – characterized by conceptions of a feminine excessiveness as Luce Irigaray would say.  You see this gendering in the articles that advise against Googling health symptoms – in magazines like Glamour and Women’s Health – articles that disproportionately feature images of anxious women staring at computer screens.   Articles that include statistics such as “one in four British women have misdiagnosed themselves on the Internet.” Such depictions, I believe, stem from a very problematic assumption that women can’t think logically when exposed to provocative information.

New “anxieties of care” are induced, not so much by the sensationalized information in online articles (though this is certainly part of it), nor the raising costs of expert care advice from doctors, vets, exterminators (though is certainly part of it too).  Instead, families today constantly find themselves in information double binds – binds that make it impossible to at once meet new standards of care (house care, pet care, and child care, etc.) and at the same time attend to the grounded knowledge they’ve developed in their experience being caregivers.  Impulsive cleaning, spending, and chemical spraying, in this sense, are not a result of mis-information or falling prey to “cyberchondria” but instead are anxious responses to being embedded in conflicting communication streams – streams mediated by algorithms, science, capital, and gendering.

Double bind theory, proposed by Gregory Bateson, suggests that anxiety can be provoked in situations where an individual must respond to two or more conflicting streams of communication.  For instance, imagine a mother tells her child, “I demand that you disobey me.”  There is no way for the child to attend to both requests.  Today’s parents face the same communicative contradictions when it comes to care.

Take the flea problem for example.  The #1 recommended flea product by veterinarians and many online sources is Advantix II, produced by Bayer, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.  Bayer is also acclaimed for a particularly long history of chemical and drug-related corporate injustices, which may not be of particular interest to caregivers until they come across other web articles describing what can happen if you “poison” your dog with toxic chemicals.  Or consider the bug bomb issue.  While many online sources describe it as the only way to ensure that you kill off the bugs in your home – to exterminate them at all stages of the flea life cycle – other articles remind us that such insecticides can cause serious long-term health effects, particularly for young children.  Caregivers know that any product that tells you to cover all of the surfaces in your house and stay away from it with the windows closed for several hours is not the safest choice for the kids and pets.  They see that companies they’ve learned to hate – such as Monsanto – sponsor the top medical/pet advice websites.  And that veterinarians make their living by recommending expensive pharmaceutical products.   And if they’re not going to purchase these products, they better be prepared to clean – every second of every day – for months, which is just not an option for most working families today.

In the midst of such information binds, I found myself searching, relentlessly, for anything rational, anything that didn’t require me to be super-mommy – to pull off the impossible.  But unfortunately, with information infrastructures so heavily mediated today – more information tends to equate to more expectations, while simultaneously exposing more contradictions.  It’s much like Ruth Cowan describes in her book More Work for Mother – how modern labor-saving technologies for the home, such as the vacuum and the washing machine, set new standards for cleanliness, thus creating more work for mothers, not less.  Information infrastructures, designed to help families deal with medical or home issues, have set impossible standards for care.  Digesting this information is an anxiety-ridden experience – one that pushes families to consider how much time they are willing to devote, how much money they are willing to spend, and what toxic chemicals they are willing to expose themselves to.  It’s a gendered experience; women, in particular, are held to higher expectations, while simultaneously, couched as emotionally-charged and overreacting when they respond to them.

Don’t worry parents; you are not alone.  New information systems are making us all a little more anxious – a little more prone to panic.  And it’s not because we’re irrational or foolish.  It’s because we’re embedded in an information infrastructure that’s impossible to move within.   Key to double bind theory, though, is that working the double bind – resisting and weaving your way out of it – leads to emotional growth.  Recognizing how information sources compete – how they are so often shaped by macro-forces that are particularly antagonistic to women – can be the best medicine for dealing with anxieties of care.

