“Never send a human to do a machine’s job,” Agent Smith said in The Matrix.
Though he may have been correct in that sentiment, no doubt motivated by the assumed precision and predictability of a machine as compared to the erratic behavior of humans, he seems to have forgotten that machines themselves are created by humans to do the work of humans for the convenience of humans.
Yet, nearly everything in American society has been modernized through the use of a machine or other form of technology, and it seems that the process of politics has not been immune to the march of industrial progress. When it comes to modern American politics, it appears as if we are living in a war of machines fought on the battleground of invisible airwaves, a war that is calculated and predicated upon a colossal database of personal preferences and tendencies.
In the article “Separation by Television Program: Understanding the Targeting of Political Advertising in Presidential Elections,” Travis Ridout and his co-authors present the idea of micro-targeting, which they define as a strategy that “involves more precisely identifying voters or households that might be receptive to a specific mobilization or persuasion message.”
While the targeting of political messages to constituents certainly isn’t a new strategy, never before in American history have candidates for office had access to the staggering amount of information about voters that is now open to them. Hundreds of so-called research firms now exist for the sole purpose of gathering demographic data about voters that they then sell to presidential hopefuls or anyone else who might be interested. In this war of the machines, access to data is victory, and victory is power.
Few things we do on a daily basis are left unrecorded to be sold to inquiring minds. What’s your favorite TV show? Which social network do you prefer? Which browser do you prefer? What kind of things do you look at online (yes, even those kind of things)? What kind of things attract your attention when you’re shopping? When you do decide to buy, what do you buy and why? What kind of phone do you have? Which apps do you use most often? Which provider do you have for cellular service? What kind of music do you listen to? What was the last movie you watched? The last place you went to eat?
Nothing is too granular or too insignificant to consider.
Recently browsed for a new camera lens on Amazon? Your Facebook feed would be pleased to inform you that as an avid nature photographer, Elizabeth Warren will happily stand for your belief in protecting the environment if only you would vote for her. That tweet you posted about your frustration with a Congress who can’t seem to do much of anything? Suddenly it transforms into an email in your inbox from Thom Tillis who promises to rectify that. Where the hell did he get your email address from, anyway?
All of these things paint a picture of a person that the political machine then uses to create highly-tailored, individual ads that vie to win the sliver of attention still left in the increasingly AD/HD-prone digital generation. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the attention span of the average American has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013, which is actually 1 second less than the average attention span of a goldfish.
The internet and other machines clearly provide us with much convenience in modern life, but at what cost?
Political campaigns are being forced to personalize their messages down further and further and to buy more and more voter data in order to it. In an era when many Americans perceive politics to be more polarized than ever (whether or not that is actually true), and when voters are selectively building their own information sphere online that validates rather than challenges their world views, independent voters have become the be-all, end-all for political candidates.
Enter the local news, which still enjoys the status of holy grail for political advertisements because of its universal appeal. As Iyengar and McGrady point out in “Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide,” those who watch the local news—morning, afternoon or evening—are most likely to vote. Also, local news advertisements tend to reach more independent voters at a lower cost and yield more results than ads placed in a broader, national context. How do campaigns know this? Big data, of course.
Am I the only one that’s terrified by this? I can’t possibly be the only person sometimes losing sleep at night thinking about all of the things that a company or individual can (oftentimes correctly) infer about me based on my web browsing and TV watching habits, can I? Is it possible that the number of independent voters is increasing because people are consciously disengaging from the political process as a result of data-mining tactics that they think have gone too far? Just because a candidate has the ability to speak to a very specific group of voters, does that mean that they should actually do it?
Maybe it’s time to start injecting some real humanity into the political process instead of the artificially created variety. Maybe it’s time to step away from the machinery and accept the fact that there is merit in the sometimes erratic behavior of humans.
Though the data may say that on average we vote one way, there are still those instances where we vote the opposite. That doesn’t make any sense to big data political machines, but it makes perfect sense to humans, because we aren’t data—we aren’t a number that can be boiled down to probability figures and statistics. We have thoughts and feelings and no number of targeted ads is ever going to remove that from the equation.