While it may suit a small minority of people to hibernate in libraries and huddle in corners of coffee shops reading the long-winded and bureaucratic documents that would shed some light on our government’s activities, it does not suit most. In fact, the vast majority of Americans can’t even be bothered to read the relatively short and made-for-idiots-to-understand write ups that our media outlets provide for those few actions of governmental prowess that they deem most important.
People are too busy looking at pictures of cats, watching small children inadvertently harm themselves on YouTube, and liking their friends’ Facebook statuses. Are most people genuinely apathetic and ignorant to our country’s governance or might something else be going on? Bart Myers and Peter Arzhintar are betting that if legislative data were presented in the same bite-sized, quick-access, internet-meme formatting as the media we do consume, people will be much more likely to pay attention.
Countable does just that. The app turns complicated US legislative decisions into bite-sized summaries that give users one sentence that explains the vote and then includes one sentence summaries of why one might vote yea and nay. One can also skip a vote. In a stroke of what can only be categorized as direct democracy genius, the app will then deliver your votes to your legislator electronically. Whether your legislation will listen or care is still to be seen, but sliding through pretty pictures, learning what’s going on in Congress quickly and voting on issues that matter efficiently certainly beats spending an afternoon reading up on one issue and then drafting a letter.
Or is it? Just as Twitter critics surmise that turning complicated issues into 140 character tweets may have the consequence of destroying already shortened attention spans, what unintended consequences might twiddling down legislation to appeal to the masses have? People who give a damn lament media bias in the news. And news articles have a lot more than one sentence to summarize two sides of an issue.
I decided to find out how much bias creep might be insidiously seeping into Countable’s summaries. I didn’t even need to research a legislation: the only issue other than naming post offices that Countable fails to offer yea and nay summaries for reads “House to Moldova: We’ve Got Your Back.” If one cares enough to click on the link they are brought to a page that explains the bill: it calls upon Russia to remove troops from Moldova and to stop supporting separatist movements. One doesn’t need a Masters’ degree in international relations to surmise that this might be more complicated than “we got your back” or to wonder if an in depth history of the region might shed some light on the issue at hand. While I might be willing to take a scholar that I personally respected at their word and support the bill, I am less likely to trust the leanings of tech-geeks hired to summarize issues for the masses. Someone must side with Russia and I want to know why.
Despite the Moldova fail, most of Countable’s summaries read as non-partisan and unbiased. They also shed some light on an issue of particular importance to our government: of the twenty-nine legislative votes up for review on the site at the time of writing this article ten of them had to do with naming post offices. That’s over thirty percent! To their credit, Countable didn’t bother writing summaries of the yea or nay position of these votes, either. (They did, however, give position summaries on renaming the Yosemite Park . . .)
Taking into account the potential problems of Countable I offer you two dystopian futures:
The first is a world in which people don’t care enough to spend the time and energy necessary to understand their own government. A world in which the vast majority of citizens continue to giggle at internet memes and tweet pictures of their dinner. The few who do care carry policy. They understand the policy, so that’s a plus, but they are the only ones with a voice. A republic, if you will. Hopefully benevolent, but one can never be sure.
The second is a world in which people slide through legislative decisions, voting as easily as one might answer profile questions on OkCupid. Likely these people will be those who have a general interest and education, but they will only be given a snippet of the story and will be unlikely to dig further. A direct democracy, if you will. Hopefully, the snippet writers will be benevolent, but one can never be sure.
Either have its potential shortcomings. I will say that I’d rather live in a world where people swipe through legislative memes than cat memes. But that might just be me.