Lindsay Poirier is a PhD Student in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  She occasionally Tweets at @lindsaypoirierhttp://lindsaypoirier.com/

Image source credit: Kat Masback

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We should be nervous when the most profitable company in the world takes a principled stance against the most powerful government in the world. Apple released a statement today (they call it a “letter” to their customers) which states that the FBI has requested that they provide a backdoor to the iPhone’s operating system and they are refusing to give it to them. This is huge because If there is any sort of consistent observation across decades and genres of social theory it is that as organizations get bigger they tend to treat the rest of the world as a potential threat to their own interests. War criminal and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger summed it up nicely: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.” The same can be said for Apple, China, General Motors, Russia, and Amazon. As a company or empire grows its stability relies on more and more factors and so the tendency is to bring those things into the fold either by buying them, colonizing them, or some indiscernible combination of the two. If Apple and the United States federal government are at loggerheads about data privacy it means that something big and fairly stable has ended. When powerful actors disagree, it usually heralds a major shift in one party’s conception of what is politically viable. Is that what just happened?

Last summer I wrote about the reactionary politics of hacking. There I argued that while most hackers (according to their own public pronouncements and the published research on these communities) are somewhere between anarcho-socialist and libertarian in their personal politics, their aggregate effect on the world may be promoting a security state. I wrote:

the hacker and the bureaucrat are polar opposites in terms of means –the former is trickster incarnate while the latter plots along as predictably as humanly possible– but they advocate for similar solutions to difficult problems. Even though the bureaucrat seeks and fosters smooth operation of a system, and hackers are motivated by a goal and are animated by chaotic destruction, they both share a fundamental distrust of humans as political entities. Hackers may embody the opposite of bureaucracy, but they ultimately desire the same thing as bureaucrats: technologies that obviate trust.

Encryption is only as important as one’s belief that there are bad actors waiting in the wings to do harm. The important thing for us to consider here is that both Apple CEO Tim Cook and the whistleblower Edward Snowden both seem to heartily believe that such bad actors are out there and encryption is necessary for digital life. Such uniformity of belief across such a presumably wide political spectrum –from corporate CEO to enemy of the state—has to mean at least one of these three things is true:

  • Encryption is so obviously important that even people with huge ideological disagreements can at least agree that it is necessary.
  • Snowden and Cook are actually not that ideologically different or they are similar in an as-of-yet-undefined political coalition. That is, we might not have a word for the persistent and predictable opinions that Snowden, Cook, and maybe all people in those positions hold. In other words, they look further apart ideologically than they really are because we’re looking at them from the wrong perspective.
  • The United States government is so far afield from what makes for a sane argument about encryption and data privacy that really different people can be on the same opposing side.

I suspect most people would waffle between 1 and 3, and maybe even say that those statements are synonymous: that the government is so greedy for power or narrowly focused on its objectives that it has lost sight of the obvious risks associated with breaking encryption. I tend to believe that 1 and 3 are true today but 2 is most important of all. There is a new political common sense forming and its borders are peculiar. They circumscribe a really broad group of people and interests that all converge on the importance of the individual’s ability to have absolute control of their data within the confines of the laws that do not immediately endanger that data sovereignty. Your data is yours and yours alone with few exceptions.

In most instances the logic above is sound, but if today tells us anything, it is that this logic has been borne out of defensive posturing, not creative thinking about the kind of society we want to live in. The arguments for encryption are being forged in the heat of reaction, not the light of creativity. So while I agree with Apple (and Snowden) in this instance, I worry that we are building a reactionary political program that can be wielded easily by powerful actors, not a radical one that confronts the underlying abuses of power that individuals face on a daily basis. Apple is right that encryption backdoors today mean deeply broken and insecure networks tomorrow, however we should reject the premise that we will always live in a world where this will be the case.

Cook is fond of using home security as a metaphor for data security. In today’s letter he said a backdoor to encryption “would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.” At an electronic privacy conference last fall Cook said something similar: “If you put a key under the mat for the cops, a burglar can find it, too.” He concluded by warning that if bad guys “know there’s a key hidden somewhere, they won’t stop until they find it.”

It is obviously important that, in the mean time, we have sufficient locks on our doors, but focusing on locking ourselves away seems more in line with an over-stepping government than a free society. If big organizations like governments and corporations only have interests, we should be focused on the project of making it against their interest to want access to our data and our homes. To do so requires radical thinking –by definition, thinking that gets at the root of problems—not reactionary thinking that is characterized by short term, stop-gap measures fueled by fear and anger.

