MyActivityTheory and John Edwards

Like Kayce, i was taking in the cultural nuance this weekend that is MTV. Actually, i happened upon the MySpace/MTV Political thingamajig on Friday night, and was only able to stomach the first 10 minutes or so. John Edwards was the focus, but my dislike of the forum had little to do with the candidate. It had to do with Activity Theory and what it exposed of the brokenness of our electoral process.

The format was as follows:

  1. Candidate is asked a question by an audience member
  2. Candidate answers the question
  3. People in place vote in the following categories, based on the answer:
    • “understands reality”
    • “answered questions”
    • “has the wrong ideas”
    • “out of touch”
    • “dodged the question”
  4. Candidate can view the results of the poll immediately

What bothered me about the process was nicely and unwittingly exemplified by Edward’s own words in the video above when he asks the moderator how he should understand the livepoll pie chart. After the moderator explains that the last 3 categories (colored pink and red in the chart he was viewing) are “bad,” Edwards says  “The pink and the red you want as little of as you can get by with.”   With just a little bit of Activity Theory, one can quickly parse out the many ways that the technology, in this case, is part of a sociotechnical system that is helping to destroying the democratic process by increasing the rate at which presidential candidates can morph their message into something that is what people want to hear, rather than something that they actually believe and plan to carry out.


  1. laurabrunetti

    “increasing the rate at which presidential candidates can morph their message into something that is what people want to hear, rather than something that they actually believe and plan to carry out.”

    I hate to get political because it’s such a touchy topic, and also I don’t really know very much in that arena. But I found it interesting you posted this when I was just listening to a conversation over the weekend about two particular candidates, Barak and Hillary, where this whole idea of playing to what people want to hear topic came up.

    It seemed this particular group’s consensus was that Barak because of his relative youth and inexperience would do a lot of fancy-footin’ around topics and spend a lot of time playing with words to basically not piss off as many people as he can. Whereas Hillary on the other hand has a lot more experience, has been ’round the White House once before, and doesn’t give a crap about what people think about her, so to speak. That is, she’s a badass who sticks to the issues at hand, knows what she stands for, and makes it clear to people. Therefore, more people from this particular group were of the mind that Hillary would get in there, take names, and get things done more so than Barak.

    So getting back to the technology thing I wonder how these two folks and others would respond. Like Edwards? Are they salivating at the mouth for something that could help them more effectively play the game? Do any not care or perhaps are actually bothered by the idea? Maybe something like this could be used as a training tool where pink and red are seen as “good” because one could go around dodging clear answers and skirting around issues in an attempt at not turning voters against him or her.

  2. jeffreybardzell

    One of the things that I got out of Christian’s post was the idea of technologically conditioned vapiditiy. That is, politicians practice empty speech as it is, and now we are introducing new technologies to improve their efficicency and performance when it comes to saying even more palatable nothings. I think we can safely talk about this, because the discipline of saying only palatable nothings is clearly bipartisan.

  3. laurabrunetti

    How do you manage to say so nicely in three sentences what it took me three paragraphs to fumble with?

  4. jeffreybardzell

    I just read this in Salon. It gets at a phenomenological question: what does an online poll measure, exactly?’s Managing Editor doesn’t seem to get it, does he? Oh well, it’s a good thing he’s not taking these stone age attitudes and running an important Web site or anything!

    They don’t call them “unscientific” surveys for nothing

    Everybody knows that online polls are just invitations to manipulation, right?

    Well, maybe not everyone.

    After hosting last week’s GOP presidential debate, CNBC put up a “who the won debate” question on its Web site. To the surprise of no one who has been paying attention, supporters of Ron Paul flooded the site and handed their man an overwhelming victory. CNBC’s response? It took down the poll, then whined about what Paul’s supporters had done.

    In An Open Letter to the Ron Paul Faithful, managing editor Allen Wastler complained that the Pauliacs went and ruined his efforts to take “a quick temperature reading” of audience reaction.

    “Congratulations,” Wastler wrote. “You folks are obviously well-organized and feel strongly about your candidate and I can’t help but admire that. But you also ruined the purpose of the poll. It was no longer an honest ‘show of hands’ — it suddenly was a platform for beating the Ron Paul drum. That certainly wasn’t our intention and certainly doesn’t serve our readers . . . at least those who aren’t already in the Ron Paul camp. . . . When a well-organized and committed ‘few’ can throw the results of a system meant to reflect the sentiments of ‘the many,’ I get a little worried.”

    We’d tell Wastler that he invited exactly what he got when he put his poll online. But it seems that we don’t have to. In his own Open Letter to Ron Paul Supporters, CNBC chief Washington correspondent John Harwood says that the poll should have stayed up. “If you sponsor an online poll as we did, you accept the results unless you have very good reason to believe something corrupt has occurred — just as democracies accept results on Election Day at the ballot box without compelling evidence of corruption,” he writes. “I have no reason to believe anything corrupt occurred with respect to our poll. To the contrary, I believe the results we measured showing an impressive 75 percent naming Paul reflect the organization and motivation of Paul’s adherents. This is precisely what unscientific surveys of this kind are created to measure. . . .

    “Highly motivated minorities can and do exert influence out of proportion to their numbers in legislative debates and even in some elections. They most certainly can dominate unscientific online polls. And when they do, we should neither be surprised nor censor the results.”

    I would have thought the wild enthusiasm of a small minority of votes was a finding!

  5. chmbrigg

    Yes, Jeff, you pulled out the scary thing about this technology as implemented and understood within the context of the MTV/MySpace event. The faster the feedback, the more vapid a candidate can be. To make the analysis comparative, i wonder if the sociotechnical environment of the pre-radio era had less rapid waffling – or a generally less vapid environment, since it could be weeks before a candidate would know whether or not their remarks were popular. And i wonder then if the public would have at least cringed a little when a candidate admitted publicly that he thought waffling was a good thing..

  6. tdbowman

    Is that what we would refer to as “artificial” intelligence? Or am I just speaking of the entire realm of politics.

    As an off topic, I read a book like this by Neal Stephenson, or by his pen name Stephen Bury, called Interface that this post made me think about. In the book, a leading presidential candidate has a stroke. The party doesn’t want the citizens to know, so they implant neural chips in his brain and teach him how to talk again. The twist is that they actually use the chips to end up trying to control his actions and policies.

    What if that is what is happening? OK, so I’m a scifi guy, but take into account Jeff’s post about poll validity and think about the “instant feedback” that Edwards is watching. Who says it IS legit? It would be very easy to stack the deck on either side…. Conspiracy! Conspiracy!

    This message will self destruct in 10 seconds…

  7. laurabrunetti

    If you don’t show up for class tomorrow, I’m so totally blaming the CIA. I’d prep your place for quick evacuation asap. Refer to Mel for tips n’ tricks.

  8. Dave Roedl

    Christian, I think the pre-radio political environment might have been less vapid, though not necessarily more honest. An interesting feature of the less networked age is that politicians probably had more freedom to cater their speech to a particular audience at hand. They might present one set of views to rural residents and another in the inner city. In the age of blogs and youtube, however, a candidate has to assume that any speech has a potentially global audience.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s