To those who look to the god of technology to deliver us from the climate crisis, I offer two words of caution: Iowa caucuses. Make that three: Boeing.
Well, Iowa is a mess. The state's status as the lead-off primary was already under fire because it is too white. The caucus system was under assault for being too cumbersome, too complex, and too elitist, with participation difficult or impossible for too many people.
Then came caucus day. A cumbersome and complex process was exacerbated by our cultural obsession with transparency and immediate gratification, which made an imperative of reporting vote totals at each stage in the process, and heaven forfend we should have to wait a day or two for results to be tabulated. Hence the appeal of a hastily designed app for which testing and training were woefully inadequate. In these circumstances the coding error cited as the source of the issue should come as no surprise. And that is only the tip of an iceberg not apt to melt anytime soon.
The brain trust of the Iowa Democratic Party did get one thing right: paper backup. The episode highlights the folly of reliance on electronic voting with no paper trail for backup in the event of, heaven forfend, a glitch.
The impeached president and his barbarian legions in the Trump Republican Party are beside their collective selves with glee at the demonstration of Democratic ineptitude. They might do well to bear in mind the venerable adage that those who gloat last gloat best. But we all know they won't.
The more interesting story in all of this comes with revelations about the shadowy band of young progressive activists and tech faithful at ACRONYM and Shadow, the company that designed the ill-fated app. ACCRONYM, all caps in founder and CEO Tara McGowan's apologia at Medium (A note to supporters…), so must be important, beyond cutting edge, bleeding edge, is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization founded "soon after the 2016 presidential election with a commitment to build a new non-profit model to build power and digital infrastructure for progressive causes and advocacy campaigns."
McGowan seems to be quite the go-getter. She also founded PACRONYM, a 527 Super Pac, and ACRONYM has invested in for-profit entities Lockwood Strategy, "a digital creative and media campaign consultancy," the tech company Shadow, People's Power Grab, a voter registration drive, and a digital media outfit called Courier Newsroom, devoted to spinning local news with a progressive slant. McGowan lists herself as founder and CEO of both ACRONYM and Lockwood Strategy on her LinkedIn page.
The relationships between these organizations are complex and often opaque. ACRONYM reportedly described its relationship with Shadow as an acquisition on multiple occasions (Emily Stewart, Acronym, the dark money group…) prior to the Iowa app episode. McGowan has previously tweeted about ACRONYM's launch of Shadow and said in her podcast that ACRONYM is Shadow's sole investor (Andrew Marantz, Inside Acronym). Après Iowa the company line is that ACRONYM is one of several investors in Shadow and its website has been scrubbed of mentions of the Shadow launch (Stewart).
Funding too is opaque. ACRONYM is a dark-money group whose "donations to its 501(c)(4) nonprofit don’t have to be reported, and we don’t entirely know who their money is coming from — or how much they have." Emily Stewart, writing at Vox, quotes an unnamed Democratic strategist: "There’s this whole group of organizations that are feeding each other, and they’re ultimately all controlled by the same group of people."
McGowan is thirty-four and has been active in Democratic circles since 2010. In 2011 she worked in the Obama White House as a digital producer, whatever that may entail, and afterward moved on to a slew of other outfits, including Tom Steyer's NextGen America. As I read the reporting by Stewart and Andrew Marantz at The New Yorker, I thought of the shenanigans associated with Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. That may not altgether fair to McGowan. She may operate from the best of motives and intentions. But don't they all?
Another unnamed strategist cited by Stewart nutshelled the app debacle: "This has all the markings of a pet project of someone who says, 'Oh, we can do that.' You let a company that has no track record just build the most important thing you’ve probably done in the last decade, and yeah, it was going to fail."
It is surely not irrelevant that McGowan's husband was a lead organizer for Hillary Clinton and now works for the Buttigieg campaign and that "she has tweeted dismissively about Bernie Sanders ('bernie is not the answer') and rapturously about Pete Buttigieg" (Marantz). It does not take a Bernie bro to question where her loyalties lie and whether she is an honest broker. Based on what I know at present, not a lot, I am inclined to buy Marantz's assessment:
McGowan doesn’t seem reckless or sinister enough to intentionally rig an election. Rather, she seems like a starry-eyed techno-utopian, prone to believing that a wide array of societal ills can be cured by another innovation, another round of investment, or another app.
Plenty of smart people are doing a lot of interesting and important work in the tech realm. Among them are well-meaning individuals who in the thrall of enthusiasm for their gadgetry fall for their own hype, for instance, that e-scooters are the answer to, well, something, and that I need to be able to talk to my damn refrigerator and radio and television, if I owned a television. They are not all hucksters, but hucksters there are.
There are also starry-eyed techno-utopians convinced that they have the key to making the world a better place. Alongside them are bad actors with malign political agendas. It is not always easy to tell them apart. Nor is it always clear who does the most harm, however good their intentions might be.
This presents a dilemma for an organization such as the Iowa Democratic Party when it feels compelled to seek the expertise of a technocracy it is ill-equipped to vet and evaluate. The Iowa Dems have taken a lot of heat since caucus day. While some of that is deserved, a measure of perspective is in order when dishing it out. The underlying issues go well beyond Iowa and the Democratic Party.
Coming soon: commentary on the New Harmpshire primary and the Portable Bohemia endorsement for the Democratic nomination for president. We all know how much weight that carries.
Keep the faith.
Andrew Marantz, Inside Acronym, the Tech Consultancy Behind the Disastrous Iowa-Caucus App, The New Yorker, February 6, 2020
Tara McGowan, A note to supporters of ACRONYM, Medium, February 5, 2020
Emily Stewart, Acronym, the dark money group behind the Iowa caucuses app meltdown, explained, Vox, February 8, 2020