Here are some typical introductory questions in Birmingham, Alabama: “How are you today?”, “Sure is humid, huh?”, and “Which congregation are you part of?” For most Southerners, these questions present no difficulty. Out yourself as atheist, however, and you might as well have said the equally heretical “I don’t follow Alabama Football.” I myself am guilty of both, sometimes in the same introduction.
I was born in Seattle, though the city is nothing more than stories of being strolled through Discovery Park, while my parents picked blackberries with rakes and trash-bags. When I was only two, my family moved back to Birmingham, the Heart of Dixie. Though both of my parents are born-and-bred natives, many of our habits and beliefs align more closely with stereotypical Pacific Northwest liberals. We prefer dark coffee to sweet tea, TED talks to Glenn Beck, and day hikes to deer hunting. Growing up in Alabama, I thought I had seen the full range of political realities that could comprise a single country.
I had to reassess that belief when I arrived at Pomona College, outside of Los Angeles. Not only did I receive a trial-by-fire orientation in concepts like “intersectional queer theory” and “subjugated knowledge production,” but I quickly realized I would be everybody’s “only person they had ever met from Alabama.” I did not realize how much I was a product of the American South until I left.
I’ve spent the past four years caught in between the two poles of this polarized country. At college, I am too white, too straight, take up too much space. In Birmingham, I am a radical leftist, California hippie, coddled elite. I decided to try to rectify this ambiguity of identity in academic inquiries. I spent my sophomore year diving headfirst into classes about American politics and political theory. When Donald Trump became President that Fall, I only doubled down. I decided to go to Washington D.C. and learn first-hand what was happening.
I interned at The Brookings Institution, researching the rules and procedures of the United State Congress, hoping to find some kind of pattern, maybe even insight. But what sticks in my mind most was a lunch with my boss during the final week of work. “Almost no one here knows what they are doing anymore,” she exclaimed. “This entire city exists to serve, inform, and influence the government, and now the government simply isn’t listening.” It felt like a bleak outlook on the American political landscape, but I could empathize with her discouragement. After all, we were toiling over 100-page reports while U.S. policy was changing at the drop of a tweet.
I felt like the entire city, if not the entire country, was spinning its wheels. “The Establishment” was marching forward due to force of habit but was entirely unsure if their life’s work would produce the results they were promised. I too was struggling to make sense of previously rock-solid convictions. Perhaps due to my physical relocation to the Capitol, my sense of political and personal had begun to blend. The vagaries of the national political conversation soon felt indistinguishable from my own emotional volatility. I felt like we were all losing our ability to construct cohesive political narratives—to pull signal out of the noise.
The common denominator seemed to be the internet. As a millennial who has had a smartphone for my entire adult life, I have also had all requisite social media accounts, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and more. In D.C., I had to delete all of them. I want to believe this was my principled political resistance, but this was before Cambridge Analytica or evidence of Russian troll farms. Really, I deleted my accounts because my habits were unhealthy. I would agonize over photos of my friends who had decided to spend their semesters in New Zealand or South Africa. Every spare moment, I was either scrolling through the New York Times or Instagram, in pursuit of either vogue outrage or voyeuristic escape.
I am not the only one liable to the intentionally-designed intoxication of social media. The President is certainly prey to destructive habits abetted by these platforms. Aides have said he deliberately tweets inflammatory remarks when he has not been in the headlines recent enough for his liking. I see President Trump and myself as exemplars of a broader structural change: our source of information about politics—the news media—existing almost exclusively online.
Viewed through a structuralist, technocratic lens (one of my personal favorites) the news media plays a simple, but endlessly interesting role in political systems: conduit of information between government and the governed. Today, information is digital, meaning it’s instant, distributed, and often fake. The news media, in a semi-cataclysmic fashion, is one of the first industries having to adjust. I began to connect politics and technology through the medium of journalism in Washington. Since my D.C. internship I have focused the large majority of my studies on theorizing the news.
I’ve learned from my coursework, reading Jodi Dean’s Blog Theory and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, that the technological methods of distributing the news directly affect political participation. I have also studied the technology itself. From my computer science coursework, I know the structural differences between arrays, linked lists, and hash tables. Such topics may seem unrelated to politics, but that is becoming less true everyday. I first confronted this when I learned how prejudices manifest in artificially intelligent algorithms. A plethora of causes can be responsible: is the algorithm based on an n-gram model or a random forest? Does the data fed to the model contain proxies for stereotypes that a human cannot see? As we ask computers to handle more of our decisions, even the most rudimentary aspects of implementation become political.
I put some of these studies to practice most recently in San Francisco, working for KQED Public Radio. I was interested in going to San Francisco because of its status as the technology Mecca of the world. I was able to find the stories I was after, reporting on Facebook’s (lack of) commitment to democratic institutions, the resurgence of conspiracy theories in the age of information, and the promises and limitations of Blockchain technology. I also found something in San Francisco I sometimes wish I hadn’t: a powerful sense of being alone. It was my first time navigating a city entirely on my own for months at a time, knowing almost no one in the area previously.
Incredibly, as a response to the increase in time to myself, I turned to the very tools and habits I had been trying to avoid. I would meticulously maintain color-coded calendars, hoping to add a sense of structure and purpose to otherwise empty days. I’d track my runs with GPS watches, my calories with health monitors, and the friends I had made with online spreadsheets.
In each case, the digital representation of myself often acted as an aspirational ideal. Even if I could never go to all the events I put on my calendar, I would prefer to delude myself into think I might. Even if I was often lonely during my summer in San Francisco, what was the harm in posting the pictures that showed otherwise? It was so easy to instantiate my best self through a method that only required a few clicks.
I bought into the efficiency narrative, the idea that our digital tools should be viewed with near-blind optimism: faster, thinner, lighter, and loftier ambitions too. Our phones will make us smarter; these laptops will make society more equitable; our apps will make us feel closer together. I am constantly astounded at the lengths we’ll all go to maintain this narrative—the political processes we’ll endanger, the people we’ll forgo—even when our own experience shows that the halcyon promise of tech is often not as foolproof as presumed.
I will acknowledge the glaring discrepancy that my desire to pursue the Watson is born of an experience largely concerned with the USA, the one country I am explicitly barred from. But my American experience is central to my drive to see more. I do not wish to find what parts of America are replicated across the globe. Precisely the opposite, I know there are political systems, social spaces, and conversations about technology that I cannot even conceive. America’s sociopolitics are as beautifully convoluted as they come, but they have calcified along tired dichotomies: Democrats versus Republicans; coastal elites versus middle America; mainstream media versus insurgent “truth tellers.” I believe in the multiplicity of political realities, but I am concerned they cannot be found in the USA today. To understand the breadth of everything possibly considered political, I need to look in new places.
The best definition I have ever heard of journalism is simply “documenting the condition.” I see our collective condition changing—quickly and persistently—thanks to digital innovation. For me, the Watson is the chance to document these changes, for others and myself. After all, only by better understanding the world around me, can I begin to understand my place within it.