Machine Therapy -- No. 1

Virus in the System: Ethics and Electronics in the Election Process

Mark Antony Rossi

The title of this article harkens thoughts of the Bush-Gore election of 2000; a serious slugfest hinging on hanging chads and blue-haired Floridians. But I am not referring to that fair election which was ultimately Senator Gore’s to lose and lose he did. A number of tactical campaign errors certainly cost him the presidency, namely losing his home state of Tennessee, distancing himself from Clinton, and choosing a decent yet boring running mate Senator Joseph Lieberman. Elections are usually lost by dumb mistakes. In the near future elections may be stolen by corporate entities in collaboration with hidden agents of either major political party.

Some might laugh and say “it’s already been done, Mark.” Referring to the legendary union tampering of West Virginian votes for the Kennedy presidential election, or even farther back in the Truman elections before he became president. In both instances criminal elements in cahoots with collaborative members of the political establishment steered these elections to victory. However; in both instances it can also be argued any undue influence might not had such a dramatic effect since these candidates were generally favored by the public. Either way dubious elections results in a democracy is still the exception and not the rule. The great majority of American elections are fair and honest, if not always politically or practically desirable to certain groups or even the common good. Freedom is messy.

With that thought in mind the counterweight to messy freedom is usually the neat convenience of some version of dictatorship. In this case the type of dictatorship for America would have to be strictly covert. A convergence of negative political agenda and targeted technological attack to sabotage campaigns or candidates in order to divert the public to another more “suitable” selection. Naked fascism or socialism is unlikely to take root in a commercially driven society that prides itself on the profitable merits of individual achievement and equal opportunity even if reality reveals the belief in a meritocracy is a romantic overstatement. As evidenced by Martha Stewart, Ken Lay, and other mega-thieves who primarily steal out of fear of the market forces they publicly profess to worship and conquer on a regular basis. The Market Place is messy.

Messy is the Market. Messy is Freedom. Messy is Life. Messy is why we as a society produce so many stupid cookie-cutter happy ending films. People want to escape messy. It is that truism taken to heart that should frighten and inform you about the human condition: when issues seem complicated, people grab the first easy answer that appears to solve the problem. Never does it seem to occur to these folks that the issue is complicated because there is not a simple answer out there. The answers to all social dilemmas in a society almost always require tough choices, reorganized priorities, new alliances and serious compromises that are bulls eyes for political hardheads more interested in undiluted power broking than life enriching resolutions. Enter the “simple” technological solution, microchips not mini chads.

Electronic Voting Machines

Electronic voting machines connected to the internet or a state-contained intranet are the newest “solution” in the battle to reduce contested elections. Contractors for these new machines are naturally pushing them hard since profits could reach potentially in the billions of dollars in hard equipment, software and periodic maintenance. The vulnerability of EVM technology is staggering and cannot be perfected to insure the integrity of an election that depended upon its outcome. The following are a few of the serious drawbacks of such a system:

1. No paper trail backup to allow for investigation or recount.
2. No electronic hard drive or server backup in case of area electrical blackout.
3. No foolproof system to prevent hacking in order to monitor or alter results.
4. No procedures in place to insure equipment is maintained by county governments rather than private contractors.

Recently students of a computer class hacked into a local electronic election machine and were able to monitor results. The probability of an evil hacker directed by a cabal of criminal/terrorism/corporate goons seeking to change election results is very high after proven methods to disrupt the equipment have already taken place. The logical end of this tampering means removing the voice of the people in the democratic process. Nothing can be so fundamentally damaging to a democracy. No voice. No freedom. No democracy.

Video Image Special Effects

In the 1950’s, special effects in motion pictures amounted to rubber monster suits and shaky flying saucers on nearly visible strings. Suspension of belief was not only necessary for the plot but for the duration of the film lest you break out in uncontrollable laughter. In the 1990’s with the advent of digital image manipulation the dinosaurs of “Jurassic Park” were as believable as the jungle location scouted for the shoot. This development while an artistic and financial boon for the film industry bodes a negative impact on the future of democratic elections.

We have already witnessed local, state and Congressional candidates use “morphing” image technology in attack ads by turning their opponents into caricatures of animals or villains. The techniques to create better propaganda commercials is distressing when used to slander or insinuate certain ideas about another candidate. This step in video electioneering deserves to be considered alarming but it has been mostly countered by forcing candidates to openly admit approval in voice-overs, “I’m So and So and I Approved This Message,” therefore eliminating the verbal dodge ball ensuing after nasty images and thoughts have been pushed on the public’s perception.

The ability to produce films and commercials and manipulate their image content is a common talent in this day and age. The availability of digital hardware and software is as close of your nearest mall or internet site. The time is near when a group of individuals will create a video of a candidate in a compromising position with another woman or man or child. Not a shed of the material will resemble the truth and none distributing it will care. It will be likely introduced anonymously on an internet site which in turn will be splashed across a supermarket tabloid until it finally reaches a major network newscast. This sick farce will be the propaganda video equivalent of washing dirty drug money. One wicked picture is worth a thousand wicked words.

Western democratic societies for all their financial prowess and industrial progress do not yet have an institututional history of ethical insight to prepare against the dark side of technology. Some say this laxity is due to big business interference into governmental affairs. Others say the government cannot sell long-term preventative maintenance stragedies due to short-term political agendas. I believe it has more to do with collective short memory of a citizenry conditioned by a disposable consumer culture. Nothing is made to last. It is this very disposable attitude that allows a crisis management approach to problems instead of designing preventative maintenance procedures meant to protect us from potential abuse of technology.

Why must we wait for something bad to happen before we act? The foreign enemies of American democracy are legion. However; without the courage and vision of enacting laws to prevent election tampering at the most sophisticated level, the domestic enemies of freedom are sure to strike a blow at the heart of this society that will dwarf the nine eleven terrorist attack. A free election is more than a political contest for its outcome represents the will of the people. A sacred act in a secular society that often forgets its role model status in an undemocratic and hostile world.

Mark Antony Rossi is a produced playwright and published author of seven books including "Mother Of All Machines: A Bioethics Primer" and recently released "The Intruder Bulletins: The Dark Side of Technology."