Latest technology not always the best

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Wasn’t it Edmund Burke, the great English conservative, who said, “If it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary not to change.”
I thought about that maxim while casting my ballot on Election Day at West Middle School. The turnout was heavy, but the volunteer election officials, mostly long-time veterans, dealt easily with the crowds.
Voters could choose between paper ballots, which were then fed into an optical scanner, or a touch screen. Most chose paper, as did I. There was something reassuring about marking a ballot, and knowing that your vote was real and tangible, not just an electronic trace in cyberspace.
Meanwhile, the Denver Election Board unveiled a completely new paradigm. Instead of hundreds of precincts, voters could go to any of 25 “voting centers,” where a paperless, Internet-based voting system was supposed to drag the whole archaic voting ritual into the 21st century.
It was an utter, unmitigated disaster. The system crashed repeatedly, causing voters to wait for hours to cast their ballots. Thousands of voters simply left, possibly altering the results in the race for Colorado University regent.
I haven’t talked to anyone — Republican, Democrat, Independent — who isn’t deeply suspicious about electronic voting technologies. Voters prefer paper, whether voting early, on Election Day or via mail-in ballot.
So why, then, are so many jurisdictions going to systems that are clearly vulnerable to hackers, that can’t be meaningfully re-counted and that voters overwhelmingly dislike?
The answer lies partially in a misplaced belief that new technologies are always superior to those that they would replace, and partially in the search for cheaper, more efficient ways to do the business of government.
That’s fine — but I’d suggest that there are some governmental functions where cost should never be a prime consideration.
Consider, for example, highway bridges.
Any engineer will tell you that such structures are, from an engineering standpoint, overbuilt. They’re a lot stronger than they need to be, precisely because the consequences of failure are so great.
That’s why the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate are still perfectly functional, even after generations of service.
And just as we cross such structures every day without worrying about failure, because we trust the architects, engineers and builders who created them, so too should we be able to vote without delay and have full confidence in the integrity and reliability of the voting process.
Voting is the basis of democracy. If that right is compromised, all rights are compromised. Voting is not just another governmental function, where the bureaucrats can cut corners and save a few bucks. It’s not like, say, getting your driver’s license renewed, where long waits and public inconvenience are just part of the package — irritating, but hardly dangerous to American democracy.
That’s why local governments ought to rethink their affection for electronic voting. It may be cheaper, but it’s vastly inferior to the system that it replaces. Go back to, or stay with, paper ballots and local polling places.
This is the way Americans have voted since the birth of the republic, and it seems to have worked pretty well. Sure, it’s a lot more expensive, but so what? You spend what you have to spend to do it right — just like a bridge.
But while it may make sense to stick with paper ballots, it looks as if the Age of Paper is just about over everywhere else.
For those of us who remember the office environments of, say, 30 years ago, it’s a stunning change. Remember all those file cabinets, the filing clerks who used to organize them, and the all the painstaking rituals that employees had to learn as they generated vast mounds of paper? It’s all gone — and good riddance.
Even though we’re in the business of producing newspapers, it’s all done electronically — we never see any paper until the finished product arrives from the printer.
So is it true, as many have speculated, that the printed page will soon join Dire Wolves and Saber-toothed Tigers — rendered extinct by sudden environmental changes?
Take a look, for example, at a recent story in the New York Times about the newly opened Velazquez exhibition at the National Gallery in London.
Michael Kimmelman’s perceptive review was nicely illustrated by a half-page color reproduction of Velazquez’ transcendent masterpiece, the “Rokeby Venus.”
But the colors seemed muddy and slightly off-register, so I took a look at the same story on-line.
On my not-exactly-new G4 Mac, the colors were crisp and true, and the story was considerably enhanced by additional illustrations, as well as multiple links to related sites.
It was no surprise. I’ve subscribed to the Times for years, but I’m thinking of ditching it, in favor of the free on-line edition. I wouldn’t be alone. According to the Times, more people read the on-line edition than the print edition.
So why not go 100 percent electronic?
The reason’s simple: advertisers. Unlike Google, on-line newspapers haven’t found an effective advertising model.
Open a broadsheet newspaper. You’re looking at a visual feast, an area fully four times the size of a computer monitor. Rather than relying on pop-ups, foldovers, pulsating banners and tiny logos, advertisers can compose big, visually striking, compelling messages. And even though it’s far easier to count every click-through than to measure the impact of print advertising, advertisers still spend far more on print.
Yes, daily newspaper circulation continues its slow decline, but print weeklies like this one are flourishing. And if dailies are on the glide path to extinction, why are half-a-dozen billionaires bidding against each other for the L.A. Times?
It’s simple: Newspapers, despite their problems, are still enormously profitable, reasonably stable businesses.
As Mark Twain said, reacting to a (newspaper) obituary, “The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” Newspapers have a leisurely physicality, where ads mix seamlessly and informatively with content.
And somehow, the idea of brewing up the morning coffee and sitting down with my laptop seems … well, wrong.
Besides, the paper’s much safer — you don’t have to worry about spilling coffee on its keyboard.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.