If we look at calls for encryption as reactionary, not progressive or radical, the disagreement between Apple and the government looks much different than how I characterized it in the beginning of this essay. Instead of a foundation-shaking change in how the government operates, we are seeing a reactionary movement that, like many reactionary movements, creates single-issue coalitions. It may have the long-term effect of making us less free, if we are constantly preoccupied with building better locks rather than better communities. Encryption may be tactically useful for preserving individual liberties now, but we should be concerned about where it will leave us in years to come.

David is on Twitter.

Header image by Karol Franks

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The last democratic debate was mostly good. Two people, who represent very different visions for the future and strategies for how to arrive at that future, had just about as fair and faithful of a debate as one could expect from a cable news-hosted event. Orbiting this central debate is a swirling mass of half-arguments that has more energy than thought-out direction, made up of a cadre of writers who are lining up against the most tattered and boring of banners: Brocialism versus Lean In Feminism. The corporatized feminism that advocates for equal terms in boardroom competition and the smarmy machismo of socialism made for mansplaining both come out of several bad ideological compromises. We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we did not attempt to move beyond these camps into a more honest discussion.

Lean In Feminism is an ideology that forgoes the more structural critiques of the status quo in favor of a more even footing when it comes to succeeding in the boardrooms of late capitalism. Lean In is the title of a TED talk, a best selling book, and now a non-profit organization created by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. Sandberg’s brand of feminism has a lot of supporters but also some prominent critics. Elizabeth Bruenig argued in The New Republic that, “what makes life easier for any given woman high on the corporate ladder, might actually make life harder for women toiling near the bottom rungs.” Bruening points to Sandberg’s insistence that women openly and aggressively negotiate maternity leave but never advocates for a federally mandated universal maternity leave. Generous maternity leave packages for Facebook executives, Bruening shows, may even be in direct conflict with universal maternity leave because such a policy may make companies less interested in crafting their own –and for executives, more lavish– policies.

To define Brocialism one should look no further than a conversation between Laurie Penny and former Socialist Workers’ Party member Richard Seymour. Seymour writes:

My experience is that ‘brocialists’ don’t openly embrace patriarchy; they deny it’s a problem. Or they minimise it. They direct your attention elsewhere: you should be focusing on class. You’re being divisive. You’re just middle class (quelle horreur!). Or they attack a straw ‘feminism’ that is supposedly ‘bourgeois’ and has nothing to say about class or other axes of oppression. Or they just ignore it.

This class-first arrangement makes it easy (especially for cis white men) to position race, gender, or any other identity as a force for fragmentation and infighting rather than the beginning points of solidarity.

Brocialism and Lean In Feminism have a lot in common. They lack an intersectional analysis of structural oppressions (especially racism), which provides an enticingly straightforward permission to act out their respective programs. They are the kind of stunted progress that reads as “feasible” in national elections. This similarity is crucial because it lies at the heart of the subtle but important difference between what the campaigns say and the surrounding debates they engender: while there are indeed some substantive differences in policy and relevant past behavior between Clinton and Sanders, a vast majority of this election is about strategy, not policy.

Someone who sees hope in a Sanders’ presidency will point toward last month’s Bloomberg profile where Joel Stein makes it clear that Sanders understands that elections are a piece of larger social movements: That an election is merely the opportunity to construct a favorable Overton Window from which good policy can pass through. Clinton supporters will make a much different argument about America’s history and structural favoring of incrementalist change over punctuated, rapid change. Moreover, having a woman in the White House would also be a welcome, long-overdue revolution of a different sort. Just about every article left of center has kept within arms reach of these arguments. And while it is nice to see a popular discussion of strategy, at some level we know that strategy is all these candidates can promise because actual policies are subject to the most reactionary and corrupt Congress in history.

