Franchise


More than any election before it, this one has been about the polls.  Right now, it’s about the discrepancy between the  national polls and the state polls, especially in Ohio and other mid-western states.  Other stories say that it comes down to 100 swing counties, which is another way of saying that if you know how those counties vote, you have a good idea of how the rest of the country voted.  On election night, we’ll be looking at particular states and counties, and Michael Barone, he of the electoral calculator, will be able to tell us that if a certain county moved X% from 2008, that means…

All of which reminded me of a short story by Isaac Asimov from 1955, called “Franchise.”  It’s one of his Multivac stories, and it’s about elections.

In 2008, it’s possible for Multivac, the massive computer housed in miles-long tunnels, to figure out the results of every election on every issue, all across the country, by asking a single Elector a few hours’ worth of questions, none of which actually is, “Who do you vote for?”  The Voter is chosen by Multivac as the most representative of the population of the United States for that year.  (Fame and riches naturally follow, although the Voter can’t really tell anyone anything about the experience – one of Asimov’s jokes.)

The joke, of course, is the people treat Multivac like God: nobody wants to question its omniscience, and when the Voter for that year is disappointed that he won’t get to see Multivac, he’s reassured that since they can communicate with it, Multivac is, in a very real sense, there with him.  The joke, of course, is that there are limits to our knowledge, that elections are subject to the law of large numbers, and that Asimov – while an atheist – is making fun of our tendency to deify technology.

The irony is that 2008 and 2012 are the most socially-networked elections in history, with a broadly-distributed vote.  All that Big Data could soon be amalgamated into something as predictive as Multivac.

But it would likely resemble one of Asimov’s other great creations, Psychohistory, more than the conscious brain depicted as Multivac.

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