"Bland Peter," in whose honour the hackathon was thrown, appeared only in cardboard cut-out form. / Gage Skidmore
Corey Pein,  June 30, 2015

The Unbearable Emptiness of Politics as Code

"Bland Peter," in whose honour the hackathon was thrown, appeared only in cardboard cut-out form. / Gage Skidmore
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Nothing inspires nihilism quite like physical proximity to a U.S. presidential campaign. Having attended my first pseudo-event of the 2016 election cycle in San Francisco, I must now banish the encroaching numbness by speaking its name. Evil, thy name is campaign hackathon!

The ostensible purpose of this wasted weekend was to harness the skill and energy of the San Francisco hacker scene to promote the presidential candidacy of a certain libertarian scion who is the darling of the hipster-libertarian right. But of course, the real raison d’etre was to lure the hacks of the news media with the tantalizing promise of a “tech angle” (or, in the case of tech reporters, a political angle).

Thus there is only one measure by which to judge this experience: Did it generate press coverage? Indeed it did. You are reading some of it. I and at least five other journalists, including MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, swallowed the bait and then, to justify our investment of time, wove whatever flimsy narrative threads we could conjure out of the scenea congeries of young American adults typing furiously into a battery of computer screensinto an approximation of newsworthy material. The result is what campaign professionals call “earned media” for the candidate, whose name will inevitably appear in every resulting storyexcept this one.

By every measure other than publicity, the hackathon for this Oval Office aspirant (let’s call him, oh, I don’t know, “Bland Peter”) was a dud. It failed both in its stated objective to produce software advancing the cause of “privacy and liberty” and as a demonstration of volunteer zeal. Fittingly, Peter appeared only in cardboard cutout form, while the real-life model waited at an “undisclosed location” to receive the winning team of app developersa group of coders, who turned out to be aerospace industry contractors from France. Hack pour la liberté!

Indeed, the only newsworthy feature of the event was the candidate’s nonappearance: Here was earned media that the named beneficiary wasn’t even bothering to show up to redeem. While twenty-odd pallid young coders huddled over laptops in a dark room behind a locked door, two blocks away, a great mass of revelers celebrated the Supreme Court’s nationwide legalization of equal marriage rights, which had arrived just in time for Pride weekend in the gay capital of America. Bland Peter might have used this timely coincidence to make a statement of some sort. Instead, he hid.

All of this is in keeping with our present miasmic moment: Leaders who avoid the public at all costs; news that is not about anything real; half-baked apps instead of meaningful political engagement; and food options consisting of empty carbohydrates industrially pressed into various shapes. The hackathon was an expression of our country’s authentic democratic spirit in exactly the same way that its participants were afforded the choice of three flavors of Doritos.

Silicon Valley and Washington, DC are still in the early, awkward phases of their dalliance of power. Although this may not have been, as it was billed, the first presidential campaign hackathon, you can bet it will not be the last. Therefore, in the open-source spirit of meme-sharing, I offer the following app ideas to enterprising, politically minded programmers who attend the next such event:

• An app to compromise the security of electronic voting machines, ensuring victory for your chosen candidate.

• An app that turns social media “likes” and “favorites” into actual votes, accelerating the long process that has reduced democracy to a hollow charade of consumer preference, like everything else in this rapidly decaying society.

• An app that actually runs for president in all fifty states, representing the logical culmination of a digitized world in which privately owned algorithms are beginning to exert more influence over the daily life of the average person than the winners of any election.

Corey Pein writes Magical Thinking for The Baffler. He is currently based in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon, and has a book on Silicon Valley coming out next year.

 

 

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