For the first time in a longtime, Democratic primary candidates are running to the left rather than the center, but instead of disagreeing about what candidates should do we are largely focused on how they should attempt to do anything. Even disagreements that are ostensibly about policies—expanding the ACA rather than “Medicare for all”, making colleges tuition-free instead of making sure students are debt-free, and so on—are actually arguments about strategy. They reflect different ways of dealing with Congress and more basic philosophic questions about how government should administer public services. Disagreements about strategy, I would argue, leave far less room for evidentiary claims. Showing how a strategy worked in a particular historical moment can always be nit-picked apart by pointing out contingencies and disagreeing about the past’s applicability to the present. When it comes to strategy it just sort of has to feel right.

Strategy is a difficult topic and one that most media outlets would rather ignore all together. Such a discussion would require we come to terms with the differences between the Obama ’08 candidacy and the last seven years of his presidency: the coordinated assault on Occupy encampments, drone warfare, and the fairly lukewarm reception (at the federal level) of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The frustrations surrounding these topics are then compounded by the fact that Congress would rather take another vote on defunding Planned Parenthood than put together a jobs bill or investigate the obvious and proven problems with local police forces.

Supporters also do not want to talk about strategy. Strategy talk requires that we accept all of the things above as truth and then figure out how to get around them. Ideological differences, on the other hand, are just a matter of positioning candidates in relation to all of these things. You can give Sanders undue credit for the last decades’ social movements or say that drone warfare was the best of many other worse options. While I do not think it is accurate to say Sanders and Clinton are ideological equivalents, I think the gulf between them is somewhat exaggerated. Let’s put it this way: when Sanders first announced his presidential run the New York Times noted that he and Clinton (while she was still a senator) “voted the same 93 percent of the time” but that “[t]he 31 times that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders disagreed happened to be on some the biggest issues of the day, including measures on continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an immigration reform bill and bank bailouts during the depths of the Great Recession.”

While they have substantive differences in foreign policy intervention and banking where Sanders’ is clearly more progressive than Clinton, I would not characterize all of their differences as ones where Sanders voted “to the left” of Clinton. For example, Sanders opposed a 2007 Immigration Reform bill out of fear of wage suppression while Clinton voted for it. Today they have nearly identical immigration platforms. I think that sums up their ideological differences nicely: that most of the time they are the same and when they differ it is usually (but not always) because a bill is not the correct strategy to achieve a shared goal.

Given this new dynamic where progressive strategy masquerading as ideological difference sits at the heart of the primary, media outlets must seek out narratives that sound somewhat familiar but can give shape to this new phenomenon. A whole army of writers have been all too ready to start answering the kinds of questions American leftists never thought would be uttered on television: What does being a socialist mean? How does feminism translate into policy? Are either of these candidates actually emblematic of the –isms that they are associated with?

Those answering with earnestness about specific policies or political theories have an unenviable task ahead of them because while they may have nuanced and well-thought-out arguments they are unavoidably associated with the immensely condescending missives from Gloria Steinem, Madeleine Albright, and hordes of Bernie Bros. Whereas Clinton relies on named elites to browbeat dissenters Sanders can count on thousands of nobodies to show up in twitter feeds and Facebook comment threads. One substantive difference here is that Clinton welcomes (and defends) Steinem and Albright while Sanders has recently told BernieBros “we don’t want that crap.”

Candidates’ public relationship to their most unsavory supporters, in the final analysis, is less important than the campaigns’ own strategies for producing supporters in the first place. Both seem ideally suited for attracting Lean In Feminists and Brocialists. Sydette Harry offers a compelling look at how the Hillary campaign, through its sloganeering, set itself up to gather uncritical fans of the Lean In variety since day one:

The conflation of being “Ready for Hillary” with feminist allegiance brings the worst problems of political fandom, racism, and poor civic awareness to the forefront. Secretary Clinton is portrayed as a fulfillment of a progressive checklist or schedule rather than an individual candidate.

Citizens have interests that they seek to fulfill through organizing together and selecting representatives, whereas fans have a kind of unconditional allegiance to a fairly static brand or personality. While Clinton is offered up as the kind of candidate that checks off all the right boxes for liberal progressivism, Sanders maintains a sort of monopoly on the citizen that wishes to live in something beyond capitalism and express that wish in a vote.

