Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Bafflement at the Ballot

I've never gotten used to it, that machine. It is ugly and cramped; its display is a horror of dense, monotonic design. You enter with ideas, doubts, and questions; and you are presented with a dull, labyrinthine grid of lines and switches, the labels crushed together and some choices difficult to find with the eye. Perhaps you've stood in line awhile to get here—perhaps even hours, in some places. It's the end of the day, and you're tired and hungry; or it's the beginning and you've got to catch the 8:40 train to be at the office on time: either way, you're drained or distracted, and not in a contemplative mood. Neither are the people lined up behind you, many of them as pressed and harried and impatient as you may be. You pull the big red lever to one side; the machine makes a grinding noise that seems tinged with imperious demand: flip some switches, make your choices, and move on. This is no time for examining options or contemplating meanings. You should know who or what you want by now—just get on with it.

This, however, is the primary interactive element of the democratic society; and the psychology of it is all wrong. It is a reminder to me that if you're going to build a system, you had better make sure it's capable of doing what it's supposed to do. A system of any kind is meant to respond to the needs of individuals, not the demands of institutions. Inventors, artists, writers, software developers, and even some companies understand this principle and adapt their work to it—that is, to the fluid and shifting needs of people over changing times and cultures.

But the makers of voting machines appear to have missed that lesson: the devices we use to speak the language of democratic choice are abysmally misbegotten to their purpose. It's like passing into a parallel reality where the landscape is strange and the language vaguely familiar, yet distorted. Whether it's a punch-card system or a document arrayed like the assembly instructions that come with Chinese furniture, the variations on the theme of counter-intuition are equally inadequate to their purpose. I often suspect that the ancient Greeks had a better system than ours—tossing colored rocks into an urn.

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