Tech Titans Fix Democracy in Single White House Dinner
In long dinners with Silicon Valley titans, [President Obama] has talked extensively about ways to better use personal technology to increase voter turnout and improve civic engagement.
—”For Gadget Geek in the Oval Office, High Tech Has Its Limits,” The New York Times, January 24, 2016
SCENE: A table in the private upstairs dining room of the White House. Seated around it are BARACK OBAMA (POTUS), REID HOFFMAN (LinkedIn), ERIC SCHMIDT (Google), MARK ZUCKERBERG (Facebook), BILL GATES (Microsoft), MARK PINCUS (Zynga), TRAVIS KALANICK (Uber) and others not listed in the White House Visitors Log. Dinner has just finished, and the President is enjoying his post-prandial drink of choice, an extra-dry Grey Goose martini. Several of his guests are having the same.
OBAMA: So, gentlemen. You’ve built some of the most successful companies of the digital age. Billions of people use your products, and you’ve all made billions as a result. I know I am the poor boy at this table, though with Bill here our average net wealth is much higher than it would otherwise be. <Everyone laughs.> I’ve asked you to dinner tonight so we can brainstorm about something bigger and more important than making money, which is the health of our democracy. How can tech help? I mean, barely more than 55% of Americans are going to vote this year. Most people can’t even name their own representative in Congress. Like I said about long voting lines—we have to fix that. I want your best ideas.
SCHMIDT: Barack, in my view, pretty soon this won’t be a problem any more. Artificial intelligence is going to take care of it. We’re heading toward an amazing world where smart machines will do almost everything for us. As I wrote in my book, The New Digital Age, soon we will have information systems that will streamline many of life’s small daily tasks, such as integrated clothing machines (washing, drying, folding, pressing and sorting) that keep an inventory of clean clothes and algorithmically suggest outfits based on the user’s daily schedule. Haircuts will finally be automated and machine-precise. It’s right there in my book. And…
HOFFMAN: Oh, c’mon Eric, is that what explains why your hair looks like it was cut by a robot? Who picked out that shirt for you? Just kidding, I know I’m hardly the world’s best dresser.
ZUCKERBERG: Wait, you mean I didn’t have to wear a suit and tie for this?
HOFFMAN: With all due respect, Eric, this isn’t going to be solved by artificial intelligence. We can revive political participation by teaching politicians to maximize how networked they are. If you can’t conceptualize and understand networks, you will lose out to others in today’s fast-paced and hyper-competitive landscape. You have to use your Facebook profile or your LinkedIn profile as more than a digital resume—politicians just have to use phrases and keywords with deliberate intention, to maximize your discoverability by the kinds of people you want to be found by.
OBAMA: I’m sorry, but how does that increase voter turnout or civic engagement?
HOFFMAN: Well, the more network-savvy you are, the more you can influence others to get out to vote. Who retweets you? Who comments on your Medium posts? Who shows up on LinkedIn as a first degree connection? Don’t forget, you once had 13 million people on your email list.
OBAMA: I’m afraid I’m not following you.
ZUCKERBERG: I see what you did there, Mr. President. <Everyone laughs.> But seriously, before we talk about being networked like Reid, what we need to do is make sure everyone is connected. Don’t forget, even here in the United States, not everyone is online. The Internet isn’t affordable to everyone, and in many places awareness of its value remains low. That’s why we want to bring Internet.org, our Free Basics service, to every American.
OBAMA: I thought that was just for people in the developing world.
ZUCKERBERG: Have you been to some parts of America? Seriously, if you want to increase voter turnout and civic engagement, we have to make sure first everyone is online. With Internet.org, we’re giving people with smartphones free access to all that Facebook has to offer. If someone can’t afford to pay for connectivity, it is always better to have some access than none at all.
OBAMA: Let me see if I understand. It’s sort of like saying if someone can’t afford a quality private education at Harvard, we should at least give them access to community college? Or is the idea that if they live in a poor city that can’t afford to pay for clean water, we at least let them drink from the river? I’m not sure I understand…
KALANICK: Actually, what Mark is doing is backwards. Instead of charging people less for a basic service, we should offer them a premium service for more. If you want shorter lines on Election Day, you should set up different lines depending on how much people are willing to pay for the convenience. I don’t see why I should have to wait in line with everyone else.
OBAMA: (Starting to smirk) So you would have something like a VoterX line for regular folks, VoterSelect for people who want a faster line, VoterBlack for people who don’t want to stand in line at all? You might want to rename VoterBlack to VoterWhite in that case…
KALANICK: (Oblivious to Obama’s joke) Yeah, that would be really baller. And if lines are too long, just implement surge pricing. Some people who want to will pay the higher price to skip the line and others will just choose to come back later, when the lines are shorter again.
PINCUS: That’s ridiculous Travis. You can’t set up a fast-lane and a slow-lane for polling stations. Mr. President—
OBAMA: By the way, Mark, thank you for contributing to my SuperPAC back in 2012. Much appreciated. Not everyone else here was as generous as you.
PINCUS: (Grinning). I think the problem with getting more people to vote and be civically engaged is that it’s just not very fun. Let’s give people points for showing up at their local public hearing, or for volunteering in their kids’ school. Call it “Civic With Friends.”
OBAMA: You mean, we should gamify politics? Don’t people feel like it’s a game already, just not one they can afford to play in? I mean, for example, shouldn’t we end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around? And, besides, how would you keep track of whether someone earned their civic points?
PINCUS: Well, if enough people banded together, like with Kickstarter, they could literally buy the presidency. A million people give a thousand dollars apiece. I believe there’s a million people who’d like to give a ‘fuck you’ to both political parties. I’m mean, look at the game Star Citizen–people raised $80 million.
ZUCKERBERG: (Interjecting)…We have a lot of that kind of social graph information already on Facebook, actually. Look, if we just put a button on people’s pages saying “I Voted” and show them pictures of their friends saying the same thing, we can get more people to vote. We’ve upped turnout by a couple of percentage points.
KALANICK: (Turning to ZUCKERBERG) Plouffe never mentioned that to me—can we buy that service from you? There are some mayors we’re having problems with…
OBAMA: Hold on, hold on, hold on! All I’m hearing from you is a bunch of pitches for your products, and nothing about how we can actually help people vote or get involved in politics. Don’t you have any practical ideas on how we can get more people registered? Or how we can involve people in public meetings so they aren’t so painful? Or make sure that the people in positions of authority listen? Or do you all just think that’s the job of government?
HOFFMAN: The President is right…we need to help government figure this out.
EVERYONE ELSE AT ONCE: Oh, no, we don’t believe the government knows how to do anything right, including how to make our democracy work better.
OBAMA: (To his butler)…Please make me another martini. Make it a strong one. Get me the iPad the NSA doesn’t know I have. And, on second thought, bring me a cigarette too. Don’t tell Michelle…