If a Clinton supporter is a Patriots fan, then a Sanders supporter is an American soccer fan that puts up with FIFA. They try to ignore the fact that he’s running within the Democratic Party and that he does not hold the kind of foreign policy positions that would comport with the level of isolationism that is typical of countries governed by democratic socialists. Sanders, like many Republican candidates, is casting himself as an outsider, which gives cynics permission to call themselves potential voters.

Amanda Hess recently wrote about Sanders’ supporters as having fan-like qualities as well. But while Harry demonstrates that Clintonian fandom is a way to hide “white feminism’s anti-black bias”, Hess argues that the Bernie Bro (a subset of the brocialist if we are keeping taxonomic score) is just like any fan sufficiently blinded by their excitement:

Everything that Bernie Bros have been accused of doing is something I’ve seen from One Directioners on Twitter—a group so displeased by an article I wrote three years ago that they invited me to sit on a chair upholstered with glass shards.

Hess ends her piece with a bit of advice that the Sanders campaign gave to their supporters on Reddit, which may also be instructive for the Left more generally: that the tendency to show devotion to a cause by first and foremost “delivering the sickest burns” to opponents is not the way to win people to your side.

Brocialism and Lean In Feminism are better understood as a kind of fandom than an ideology, although I think they are both. In other words, people who might accurately be branded a Brocialist or a Lean In Feminist may hold their views honestly and strongly (and would probably prefer to be called socialists and feminists, respectively), but much of their behavior is better understood from a fan studies perspective than any sort of political ideology. Fans make worlds out of superficial differences and build arguments to defend their beloved idea rather than use argumentation to arrive at some desirable end. Just as there is no conceivable argument in the world that could convince me that Star Wars is better than Star Trek, I am extremely skeptical of the possibility that Roqaya Chamseddine could convince Jessica Valenti, Amanda Marcotte, or Sady Doyle that Hillary Clinton is the wrong choice for the Democrats. Valenti, Marcotte, and Doyle are fans, just as Cedric Johnson will continue to defend Sanders in the face of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ thorough rebuttals.

Herein lies the rub: I suspect most of the people writing about Sanders, Clinton, and the election in general, know that they are talking about (and sometimes, to) fans. And if they are talking about and to fans, they know that what they say will do little more than excite one side and infuriate the other and no genuine exchange of ideas will take place. With the exception of Harry, Hess, and a few others, the media has done more to reinforce the fan dynamic than try to draw us out into a more civic conversation. The way most arguments are structured in this election cycle one must either be a fan or some strange undecided beast that is equal parts ill-informed fence sitter and ineffectual elite.

Correcting this problem is not simple. Writers have been reinforcing the behavior they critique for a long time. Derrida lamented a similar dynamic in the French press around the turn of the new millennium:

Each book is a pedagogy aimed at forming its reader. The mass production that today inundate the press and publishing houses do not form their readers; they presuppose in a phantasmic and rudimentary fashion a reader who has already been programmed. They thus end up preformatting this very mediocre addressee whom they had postulated in advance.

Derrida is describing the way authors order their audiences into Brocialists and Lean In Feminists, by assuming that the people they disagree with are from one of these two camps. By attacking fans for not being citizens, we encourage people to act like fans so that they might be included in the conversation at all. Perhaps it is the fate of cities that foster intellectual and economic power to eventually manufacture the thing that it set out to lampoon and deconstruct in the first place. I hope we can break out of that cycle and start imagining new kinds of audiences. Coates and Chamseddine may be our only leading lights in this regard because they focus on arguing for or against issues rather than candidates. To the degree that they engage with fans, they do so as a means of further articulating an argument beyond any single candidate or election. More generally though, we need to foster audiences that cleave along new and more interesting lines of argument rather than these tired and pedantic ones that encourage us to dig in our heals and spout talking points. We’re better than that. Leave the bad faith arguments to the politicians.

David is on Twitter.

Header image source.