Friday, June 24, 2016

Will voting with smartphones promote democracy?

Consumer Reports
July 2016 issue
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In an age where sensationalism has overshadowed journalism, it’s comforting to know that there are real sources of news out there.  I’d include Consumer Reports among those real news sources,  even though it just focuses on products and services.  This month’s issue has a thought-provoking article, “Online Voting and Democracy in the Digital Age,” which asks the question:

“We now use the Internet to shop for cars, file taxes, and everything in-between.
But are we ready to vote with our smartphones?”

Well, we may ask, why not?  The US has low voter turnout on election days compared to other democratic, industrialized countries, so perhaps making voting more convenient will help increase civic participation.
At least, that appears to be the underlying assumption behind the question.

However, I’m not so sure civic participation would necessarily improve in a smartphone-driven society.

To understand why, let’s first bear in mind a famous aphorism from media guru Marshall McLuhan: “the medium is the message.”  What McLuhan meant was that media (and technologies, more broadly speaking) don’t just communicate information; they actively shape it.  More specifically, media influence how our minds process information.  (This insight is the main idea of what educator Neil Postman called media ecology.)

Marshall McLuhan
(Image from

For instance, digital media like smartphones promote quick information processing.  Very quick.  They process information almost literally at the speed of lightdigital information travels at lightening speed.  The light then comes through a glowing screen and into your eyes.  Staring directly at a source of light is difficult, so your vision tends to bounce around (to mitigate digital eye strain), finding bright buttons and distracting links in the process.  This is why we tend to scan and multitask when it comes to digital screens.

Contrast that with print media, which promote more slow information processing.  With books, for instance, light reflects off the page, allowing you to focus on a book for a longer period of time without feeling digital eye strain (reflected light is much easier on your vision than direct light).  Also, there’s nothing to click on print media, so those kinds of distractions are eliminated.  This is why its easier to focus on a book than on a screen.

Not that digital is bad and print is good.

Different media are designed for different purposes, that's all (e.g., see my Screen vs. Print series).

Which brings us back to the proposed smartphone-driven democracy.

Your smartphone is a great digital device designed for fast-paced tasks—e.g., checking email, getting directions or bus schedules, shopping, etc.
It’s not the greatest medium for careful reflection (in-person dialogue and books are better for that purpose).  Also, when you use your smartphone, you do so alone—even if you’re connected to a billion users, you’re still doing it by yourself.

Now contrast that with the purpose of democracy and civics, which is about careful reflection on the character as well as the policies of candidates.  Civics also is about coming together as a community in dialogue, not about multitasking alone on a computer.

In short, the design of smartphones is at odds with the purpose of civics.

So voting with smartphones is really a misguided answer to the problem of voter turnout.  To encourage civic mindedness and thoughtful reflection in politics, we’d want to create social spaces where people come together in dialogue.  We don’t want to commodify politics more with smartphone and just be, as the psychologist Sherry Turkle says, “alone together.”  Instead of voting with smartphones, a real solution would turn election day into a national holiday, encouraging people to put down their phones, leave their confines, and come together in the spirit of community.