Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Electronic Voting Machines: The ProTools of Democracy?

Now that the election is a week behind us, we can step back and take stock of the momunmental change that took place in our culture. But since this isn't really a political blog, you'll have to go elsewhere for an appraisal of the political ramifications (from the right, from the left). What we're concerned with is in some ways a more dramatic change, the shift from "old-fashioned" voting technologies such as paper ballots, punch cards, and mechanical lever machines to modern electronic voting technologies. Why the change? Certainly the "hanging chad" problems in 2004 galvanized the nation to take note of the potential problems involved with the current voting technologies. But more broadly, the shift towards electronic voting machines is as inevitable as the consistent losses of third party candidates in American politics. The inexorable march of progress dictates that newer is better, and we are moving boldly into a fully digital age. But consider:

--In Florida, the home of the hanging chad, electronic voting machines "recorded unusually high percentages of ballots with no votes"

--In Ohio, my home state for better or worse, electronic voting machines were used in all districts, but with various problems reported throughout the state

--In Pennsylvania, another crucial battleground state, there were "reports of machines not going through all of the election screens, machines that were not functioning at all, machines automatically shutting down early due to timing problems"

A quick search of the Internet (one of the "good" technological advances) reveals a host of similar issues. While it may be easy to dismiss these problems as typical of the growing pains all new technologies face, the deeper question may be more revealing. Are these technologies really necessary? Or, to put it another way, are there some non-digital technologies that are actually better suited to certain jobs?
The music industry certainly provides a telling analogy. Simply put, it's clear that analog technology is better suited to making music sound real, provided of course that's what you're looking for in your music. Digital technology may "solve" a number of problems, but in the process, creates myriad new problems, some of which may be worse than the problems the technology was intended to fix. I would make the argument that the issues arising from paper ballots and the other "analog" technologies could be best fixed by updating those technologies (for example, here in New York, many of the voting machines are the same ones used forty years ago) rather than enacting a wholesale shift to a new technology. I believe this not because digital machines cannot or do not address the shortcomings of the current voting technologies, but instead because of the severity of problems introduced by these new digital machines.
It has been fairly well documented that many of these new machines provide no paper trail of the votes cast, which is a serious problem in and of itself. But of even more concern is the potential for fraud in these new voting technologies. When the president of Diebold Inc, a leading manufacturer of voting machines said he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year," it's hard not to see the sinister implications in that statement. Say what you will about those clunky old lever machines, but it's pretty hard to manipulate those paper ballots in one fell swoop, as one could do with networked machines.
Just as digital music technology seems to take something essential out of the creative process, it seems like digital voting takes something crucial out of the democratic process. We're not so naive as to believe that the American democratic process is free from all hints of corruption, but participating in the process has a major symbolic component to it, one that cannot be enjoyed if the integrity of the system is in serious doubt. When I put on a record of my favorite musician, I want to believe that everything I hear on that song is a product of a real live breathing human being. And when I cast a vote, I want to believe that my preference will be accurately recorded and counted by the powers that be. Things just don't work otherwise.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Get Out and Vote!

Don't forget to vote today. Check back in later during the week for a Silent Stereo take on the election.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

My Apologies

One of my duties as Executive Director of Communications at Silent Stereo Records is to maintain a consistent blog presence. Although as an executive, I should have underlings to do the actual writing, that is not the case in our homey little company. In any case, I noticed that my last posting was way back on September 17th, practically an era ago in these days of 24 hour news cycles and Internet blogs. In my defense, I just started grad school, which severely cut into my free time. Still, there has been a lot of good stuff going on in the Silent Stereo world. The Black Hollies and Boss Tweed both finished recordings at our studio and we're eagerly awaiting the release of those numbers. In a special touch, the Boss Tweed single will be released as an authentic 45, just like in the good old days. We will definitely keep you updated on that release. Furthermore, Silent Stereo friends The Dansettes will be playing the big CMJ Music festival this week in New York City. Word on the street is that some record industry bigwigs are interesting in checking out the retro stylings of the Dansettes, but I'm sure every band at CMJ believes that.
In other news, I'm embarking on a project that is relevant to the theme of this blog (check the masthead if you've forgotten our theme). As it happens, November is officially "National Novel Writing Month." In fact, there's even a website for it at While it's not as if I don't have enough excuses for not updating this blog, now I have a new one: I'll be writing a novel. Or more accurately, I'll be attempting to write 50,000 words in the space of a month. And why should you care? This is where the Silent Stereo angle comes in.
In the last forty years, American culture has been plagued by a steady, debiliatating decline in "social capital." Social capital, as the name implies, refers to the value inherent in all sorts of social endeavors, whether they be book clubs, religious groups, knitting circles, and even bands, which as we know from our rock history are just as good as gangs. Although the data is not complete, it appears that after reaching a high point in the sixties and seventies, group participation has plummeted. So apparently good music wasn't the only thing we lost in the eighties. The changes in the music industry that we rail against here are simply one part of a larger metamorphis in the American cultural landscape.
But instead of cursing the darkness, I'm going to light a candle. The Nanowrimo project gives me an opportunity, albeit an electronic one, to investigate social capital. As I torture myself to keep to a daily output of 1667 words a day, I can reassure myself that I'm also gaining valuble insight into the new American culture of the 21st century. I'll let you know how that turns out for me.
And in a final twist, the novel I intend to write will use music, especially sixties soul and rock, as its main metaphorical device. Maybe if it turns out okay I can try to expand the company into publishing.